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Mid-Autumn Festival 6 October 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Vietnam.
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This weekend we celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival in Hanoi. Although the Festival was originally a party to celebrate the harvest throughout Asia, in Vietnam it has morfed into a festival for children, big and small. The Mid-Autumn Festival is to Vietnamese children more or less what Christmas is to children in Western countries.

There was a real festive atmosphere in all of Hanoi, and although I have been in Vietnam for more than a year, I was in Hoi An last year for the Mid-Autumn Festival, so it was still new and exciting to me as well.

Leading up to the Festival, companies and shops that normally sell other things decorate their store fronts with red lanterns and red banners, and start selling bánh trung thu, or moon cakes (see picture) everywhere. These are similar to, but not identical to the cakes eaten at the same time in China. The Vietnamese type are either light brown on the outside, and often have a mungbean paste inside with an egg yolk in the middle (like the Chinese version) or are white, with coconut inside. The latter ones are actually rather nice. And although I suggest that you should try both types (eaten in small wedges with tea) I thouroughly recommend the white ones over the brown ones.

moon cakes vn

(Photo found on the internet, as I did not buy any cakes myself this year.)

Furthermore, shops specialising in children’s toys expect an abundance of customers for the Festival, and stock up on merchandise.  On the steet, the street vendors that normally sell balloons, started to sell inflated frogs as well (not sure what the back story is of these, but they said ‘kiss me’).

The pomelo (citrus grandis), a large, sweet type of citrus not dissimilar to grapefruit is in season and is being sold everywhere. Its juicy wedges are even fashioned into the shape of puppies (weirdly unsettling, yet very cute).

In the lead up to the Festival, one particular street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hàng Mã, which normally sells paper money and other items (such as clothes, conical hats, motorbikes, houses, etc) for burning on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month as offerings for the ancestors, now sells traditional (and not so traditional) toys, masks, wigs, hats, costumes for dragon dancing, witch’s hats and knick-knacks of every size, description and price. Everything seems to exhude a level of energy only ever otherwise felt around Lunar New Year.

Schools and businesses put on Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations for staff and their families, where children get to dress up and run amok. An absolute ball. The actual festival is held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, which this year fell on 3 October, a Saturday. We decided to head out to Hàng Mã on the day before, when it would be the busiest, to get a sense of the atmosphere and the excitement.

We had been warned about pick-pockets before going, so clinging on to our camera and with only a few strategically placed monetary notes in small bills in our deepest pockets, we braved the crowds. Walking from our apartment towards the festivities, you could almost feel the electricity in the air, and you could see the throngs of people all heading in the same direction. There was a real buzz in the Old Quarter, and it was infectious.

Noise would be the major operating word for the night, crowded the second. Whereas Hanoi by no means is a silent city at the best of times, the drums and the rattles, the tooting horns, the squealing children and the laughter and the craziness made it differently loud, and very, very fun.  Hanoi has never seemed more alive to me.

Hàng Mã was closed off for motorbikes, and a sea of people were streaming through. The first thing that met us at the western most end of the street was a group performing dragon dancing and banging on drums. For those of you who heard my story about the dragon dancing in Hoi An last year, you will understand that it did not capture me quite as much this time. I mean, there was no climbing up poles, dancing battles or police that came and broke up the crowds. But it very much added to the crazy evening with its swirling and rythmic franzy.

And the children! The children could hardly contain themselves (and most of them did not even try). They had been working themselves up to this weekend, and the last chance shopping on the Friday night was very much for their benefit. Seeing all the toys being sold, and the bunny ears, devil’s horns and angel wings gliding through the crowds at stomach level made me feel a little like a kid again.

Teenagers wearing brightly coloured wigs formed congalines that came bursting at high speed through the crowds towards you, all giggles and laughter. Some wore scary masks that made the youngest children scream in real, and the slightly older ones pretended, terror, while everyone clung on to other’s hands or shirts to not lose each other in the crowd. Not everyone has the benefit of being tall and thereby be easily spotted amongst a large number of Vietnamese of far shorter stature…

Some sellers had crafted trumpets out of old-fashioned camera film that, when blown, made an awful racket. Of course, it was soon discovered that should you place two of these horns in your mouth at once, it made twice the noise. You can imagine where that was heading, apart from partial deafness in my left ear as I passed someone in the crowd.

I only bought one thing at the Festival, a tiny figurine on a stick made from something I suspect is flour mixed with food colouring and water. It was a little tiny Vietnamese soldier, with gun and all, very cute. And I watched and enjoyed the locals buy and eat sugar spin and other rot-your-teeth-on-contact sweets and cakes. We even passed a news crew from Ho Chi Minh City that grabbed my partner, who ended up giving an impromptu television interview on the Festival from a foreigner’s perspective.

It was amazingly hot (due to the weather and the throngs), and after walking (read: shuffeling) the entire length of Hàng Mã, (read: a couple of blocks), and generally feeling sweaty, we ended up escaping into a side-street paralell to Dong Xuan street and took the long way around back to Hoan Kiem lake.


(Picture from the interweb)

The actual festival was on the following night, which would have been much the same, but with lanterns being lit and sent up into the night sky. We stopped at Highlands coffee overlooking the roundabout north of Hoan Kiem for a coffee, to observe the crazy traffic beneath and to have a rest before heading home again. After my walk through the crowded old quarter on the Friday, however, I didn’t manage to make it out again the next night.

One final thing I want to share with you, though, is the sentiments of a little boy I met on the way to the coffee place. He was about 8 years old, running ahead of his parents and clearly heading towards Dong Xuan. He was almost in a frenzy, trampelling his feet, practially hyperventilating, and throwing glances over his shoulder hoping that his parents would hurry up already. His face summed it all up for me; I wish I could be as excited about anything as this boy was about his night ahead. I hope he had a good one.