Image credit: Will @ VietnamDaily
The Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration of the Autumn harvest and the Equinox full-moon: it is a time of bounty, and opportunity to rest with family members after an arduous fall harvest.
Nowadays, the festival is mostly a time for children to parade around in masks and eat candy, especially mooncakes — the iconic Vietnamese sweet-bean cake. As such, the festival is also known as the “Children’s Festival”.
Aside from candy-eating children, Mid-Autumn is thematically connected to the full-moon: there are moon-themed lanterns, mooncakes, a tradition of moon-gazing, and a parade meant to guide the man-in-the-moon. The festival’s association with the moon is part of a broader quasi-religious appreciation for the Lunar procession, and a belief that the moon is most powerful during the Autumn Equinox.
In the past, the Lunar calendar would guide farmer’s agricultural schedule, such as when to sow and harvest. Even today, the Lunar calendar is used for important life-decisions, such as when to get married, when to induce labour (i.e. give birth), when to start a business, when to ask for a salary-increase, and more.
When is the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam?
In 2023, the Mid-Autumn Festival takes place on September 29th. The exact date changes every year, coinciding with the full-moon near the Autumn Equinox. According to the Vietnamese Lunar Calendar, Mid-Autumn occurs on the 15th date of the 8th lunar-month.
In 2024, it will occur on September 17th.
What are the Major Activities for Mid-Autumn?
Among Vietnamese locals, the major activities of the Mid-Autumn Festival including: i) a costume and lantern parade for young children, ii) eating sweets, iii) a lion dance, and iv) watching the moon.
Children’s Lantern Parade
The parade will start around 19:00-20:00 after dinner, wherein children will assemble in their local neighbourhood and march to a local public landmark, such as a community hall. They will put on a mask, hold a lantern, and sing traditional songs.
In the past, their masks would be paper-mache and feature Asian characters like the Monkey King or Doraemon. Nowadays, most Vietnamese kids like to dress-up as Marvel superheroes or Disney princesses (especially Elsa from Frozen).
The children’s lantern procession is meant to guide the “Man in the Moon” (called Cuội in Vietnamese) back to Earth from the heavens.
The Mid-Autumn lanterns (đèn lồng trung thu) would traditionally consist of paper and bamboo, with a live candle in the middle. The shapes and colours would be highly variable, such as fish-shaped, star-shaped, and more.
Today, most kids want an all-in-one flashy plastic lantern with LEDs and noise-making features. The shapes have blossomed from simple traditional figures to Disney characters, wacky dioramas, psychedelic figures and much more… Have a look on Shopee.vn for all sorts of wacky consumerist creations.
The lion dance is an iconic performance where two men don a long, colourful, serpentine body with a mythical lion mask, whose month flaps open and spews candy to onlookers.
The local neighbourhood lion dances are quite unremarkable compared to the extravagant the performances for tourist consumption. Nonetheless, it is fun to watch the ecstatic children dive for candy as the lion dances in the street
You can observe the lion dances after the conclusion of the children’s parades, usually taking place at a central square or community centre. They are usually quite short: blink and you may miss it!
Origins of Mid-Autumn Festival
The hodge-podge of themes for Mid-Autumn are a result of its multiple origins across East Asia. Chinese sources will claims that it is distinctly Chinese in origin, but that is only likely true for some of the elements of the Mid-Autumn festival.
Scholars can link some aspects of the Mid-Autumn Festival to the ancient Chinese Zhou dynasty from ~1000-600 B.C., whose records include notes about lunar rituals, and something like a lunar celebration. Otherwise, the modern Mid-Autumn festival is likely a consolidation of multiple East-Asian regional holidays to do with:
- northern cultures’ celebration of the Autumn harvest.
- a celebration of the Autumn Equinox (September 21st).
- a celebration the brightest-moon of the year.
- a celebration of female fertility, children, and pregnancy (the lunar cycle being linked to women’s menstruation).
No single Asian culture or nation can claim to be the sole progenitor of either full-moon worship or Mid-Autumn festival.
What to do on Mid-Autumn in Vietnam (for Tourists)
Tourists should consider the following activities during the Mid-Autumn festival:
- Eat mooncakes;
- Wander the festival streets dedicated to lanterns, masks, toys, and other festive trinkets;
- Watch a neighbourhood lantern-parade and lion-dance;
- Enjoy the bright-moon over a lake or on a hilltop.
Because the Mid-Autumn Festival is mostly focused on children, it is typically not a popular occassion for young tourists and childless backpackers. But, if you enjoy cute parades and amateur lion dances, then you can watch the festivities in nearly any neighbourhood village at nighttime. Festivites start around 17:00 or 20:00 in the evening.
Personally, we’d recommend going sky-gazing somewhere interesting, such as watching the moon over Westlake, or go to the summit of Ba Vi near Hanoi — somewhere high-up or along a body of water. Why? Because the full-moon is the largest and brighest around the Equinox — and most powerful, according to Vietnamese superstition. So, make a wish and/or say a little prayer.
Otherwise, there is the obligatory stroll along the Mid-Autumn-themed streets selling masks, lanterns, trinkets and all sorts of fun paraphernalia in the lead-up to the holiday. This is a favourite activity for Vietnamese Millennials and Gen-Z’ers who nostalgically gaze at the new cornucopia of toys and reminisce about their childhood when everything was made by hand.
See the next paragraph for where to tour the Mid-Autumn streets.
Where to Buy Mid-Autumn Masks, Lanterns, and Toys
In Ho Chi Minh City, head to the Chợ Lớn neighbourhood near China-town, especially Lương Như Hộc Street
For tourist, these are great places to pick-up a lantern souvenir or lion-mask or a wacky gift for a child back home.
What are Vietnamese Moon Cakes?
During Mid-Autumn, the streets of Vietnam will have many little stands selling all sorts of mooncake.
There are two kinds of Moon Cakes: i) white sticky cakes, like Japanese Mochi; and ii) pastry-like baked cakes. Both types of mooncake have a doughy-exterior filled with a sweet-bean pate, shaped into ~3cm thick squares or circles. They are super-dense and very filling. Eat two and you will be full!
Most commonly, the thick interior is made from sweetened mung-bean. There are lots of varieties of different pate: taro, lotus-seed, red-bean, green-tea, chestnut — all sweet and thick. Nowadays, some even have chocolate and cheese.
In the past, one of the most popular mooncakes was sweet chicken-pate! In an past where meat was a luxury, eating such protein-rich cakes was something people looked forward to for months.
Can you find mooncaskes in your country? Very likely, yes! If you live in a Western pro-immigration country like Canada or USA, chances are you have a Vietnamese colleague at your workplace or school. Mid-Autumn is a good opportunity to strike-up a conversation about mooncakes: they will be super happy to help you find one locally. There is almost guaranteed to be a local Vietnamese person who is hand-making mooncakes to sell to the local community. You should expect to pay approximately $10 for cake; in Vietnam, they are typically 60k – 100k VND.
Let us know in the comments if you think it is worth it!