Where the Wild Things Dance: Exploring the Mid-Autumn Festival
For the first time in months there is a chill in the air. The unpredictable rains of September keep the people of Hoi An in tune with nature, sensitive to the changing seasons. The recently harvested rice fields are still smoldering in the distance, the smoky haze floating in over the street like an apparition.
It is mid-autumn in Vietnam, the eve of the eighth full moon of the lunar calendar. The last harvest of the year has just taken place and farmers are busy raking their grains across blue tarps in the sun.
First You Hear the Rhythmic Drums
September evenings in their balmy comfort invite you out of your house, hotel, or hostel. Perched comfortably on a chaise with your beer and your pizza, something catches the corner of your eye. You hear rhythmic drums beating from the lane outside the restaurant. A large animal dances into view; what is this? you ask yourself. The animal undulates through the restaurant, patron to patron, performing its dance. A young boy in a golden mask fans you and the creature swings it head, moving its mandible and wagging its ears.
When the spectacle is over you clap along with the rest of the patrons. The leader of the band walks around to collect money from the viewers. Tiên? he asks, reaching his hands out from under a golden bib. You hand him 10,000 dong. They call it ‘lucky money.’
Any Vietnamese person will tell you that Têt Trung Thu, the Mid-Autumn Festival, is one of their favorite times of year. Even adults bubble over in excitement to tell you about the lion dancing, the sweet mooncakes and turning lanterns. This festival of music, color, and dance is one of Vietnam’s most energetic celebrations.
Children Take Center Stage
For Vietnamese it’s also a celebration of the full moon, the harvest, and new beginnings. Much like Western Halloween, the festival has children dancing through the streets, scaring away evil spirits and hoping to score a bit of lucky money. And, like Halloween, the modern Mid-Autumn Festival is a carry-over from older ritualistic traditions and has evolved into a playful holiday still tinged with a bit of magic and mystery.
Traditionally, Vietnamese consider the summertime to be wrought with supernatural occurrences and bad luck (July being the unluckiest month of the year). A colleague, Ms Ha, told me that in the month of July she broke her computer, lost her cell phone, and her motorbike broke down. Needless to say, by September the land is well overdue for a bit of spiritual cleansing.
Ms Ha also explained that the Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for parents to reconnect with their children – post harvest – and for the children to take center stage. And so Vietnamese children dance lion dances and dress as dragons to frighten unlucky spirits and send them back from whence they came. They also carry small candle-lit lanterns that spin dazzling color and light as they march through the streets. The rotation of these paper lanterns represents the moon, and the of light the ever watching eyes of the moon god.
Thanks for Everything
This exuberant festival is deeply rooted in ancient Vietnamese spiritual tradition. To honor the plentiful harvest incense is burned to thank ancestors for their vigilance and intervention. Sweet mooncakes (bánh nuong) made of wheat and sweet syrup are eaten in reverence of the moon, which is a reminder of inevitable change.
Boisterous, colorful and chaotic, Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a celebration of change and rebirth and a testament to the things that unify us all no matter where we come from: thanks, appreciation, and love for family.