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Mid-Autumn Festival: when my soul warmed up and danced

I have to start with a cliché. It was a magical time.
As a child, there were so many things that I loved about this day, the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, but the heart of it all was the colorful lantern.

Star lanterns, the heart of Vietnam's Mid-Autumn Festival.
Star lanterns, the heart of Vietnam’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

I am talking about the traditional red cellophane lantern, not the plastic ones, or the “fancy” ones that rule the market today.

My soul warmed as the candle was placed inside the lantern and it gave off this warm, orange light. The glow was within, too.

If it did not rain, all the children in the neighborhood would get out and walk in an impromptu lantern parade, compare their lanterns and take turns to “play” with many of them.

Today’s lanterns are multicolored and some are even battery operated, giving off these mechanical noises.

Nothing to beat the candle-lit red lantern, I would say.

Then there were the mooncakes. I loved the traditional baked ones though I have no complaint about the new flavors. I’m not a big fan of the animal shaped ones, or the white sticky rice ones, which I always begged my parents to buy, since they looked so cute.

As its name suggests, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese) happens in the middle of autumn when the moon was at its fullest. Hence this festival is also called the Full Moon Festival or the Children’s Tet.

This year, the festival falls on September 24, which is Monday, so the celebrations will be prolonged, extending over the weekend.

I harked back to my childhood this year. It was the first Mid-Autumn festival I could experience in five to six years, owing to my being away from Vietnam, and I was no longer a child, but I made it to the Lantern town in Luong Nhu Hoc – Nguyen Anh streets in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5.

Dung (L) prepares to take photos for a boy taken to Luong Nhu Hoc lantern street in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.
Dung (L) prepares to take photos for a boy taken to Luong Nhu Hoc lantern street in District 5, Ho Chi Minh City.

It was a nostalgic experience. I imagined myself as a child wanting this and that, and parents indulging me. It was a bit too crowded and noisy, but I was glad to see that children were still excited about the festival. I felt at home again, listening to the usual mid-autumn songs that I used to listen to at this time of the year.

Over the moon

It is to be expected that as we become modern, things change, but I find the sheer diversity of the mooncakes in the market staggering.

Traditionally, there are two types of mooncakes, one that is baked and the other made with sticky rice. The traditional filling for the baked ones involved lotus seed paste, green bean paste, and five kernels, and to balance its sweetness, 1-2 salted egg yolk. Now, there are many different, more international fillings including match green tea filling, tiramisu, coffee and so on.

A traditional baked mooncake with seeds and egg yolk in the fillings.
A traditional baked mooncake with seeds and egg yolk in the fillings.

The fancy packaging and pricing of some mooncakes I saw this year was also surprising, but I guess this is normal too.

All this made me remember something. When I was young, one of my neighbors sold mooncakes, so we kids got to see them cleaning the eggs in a big bucket. We loved watching the eggs swirl in the water without breaking.

Did she pee?

Another thing that I just loved about mid-Autumn festival was watching all the plays about Chu Cuoi.

There were several versions, and I wanted to watch all of them.

Basically, the story goes like this: Chu Cuoi, a lumberjack, finds a magical banyan tree whose leaves can cure the sick, and even revive the dead. He digs it up and takes it home. On his way home, he uses the leaves to revive a dead man, who tells hims that the tree is very sacred and should only be nurtured with the purest water or it will fly into the sky. With the tree, Cuoi helps save many people, including his future wife.

However, in one incident, his wife accidentally waters the tree with dirty water and the tree begins to fly into the sky. Cuoi comes home just at that moment. He runs after the tree and tries to pull it down with his axe. But Cuoi is not heavy enough, so the tree carries him to the moon, forming the dark shadows we can see on it today.

This story was interpreted in different ways when it was staged to entertain both kids and adults those days. For instance, one version had it that the wife peed on the tree. Some versions made it a comedy, some added chi Hang (Lady of the Moon), and the story would have Chi Hang and Cuoi visit children during the festival.

Other live performances during the festival, lion dances or unicorn dances with Ong Dia (The Spirit of Earth), a round-bellied man with an easy going nature is always happy, added to the gaiety of the day.

Children get close with a "lion" during a Mid-Autumn Festival lion dance in Hanoi.
Children get close with a “lion” during a Mid-Autumn Festival lion dance in Hanoi.

Ong Dia is believed to have the power to control the unicorns, and thus usually takes the lead in clearing the path for them. He also acts as a counter force to balance out their feral nature. The comical appearance of Ong Dia always adds to the festive cheer and merry-making during the dance.

A bit sad, but happy

Today, it is only in small villages and communities that people can walk along streets without worrying about the traffic, and for me, that charm is missing in big cities like Saigon.

But there seemed to be no shortage of family-friendly entertainment, given the number of stages set up all around for the festival.

I also like the northern tradition that I know of, but have never experienced – “phá cỗ”(rough translation is “dig in”). Families prepare a special tray containing a variety of foods, including mooncakes and fruits, put it outside as an offering to the moon. After rituals are done, children come and stand around the tray, waiting for the adults to yell “Phá cỗ” so that they can dig in. For children, there is excitement in the waiting, and adults, it’s a time to sit down, relax and enjoy the beauty of the moon in nice cool weather.

A Mid-Autumn Festival feast laid out for children to dig in.
A Mid-Autumn Festival feast laid out for children to dig in.

Just the glimpses I’ve had of the festival preparations this year, the lanterns, the music and other things, evoked some sadness for the magical days that would never return.

But, along with this wistfulness, I also felt peace.