In Vietnam the Mid-Autumn Festival, known as Tet Trung Thu in Vietnamese, is the country’s second most important holiday, after Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Tet Trung Thu usually takes place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month.
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.