A Mostly Happy Moon Festival

by aengelson | October 5th, 2009

Fiona and Matilda in their Au Dais bought  for their Autumn Moon Festival celebrations at school.

Fiona and Matilda in their Au Dais bought for their Autumn Moon Festival celebrations at school.

This past weekend, the family celebrated Tet Trung Thu, one of the major annual festivals in Vietnam. Otherwise known as the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, it’s a holiday dedicated primarily to children. (You know, because we just don’t pay enough attention to them on the other 364 days a year!)

In fact, the history of the festival is that it’s a bit of parental guilt trip. During the autumn harvest, parents were often away from their children for long periods of time–but after the harvest, during the full moon, parents would return and lavish their kids with gifts, sweets, and affection after their absence. (It actually sounds like many holidays in States, come to think of it–just replace the field with the office).

The more lyrical and mythical story of the festival’s origin is that a young boy was being greedy, so to punish him, he was sent with his ox to the moon. On Tet Trung Thu, the children parade with lanterns while adults perform loudly with drums and dragon dancers so the boy on the moon isn’t lonely. (Another version of the story is that a man, not a boy, is banished to the moon for peeing on a sacred banyan tree–but this version didn’t make it into the kids’ cultural info packets, for some strange reason.)

Back down here on earth in Vietnam, the festival is a time to lavish kids with gifts, celebrate with work and family, and gaze at the full moon. On Saturday, we attended an 8-hour party out in the countryside with Joanie’s workmates at PATH. It was quite a production, and the few American in the PATH office were amazed at all the preparations that the Vietnamese staff put into this event for their children and ours.

We all piled into a hired bus and drove to a park in the countryside.  In a large shelter by a fish pond, Joanie’s office mates soon set up an elaborate party: there was a huge a decorated banner, hundreds of twisty balloons, gifts for the children, and then the gigantic spread of food arrived.

Some of Joanie's workmates and their families perform a dragon dance at a celebration of Tet Trung Thu.

Some of Joanie's workmates and their families perform a dragon dance at a celebration of Tet Trung Thu.

There were the inevitable toasts over beer and whiskey for the men (yes, unfair, I know). And then games for the kids (kicking a soccer ball into a net while wearing a mask without eye holes, crazy relay races, etc.). There was a magic show, dragon dancing and more gifts for the kids.

Also, inevitably, karaoke. Very loud and earnest karaoke. Our girls declined (no songs  from High School Musical, unfortunately). Joanie and I politely said no.

The whole production was great fun, actually, and my initial hesitations about an eight-hour party (and riding a bus meant no bailing out early!) were unfounded. Though I will say the beer and whiskey helped.

Also, it’s traditional to give moon cakes during the festival. These are dense pastries filled with things like sweet bean paste, duck egg yolks, green beans, and lotus seeds. Not exactly what we Americans value in pastries, but they were interesting to try nonetheless. The kids were not impressed.

Later that night, we decided to keep the girls up and take a taxi to the center of town to see what Hanoi families do on the evening of Tet Trung Thu. It was a crazy scene. Everyone, it seems, with kids or not, had come  to the city center. There wasn’t much going on other than people making Hanoi even more crowded than usual. Fiona and Matilda joined the other children in carrying their electronic paper lanterns and strolling around Hoan Kiem Lake with the entire population of Hanoi.

Everyone and their families were on the road for the Mid Autumn Moon Festival in Hanoi.

Everyone and their families were on the road for the Mid Autumn Moon Festival in Hanoi.

The girls were groggy, so we soon took a taxi home. Traffic was horrible. On the slow crawl  home, as the taxi changed lanes, a motorbike with a teenage boy and girl on board smacked into the side of the car, caromed off to the right and then nearly tipped over. Thankfully, they were fine. As scary as that was, the altercation afterward was more disturbing. No one came to blows, but the teenage boy hurled his helmet at the taxi in frustration. It bounced with a thud off my window. Guess that’s why the taxi drivers insist you keep your windows rolled up.

With traffic this intense, and motorbikes always cutting it close, these sorts of fender-benders are bound to happen. What’s odd is that in Vietnam, as much as there’s an emphasis on saving face, if you get in a fender-bender, it seems a screaming argument is required. After some yelling, you go on your way. I’ve seen this several times since being in Hanoi.

It was a bit of a downer end to an otherwise fascinating festival day. The girls were of course completely spent and slept late on Sunday.

Hope the the boy on the moon appreciated it as much as we did.

2 Responses to “A Mostly Happy Moon Festival”

  1. Hi Andy,

    I love your blog and look forward to each post. The girls look great! Hugs to all. Miss you guys.

    Andrea G.

  2. aengelson says:

    Andrea, Good to hear from you! Hope all’s well back in Seattle. Give love to Bruce & Brooke. AJFM

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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