The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, which falls in mid September in the Western calendar. It has evolved into an event with both cultural and commercial value.
The Mid-Autumn or ‘Trung Thu’ Festival is associated with the legend of Cuoi, a popular Vietnamese fairy tale that explains the origin of the festival.
According to the legend, a man named Cuoi was very famous because he owned a magic banyan tree that could cure any illness. Cuoi’s wife got angry because Cuoi seemed to love the tree more than her so one day when Cuoi was out treating a sick neighbour, she poured dirty water on the roots of the tree, which made it leave the ground. Cuoi suddenly returned at that very moment to see the tree fly up to the sky. He tried to grab it but failed to pin it down and was taken up to the moon, where he lives together with his tree to this day. That’s why every year children light lanterns and take part in processions on the day of the festival to show Cuoi the way back to Earth!
The Vietnamese version of the Mid-Autumn Festival is similar to the one in China, except for its legend, the food and some traditional activities. Both the Han and minority nationalities in China celebrate the mid-autumn festival, though there are some additional special customs in different parts of the country, such as burning incense, planting mid-autumn trees, and lighting lanterns on towers.
In Vietnam, there are many traditional activities for both adults and children during the festival including lion dances performed by both trained professional children’s groups and amateurs. Lion dance groups perform on the streets and go to houses asking for permission to perform for the people living there. If they are accepted by the hosts, the ‘lion’ will go in and start dancing to wish the household good luck and fortune. The Earth Lord, ‘Ong Dia’, dances around the dragon, urging it on. Ong Dia, who has a smiling moon-shaped face, represents the prosperity and wealth of the earth.
On the occasion of the festival, parents buy their children rattles, drums and star lanterns. Many children also take great interest in traditional paper toys, lion heads and masks of animals from old tales, as well as modern battery-run plastic ships or tanks with remote controls.
The tradition of the Mid-Autumn festival is reflected in the way the children play games. They carry beautifully ornate lanterns while singing and parading along the streets in a candlelight procession at dawn. The candles represent brightness and the procession symbolizes success in school. The lanterns come in different sizes and shapes such as fish and butterflies. There are also spinning lanterns in which candles can be inserted to represent the sun surrounded by the earth.
Mid-Autumn Festival parties in the evening are a good opportunity for children to enjoy the festive food and also learn things from their parents such as how to make the party attractive. The whole family will enjoy the feast in a cozy, sacred atmosphere.
Quite a few foreign visitors to Vietnam are also interested in the mid-autumn festival and some even bring mooncakes back to their home countries as special gifts for their friends.
“I find it quite interesting when I see people selling mooncakes everywhere. I hope to experience my first Mid-Autumn festival with some local families,” said Spiller, a 40-year-old English teacher from the UK.
Mooncakes are an indispensable delicacy for this festival. For generations, mooncakes have been made with sweet fillings of nuts, mashed red beans, lotus seed paste or sweet bean paste, depending on the region. Sometimes a cooked egg yolk can be found in the middle of the rich tasting dessert. People compare mooncakes to the plum pudding and fruit cakes served during the English Christmas holidays.
Vietnamese mooncakes are typically square rather than round, although round ones do exist. They are offered among friends or at family gatherings during this festival. The cakes are usually cut into small wedges and eaten accompanied by green tea because they are so sweet.
Cherry, a young Australian woman who is teaching English in Hanoi, told VOV that she has tried mooncakes several times and found them quite delicious but too sweet. ”I’m a little bit worried about my weight because I couldn’t resist the tempting taste,” she said smiling.
“We try to make mooncakes gifts that are special to Vietnam… Foreigners enjoy our cakes with the green tea filling very much,” said Pham Ly, a seller at a shop that specializes in the well-known Kinh Do brand confectionaries.
Another seller at a Long Dinh shop, Quynh Anh, also said that her shop has been visited by many foreign customers, all of whom are keen on the taste of Vietnamese mooncakes.
Nowadays, many kinds of mooncakes are on sale for a month before the Moon Festival. It has become customary for businessmen and families to present these cakes to their clients or relatives as an expression of their sentiments.