Mid-Autumn Moon Festival in Vietnam
Autumn is my favourite season of the year. And today is the Mid-Autumn Festival (or Mooncake Festival – Tết Trung Thu) in Vietnam. This is the second most popular Vietnamese holiday which is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, near the autumnal equinox. It is a time for family reunions when everyone sit together carrying lanterns and eating mooncake, while admiring the moon. On this day, the moon is brightest and roundest in the year (not exactly but I always thought like that when I was a child).
In traditional Vietnamese culture, the Mid-Autumn festival is also an opportunity for parents to show their love and appreciation to their children. Parents buy lanterns and toys for their children and prepare many delicious autumn dishes for them. Special cakes are made and exchanged, and fruits are plentiful. Maybe in the memory of our childhood, noone can forget the boisterous brouhaha of laughter and talk, the jubilant drums sound in the streets in the Mid-Autumn Festival. Those can make your heart dancing.
During the night of Moon Festival, children wear paper masks of their favourite characters (like the monkey king Sun Wukong, lion, princess…) and parade on the streets or around a large ground, singing with colorful lanterns in hands. There are several different shapes of lanterns including butterflies, fishes, and stars. There are also lanterns named “Đèn kéo quân” which spin around when a candle is placed inside, symbolizing the seasonal spinning of the earth around the sun. In the past, some Vietnamese kids in poor families often burned the chain of dried pomelo pips as their own lanterns.
The must-eat food in this festival is the mooncake. It’s filled with sweet mixture of lotus seeds, sliced lemon leaves, ground beans, and sometimes salted egg and pork fat for flavor. Most mooncakes are either round or square. According to an old legend, the round shape symbolizes the sky and the square symbolizes the earth. Mooncakes have diversified flavors, shapes and sizes but mainly can be divided into two types: baked cake (bánh nướng) and sweet sticky rice cake (bánh dẻo).
The baked cake has brown color while the sticky rice cake is white. Nowadays, modern mooncakes can be filled with sweet green bean (bánh nhân đậu xanh).
Often the mooncakes are gifts from families, friends, and colleagues. Each cake is treasured and very rich tasting, often cut into small portions to savor with family and friends over cups of lotus tea. In addition to the cakes, there are plenty of colorful fruits that we enjoy at the Mid-autumn festival party (cỗ trung thu) like soaked persimmon, ripe banana, apple, grapes and grapefruit. Sections of grapefruits are also made into the shape of lovely dogs or other animals. Another delicious dish in this festival is the green young rice – cốm – which I will write later in another article.
One important event during Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival is the lion dance. It’s performed on the streets or go to houses asking for performing by both non-professional and trained professional groups. The lion dance is a re-enactment of the earth and sky duality, the yin and yang of the world. The Lord of the Earth, called Ông Địa in Vietnamese, is the dancer who dances around the lion, urging it on. He has a very round, happy smiling moon-face which represents the wealth of the earth. If accepted by the host, “the lion” and “Lord Earth” will come in and start dancing as a wish of luck and the host gives back lucky money to show thankfulness.
Together with mooncakes and fruits, toys are an important part of the festival for children. Toy-selling streets like Hang Ma, Hang Luoc, Luong Van Can… attract thousands children and parents everyday. In evenings from 6th to 15th of the lunar calendar, especially on Saturday and Sunday evenings, these streets are jammed toy buyers and are in a festive atmosphere of colorful lights and flowers. When I was small, I often went to Hang Ma Street with my mother in the Mid-Autumn Festival to sell toys. My mother is an expert craftsman who makes traditional toys from tin cans. At that time, all the toys that were sold in this street were Vietnamese hand-made products. But they are increasingly rare nowadays. Below I will introduce some of Vietnamese traditional toys.
5-pointed star shape lantern
It is the most popular lantern in the mid-autumn festival. The frame is made from bamboo. The center is made of a multi-colored plastic material. A candle holder is located in the center so that children can put a candle inside the lantern and light it in the dark night.
Listen to the most favourite lantern song in Vietnamese mid-autumn festival. The lyric translated into English is included below:
At Mid-autumn festival,
walk around with lanterns lit.
Take them all across the town,
singing to the autumn moon.
Lanterns all in different shapes, lantern angel, lantern dream,
Lantern fish, or lantern star, lantern swan or butterfly.
Take my lantern to the sky;
take my lantern to the moon!
light blue lights and violet lights (lanterns)
dark blue lights and white white ones
Under the moon light its colourful.
The lion head
The size is very different, from the big lion head for the lion dance event to the little one for children. This toy is often made by colorful board and paper.
Together with the lion head by board, children are very interested in wearing the paper-mache masks. Nowadays there are also many kinds of plastic masks from China, including Donald Duck and Batman, to frighten off the monster. So maybe in the near future, you can’t find the traditional Vietnamese board masks in the mid-autumn festival.
Scholar paper doll
The scholar paper doll is made to sit on a throne, under a parasol. He is dressed as a mandarin in a bonnet and a suit given to him by the king. The paper figure symbolises industriousness and success in study. Parents buy this toy for their children to hope them will grow up to achieve a high level of education. In the mid-autumn festival, the doll is often placed on a tray together with fruit and mooncakes.
Colorful rice flour figurine
We Vietnamese call this toy “Tò he”. Craftsmen of Xuan La village, outside Hanoi, are famous for the “Tò he” toys. These figurines are created from dyed glutinous rice powder and bamboo sticks. Their shape can be animals, flowers or even movie characters. Tò he figurines are popular with local children. Food dyes are used to color the rice powder, so that the children can eat their toys.
Small tin-can boat
Making toys from tin cans is the business handed down from ancestors of my mother family. My mother is the fourth generation of a craft family from Khuong Ha Village, Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi, which for decades has been producing handmade toys for Hanoians. Since when I was a child, I was familiar with the tin rabbits that beat tin drums and tin butterflies whose wings pulsated as children pushed them along on their tin wheels… All of them were made from recycled tin cans. But my favourite toy is the tin boat whose top deck could be lifted off and a small refillable oil tray inserted into the hull and lit, and as the air in the enclosed space heated it was forced out through small pipes and the boat commenced to chug through the water.
Besides some toys listed above, there are so many other Vietnamese traditional toys, for example, trống bỏi, sky lanterns, … If you want to know more about them, just visit our country and come to Hang Ma Street in the mid-autumn festival.
Happy the Vietnamese Children Festival !!! Best wishes for you !!!
Do you know the most popular fairy tale which is often told in Vietnamese mid-autumn festival? It’s a story named “The Buffalo Boy and the Banyan Tree” about the legend of Chú Cuội, whose wife accidentally makes a mistake on a sacred banyan tree, taking him with it to the Moon. Every year, on the mid-autumn festival, children light lanterns and participate in a procession to show Cuội the way to Earth.