The Mid-Autumn Festival is a huge holiday in Vietnam. It’s also known as the Moon Festival, the Harvest Moon Festival and the Children’s Festival. Each year the festival is held on a different date because it is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calender. This year it fell on the night of the full moon on Friday, September 13th, 2019.
This time marks the end of the harvest, so families who have been busy harvesting can now come together and appreciate each other and spend time with their loved ones.
There’s so much excitement, decorations, and festivities, with a particular emphasis on lions and fish shapes.
Children and family are a huge focus of this festival, as well as thankfulness and prayer. Traditionally, children were believed to be the purest and closest connection to the animal spirits and deities, which is one of the reasons why there’s so much emphasis on them in this festival.
It’s actually a bit like Christmas for the kids in Vietnam. They get heaps of presents and toys and fruit and sweets.
Lanterns are a huge part of this festival. One beautiful place in Hanoi was Phung Hung Street which was decorated with hundreds of lanterns.
The scene was so pretty with the full moon behind it.
There was an insane amount of people stopped all over the place taking selfies and posing for pictures. We literally could not take a single step without getting in someone’s photo.
One traditional Vietnamese story behind the lanterns is the tale of Cuoi, a man who floated up to the moon holding onto a magic tree. Apparently if you look at the moon closely, you can see the shadow of Cuoi sitting under a tree. Lanterns are there to help Cuoi find his way back from the moon.
We walked down Hang Ma Street the day before the Mid-Autumn Festival. This street was closed to motor traffic and had stalls set up along both sides and in the middle.
Hung Ma Street was shoulder to shoulder full of excited children and happy parents snapping up the various plastic toys, masks, headbands, bubble blowers, and sweets.
While walking along, we were lucky enough to encounter a lion dance with fire, which was the best experience of the whole festival.
The performers blocked off the traffic and ‘attacked’ the lion with flaming sticks and blew fire at it.
We came across a mooncake making demonstration, which was interesting, even though we couldn’t understand a word.
Mooncakes are special cakes made just for this festival. They come with various fillings and are very rich. Traditionally a mooncake will be cut and shared with everyone in the family to symbolise a renunion and family unity.
On Friday the 13th, the day of the festival, we headed to Hoan Kiem Lake in the late afternoon.
The streets around Hoan Kiem Lake were blocked off and were completely packed with people. The first thing we saw above all the heads was bunches of cartoon balloons.
Once we entered the square, we wished we had one of those child leashes to tie ourselves together so we wouldn’t get lost. People were just pushing and shoving and walking all over the place with no order at all. It was just chaos.
Initially, all we could see was people, so we wondered if it was one giant scam and everyone was here looking for a festival that didn’t actually exist. However, we soon found that all around the lake were little pockets of people standing in circles around various entertainment and games.
Often it was hard to get a look at what was going on because even when we managed to find a spot where we could see, people just kept pushing in front of us, as you can see in this video I was trying to take of a lion dance.
We were lucky though, we got to see a couple of these performances.
After the show, masked characters went around with baskets asking for donations. One particular masked character is the land spirit, Ong Dia. He’s there to make people smile and to remind everyone to give thanks for the bountiful earth.
In one spot, people were competing to build the highest block tower.
There were quite a few talented musicians. These were my favourite. The guy with the sax was one cool cat.
There were people playing balloon games.
There was also a table of extravagently carved fruit.
Halfway around the lake, we came across a stretch of street where kids were driving around in kid sized cars, which just added to the chaos even more!
And it wasn’t just a few kids in a tiny section of road – it went on for ages.
What struck us both about this festival is the amount of plastic stuff being sold including plastic ducks, balloons, plastic figurines and moving toys, light up headbands, little walking pigs on strings, and so much more.
At one point, we were shaking our heads thinking about all the rubbish being generated and energy being used as a result of this one day of festivities. But dismal thinking aside, it was an interesting experience.
Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake actually took us four hours, partly because we kept stopping to see the different performances, but also simply because there were so many people and moving around didn’t happen in a hurry.
If you’re okay with crowds and sweating A LOT, this festival is something worth checking out once.
Make sure you take a lot of water, and be prepared to have your personal space invaded, even when trying to navigate the streets around the festival. There’s lots of things to look at, buy, taste, and enjoy, but it does take a while to get to them.
If you’re going to buy something, like a toy or fairy floss, be prepared to barter or walk away. One guy quoted us what we thought was way too much. Bartering doesn’t come natural to me, so I just started walking away. He then called us back and offered it to us for half the price, so we went with that.
There’s lots of interesting little things happening that you might not notice if you hurry through. One of those was the fish feeding happening beside the Temple of the Jade Mountain on Hoan Kiem Lake. The water was teeming with fish nibbling at pieces of bread.
If you do find a performance you want to watch, be prepared to stand your ground against the people that push your arm to get in front of you and block your vision. Be amused at the hundreds of people taking selfies everywhere. And maybe snap a few pictures and then put your phone away before someone knocks it out of your hands and soak up the crazy convoluted chaos that is the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hanoi.
If you don’t like the crowds, you should definitely take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake on another day. It’s really beautiful.