The traditions surrounding this holiday date back thousands of years, and they place a huge emphasis on children. It is thought that the festival was originally celebrated to give parents time to catch up with their children after the summer harvest was completed. People also believed that children were innocent and pure, and thus were the closest connection to the sacred and natural world.
The Mooncake Festival
Today, the approach of Tet Trung Thu is signaled by the appearance of stands selling banh trung thu, or mooncakes, all over Vietnam’s streets. These cakes are very rich and are filled with lotus seeds, ground beans, and an egg yolk, though there are other varieties.
Mooncakes are the most important traditional food related to Tet Trung Thu, and they are massively popular.
Every year these stands take up more and more space here in Saigon. Boxes of mooncakes are often given as gifts before the holiday, which can make for awkward situations. Despite their popularity, mooncakes have a divisive flavor, as many people can’t stand them, especially foreigners. Several times I have had to graciously accept a box of cakes, only to end up either giving it away or throwing it out if no one else wants it.
The other most visible tradition related to Tet Trung Thu is the lion dance. On the nights leading up to the holiday groups of children parade through the streets – some of the children maintain a martial beat on drums, while others control an extravagantly decorated ‘lion’ crafted from molds and paper.
The children approach homes and businesses and ask the owners for their permission to perform. If they agree, the children put on a show that is believed to bring a blessing of luck and fortune. Afterwards the host gives the children lucky money as a sign of gratitude.
These lion dances are fascinating, and huge amounts of children, ranging from little kids to teenagers, take part. Some are quite professional, while others a bit disorganized. As a result of having so many groups of children marching around, the streets of the cities echo with the sound of drums, as dozens of lions roam about.
Perhaps the best place in Vietnam to observe Tet Trung Thu is Hoi An, a historical town in the central region of the country. The town’s Old Quarter is densely packed with shops, providing a prime target for lion dancers. The river running through town is covered in floating lanterns, and the atmosphere is quite magical.
Since the town is so small, groups of lion dancers often encounter each other, and they will put on fierce dances in an attempt to establish dominance. In the end though this holiday is all about fun, and it is great to see groups of people dancing through the streets, following the people in control of the ‘lion’ to see where they stop next.
Occasionally you will even see a dragon, the most sacred of all animals, which takes several people to control. When I was in Hoi An for Tet Trung Thu in 2011, a group of young men in control of a dragon set up in front of a riverside attraction. Their dance attracted a huge crowd, and at one point the man in the animal’s head set off a firework, spewing sparks from the dragon’s mouth and thrilling the crowd. It was great to see that these traditions live on, even in a country that is Westernising as quickly as Vietnam.
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