Mid Autumn Festival in Vietnam – Everything you need to know
Autumn is here. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vietnam that means the temperature will start getting more comfortable, Mooncake stands will start popping up all over town and dragons with drums will start roaming the streets. All the colour, sound and commotion means one thing. It’s time for Vietnam’s second most important festival of the year, Tết Trung Thu. Or in English, Vietnam’s Mid Autumn Festival. This guide for travellers answers:
What is Mid Autumn Festival?
The Mid Autumn Festival in Vietnam is an annual harvest festival that falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month every year. This usually coincides with the first full moon following the last big harvest of the year.In Vietnam the festival is a bright mish-mash of colours sounds and flavours. Special moon cakes filled with delicious mixtures of dried fruits, lotus seeds and nuts are handed out to friends and family. Children dress up as dragons and roam the streets beating drums and collecting sweets. Families reunite and spend some quality time together before heading back to their separate hometowns.
Mid Autumn Festival Origins
The origins of the festival are hard to trace. There are dozens of competing mythologies and histories. Whilst Vietnam shares a lot of Mid Autumn Festival traditions with its Asian neighbours, the Vietnamese festival is clearly focused on children. One common story is children’s parents had to work so hard during the final harvest that they rarely got a chance to play with their children. Once the harvest was over they rewarded their children with tasty treats and fun activities. This time of the year is also the best time for whole families to meet. The weather is cool, there’s plenty of food and not much work to do.
Gift Giving Customs
Whilst in the past gifts were limited to sharing crops and seasonal treats with friends and family, in recent years gift giving has become a big Mid Autumn custom. Moon cakes are the most common gift shared and gifted between friends and families. Mid Autumn bonuses are becoming more popular in work places but they aren’t expected. However, if employers don’t prepare at least a box of moon cakes for employees they’d be seen as inconsiderate.
For “enterprising” individuals the gift giving customs also become an opportunity to sweeten deals and relationships with a little bribery. Parents often give their children’s teachers or their employers elaborate and expensive moon cakes. If they are feeling very generous they’ll pair the moon cakes with an expensive wine or slip a few notes into the sleeve.
What can I expect to see?
Dancing dragons, beating drums, elaborately carved fruit and moon cakes all around. Mid Autumn festival is a family orientated festival for family reunions and fun for the kids. There aren’t too many centrally organised events but in every town, village and suburb there’ll be something fun going on. The best thing you can do as a traveller is find your local communal house on the 3rd or 4th October and get stuck in. Here are a few things you might see.
Fruit Tray Competitions
In every ward committee, communal house or school parents, teachers and children join together to make the best fruit tray. Fruit trays are used as offerings to the spirits of ancestors and people go all out to make sure they look as beautiful as possible.
Melons and pomelos are used to make elaborate carvings of real and mythical creatures. Dragons are made by combining multiple fruits into visual masterpieces. Every household will normal make a chó bưởi, or grapefruit dog to place on their families alter as a ward against bad spirits and symbol of good luck.
Lân Dancing (Dragon Dancing)
Legend has it that every Lunar August a monster called a Lân would appear to wreak havoc and ruin people’s lives. One day a clever monk and his students decided to stand up to the Lân. The monk told his students to dress up in red and vigorously flash their hand fans to scare the Lân away. Other students helped by beating on drums and making lots of noise. The Lân was scared away and ever since became a symbol of prosperity and good luck. Every year young children gather together to dress up as Lân and beat their drums.
In Hoi An and Da Nang you’ll see them roaming the streets and running through the odd restaurant. In the big cities of Hanoi and Saigon the traffic makes it a little harder for the children to get around so performances only happen on the pedestrian streets and on the back of moving trucks. In some cities the kids might ask for sweets or lucky money. It’s a light form of trick or treating so feel free to give them any spare 1000, 2000 or 5000 notes you have in your pocket.
Toys and Costumes
Most Vietnamese have fond memories of running around with a Đèn cù in their hands whilst a dragon dances by. Đèn cù are small spinning lanterns on a wheel that spin around when they are pushed on the ground. Other costumes include colouful handmade paper masks and small drums. All great fun for little and big kids who want to make some mischief.
What are Mooncakes?
Mooncakes are round sweet treats packed with delicious dried fruits, nuts, bean pastes and lotus seeds. Some come with a sweetened wheat pastry. Others are covered in sticky rice pastry. Not all of them are to westerners taste, especially the ones that have salted egg yolk in the middle. Others taste like a really good Christmas cake or minced pie. Whatever you do this Autumn festival you won’t be able to avoid moon cakes.
Where to buy them
You can buy mooncakes from the side of the street, in local bakeries and in upmarket hotels. The cost varies incredibly. A simple mooncake from one of the most popular brands Kinh Đô can be as cheap as 40,000-80,000 VND ($2-$4). if you go to upmarket hotels you can find moon cakes that cost over $75 per cake.
Where did they come from?
Both the Chinese and Vietnamese celebrate mid autumn festival by eating moon cakes. There is definitely a shared cultural history but their real origin is murky. The shape and decorations on the mooncake symbolise similar things in both cultures. The round shape and the egg yolk inside symbolise the full moon, circle of life and family unity. The square on the top is a symbol for earth, long life and good health.
How Can I get involved?
Mid Autumn festival really is a family fun event. The best way to get involved is to introduce yourself to your neighbours, reconnect with long lost friends and find out what is happening near you. You can give your neighbours, hotel staff or friends gifts of tea, fruits, toys or nuts (they’re probably sick of moon cake so stay clear). Try and locate your nearest communal house and ask your tour leader or hotel receptionist if any events are happening at the one near you. Alternatively check out the events listings for each major tourist city below.
What’s happening in Hanoi?
Mid Autumn festival is more about reuniting with friends and family and having a great time with your children. There aren’t that many centrally organised events. The real fun comes from walking around and seeing what happens.
If you’re in Hanoi during Mid Autumn Festival, do not forget to visit Hang Ma and Luong Van Can, these streets will be packed with a variety of toys and lanterns. If you want to know more about old customs and see a Tế Tiêu village puppet performance, head along to the Center for Cultural Exchange in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (50 Dao Duy Tu). A word of warning – the Old Quarter can be chaos at this time of the year, some roads will be closed or too busy to drive down. If you are tourist in any crowded place in any part of the world you may be targeted by pick pockets. Keep your valuables close to you or leave them at the hotel.
What’s happening in Hoi An?
This section may look a little slimmer than Hanoi’s but don’t be mistaken – Hoi An is definitely the best place to be in Vietnam for Mid Autumn Festival.
During the festival, most of Hoi An’s lantern lit streets are closed off to traffic meaning the dragons are free to play. Each of the towns communal houses and museums will be putting on a series of events including mask making, lantern making, moon cake making, guided walks and special menus. There really is so much to do it’s be impossible to list it all here. If you’re lucky enough to be in Hoi An ask your hotel for special events or do what we do. Walk around slowly looking for dragons. You’re sure to find one.
What’s happening in Saigon?
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) has its own style of Mid Autumn Festival. The streets are perfectly decorated with colourful lanterns, where fascinating parades and joyful traditional dances and games take place. Besides, you can also visit China Town in District No.5 to experience the traditional atmosphere of Chinese Community in these streets. Nguyen Hue walking street, Luong Nhu Hoc Street and Trieu Quang Phục Street are also famous for celebrating Mid Autumn Festival.