Ho Chi Minh City’s streets and markets are especially colorful these days with lanterns and moon cake boxes laid out for the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Trung Thu, which is just around the corner.
There are various theories about the origin of the festival. One says it came from China just like many other aspects of Vietnamese culture. Another rejects this, pointing out, based on drawings on bronze drums recovered from that period, it was part of Vietnam’s wet-rice civilization 3,000 years ago, well before Chinese invasions.
But wherever it came from, Trung Thu has become one of the biggest festivals in Vietnam, only less important than the Lunar New Year (Tet).
The festival is traditionally a time for family reunions as members gather under a full moon around trays containing moon cakes and tea.
What makes the festival different from Tet is that it is focused on children.
The sweet cakes are made mainly for them. Parents also buy lanterns for them or make some from bamboo sticks and papers. The most popular one once was the star lantern, then possibly a boat, but Doraemon and Minions are more common these days. A lantern made by piercing holes around an old milk can worked just fine for many children in rural Vietnam in the past.
The best part of the night is the parade, when the children carry lanterns, with a lit candle inside, and walk around the neighborhood.
The full moon in mid-autumn is more significant than others since Vietnamese farmers used to look up to it to decide what they should do for the next crop: the belief was if the moon was dark, they would have a big rice crop next summer, and if it was bright or a golden shade, they should raise silk worms.
Blue or green shade indicated a storm coming that year.
People in old times also believed that if the moon looked orange, the country would prosper soon.
But for children, the Trung Thu full moon is special because it is associated with the legend of Mr Cuoi.
According to the story, Cuoi learned about a tree whose leaves could bring back dead people, and so he planted one in his front yard and used the leaves to help many, including a dog who became his best friend and a woman who became his wife.
One day some bad people came when he was working in the field, killed his wife and threw her intestines into the river. Without her organs even the leaves could not save her, and so the dog offered its intestines, which helped.
Cuoi then made intestines from clay for the dog and also managed to save it.
But after that incident, his wife became forgetful. He told her not to pour dirty water near his precious tree so that it would not fly into the sky.
One day she forgot this. Cuoi rushed back home from the fields when he felt the earth shaking. He grasped the roots in a desperate attempt to pull it back, only to fly up with it to the moon.
Vietnamese narrate the Trung Thu legend to children to explain the dark spots seen on the moon.
How the traditions get lost today
Now if you have never heard of Mr Cuoi and his life-saving tree, don’t feel bad because many children these days have not either.
They are no longer busy making lanterns, excited about their moon cakes or a fun-filled lantern parade.
The festival is simply no longer theirs.
Many adults, especially those who spent their childhood in rural areas, which offered more space and natural materials for a true Mid-Autumn festival with self-made lanterns and parades, say it is no longer the same.
“Trung Thu in the past was more poetic. Children were excited waiting for their special day to light up their lanterns and run after the dancing lions,” one man is quoted as saying in a newspaper story about preparations for the festival this year.
The festival today has been commercialized into another occasion for adults to gift moon cakes to each other: employees to bosses, patients to doctors and parents to their children’s teachers.
Unofficial statistics show that the country spends millions of dollars on moon cakes every year, mostly to gift others.
There are fewer people buying the cakes to enjoy themselves, let alone making them for children.
Anthropologist Dr Nguyen Nha is quoted by Tuoi Tre newspaper as saying that giving gifts is a nice act but won’t mean anything if people hanker after just the more expensive cakes.
Adults have subverted the festival’s original meaning, he said.
“They are stepping into a children’s party and ruining it.”
Many adults argue their lack of interest is because the cakes have become more industrial and do not taste as good as in the past, and, given their high content of preservatives and sugar, not good to give to children.
But there is a new trend of home-made, safer moon cakes, raising hopes children could have their party back sooner rather than later.