While the Mid-autumn Festival originated in China and is celebrated in many Asian countries, the Vietnamese version has its own traditions and legends. The best-known tale is about a man named Cuội who found a magical banyan tree that could cure the ill. Unfortunately, when his wife accidentally urinated on this sacred tree, it floated up to the moon, dragging Cuội with it. Children parade lanterns in the streets the night of Mid-autumn Festival to help light the way to earth for him from the moon.
In the weeks before Tết Trung Thu, you're likely to see and hear groups of lion and unicorn dancers practicing in Vietnam’s streets. Mooncake stalls appear on every other corner, pop-ups with elaborately decorated boxes filled with a variety of mystery cakes and fillings. City districts team up with preparations of toys, lanterns and colourful masks in anticipation.
Mooncake stalls appear on every other corner, pop-ups with elaborately decorated boxes filled with a variety of mystery cakes and fillings.
On the night of the full moon, children bearing brightly coloured lanterns form raucous processions and tour their neighbourhoods singing songs. You may see a male dancer wearing a round happy-faced mask that symbolises the moon. He urges the unicorn dancers on and delights the crowd with his comical moves. This is the Earth God, Ông Địa, who represents the fullness of the earth and reminds onlookers to give thanks for the its bounty.
Beneath the light of a full moon, a group of children gather, each carrying a brightly lit lantern. The adults lead the youngsters in songs and games, the excitement peaking when drumbeats ring out from down the dark street. The smaller kids shrink back and the older ones run forward as a mythical unicorn bursts into their courtyard -- its giant head and sinuous body borne by a team of acrobatic dancers.
With its gaping mouth and protruding eyes, the unicorn is both comical and formidable. The dancers lunge closer to the crowd and making the kids scream and laugh at their antics. Under the light of the full moon, the unicorn’s red sequined body sparkles as it dances. Vietnamese children wait all year for this spectacular and legendary night.
All across Vietnam, families welcome Tết Trung Thu by placing a five-fruit tray and cakes on their ancestral altar. Each family will offer the food to their ancestors and worship, before feasting on mooncakes -- usually outside under the light of the moon. Round or square, these cakes are moulded with elaborate details of flowers, carp and geometric patterns.
The two most common types are bánh dẻo (soft, sticky cakes with a mochi-texture) and bánh nướng (baked cakes with a thick wheat crust.) Mooncakes in Vietnam come in a seemingly infinite variety of flavours, both sweet and savoury.
Ho Chi Minh City’s district of Cho Lon is home to exciting Mid-autumn festivities. Stop by Lương Như Hộc Street, famous for its lanterns, masks and unicorn heads overflowing on the sidewalks. This is the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir lion and unicorn head. The shop at 109 Triệu Quang Phục Street has been selling unicorn heads to the city’s best dancers for five decades.
Hoi An is famous for its full moon celebrations year-round. For the Mid-autumn Festival, this riverside town kicks the party up a notch. Locals and travellers pour into the Ancient Town on foot. Dancers and their drumming troupes prowl the streets, performing in front of pagodas and businesses. There's music and all sort of revelry up and down the banks of the Thu Bon River, and in the countryside, every home has an altar out front.
If you’re in Hanoi before the Mid-Autumn Festival, be sure to visit Hàng Mã and Lương Văn Can. These streets will be packed with families shopping and a variety of toys and lanterns. Another Hanoi address to visit before the big night is 87 Mã Mây, where you can tour a traditional tube house and watch local artisans preparing festival crafts. On the eve of Mid-autumn, the Youth Theatre on Ngo Thì Nhậm Street and the Children’s Palace on Lý Thái Tổ Street host children’s musical shows.