Although I took part in a Mid-Autumn Festival play more than a month ago, this weekend was the real celebration of what the Vietnamese call Tet Trung Thu. It’s one of a few lunar festivals in Asia, but not the biggest. The biggest lunar festival is the Tet Lunar Festival in January or February depending on the moon phases.
I headed down to District One on Friday night to see what Trung Thu was all about. Let me first quickly give you some background and legends regarding the festival. Some say, the Mid-Autumn Festival is when the eternal herd-boy in the sky and his beloved weaving-girl meet (throughout the year they are separated across the heavens by the Milky Way) and their joyous reunion causes their tears to fall from the sky in a light rain called ngau rain. Curiously, some Vietnamese I’ve spoken to say it rains every Trung Thu and Friday was no different.
Of course, the central feature of lunar festivals is always the moon. Many stories and legends surround Trung Thu, including the famous Vietnamese story of “Chu Cuoi and the Banyan Tree”. I’ve heard many versions of the tale being told, but this is the core of the story which essentially stays the same: Chu Cuoi came from a poor family and when he was a young man he went into the forest near his village. He found two tiger cubs playing and one of them had injured (or even killed) itself. The mother tiger took some leaves from a Banyan tree and rubbed them on the mortal wounds of the cub who miraculously healed. Cuoi recognised the healing powers of the tree and dug it up and transplanted it to his house. He later became a powerful healer using the Banyan tree as the base for his medicines. He also married a beautiful girl, Chi Hang, whose task it was to water the Banyan tree while Cuoi was away healing or collecting medicinal herbs. One day Cuoi returned home early and Chi Hang had forgotten to water the tree so she quickly watered the tree and in her haste she poured dirty water on the magical tree. The Banyan tree duly uprooted itself and flew off into the sky. Chu Cuoi, acting quickly, threw his axe at the tree and held on. The tree, with Coui holding on for dear life, flew all the way to the moon where they can still be seen to this day; Chu Coui sitting under the eves of the Banyan Tree.
Trung Thu is traditionally a childrens festival and Friday night thousands of children were milling around the food and lantern stalls, enjoying the bright colours and jovial atmosphere the festival created.
Although I arrived as the celebrations were finishing, there were still some kids soaking up the excitement and stuffing their little faces with Banh Trung Thu; (mooncakes) pastry filled with sugary everythings, from Chinese sausages and eggs, to durian fruit and strawberries. They also loved the Banh which is like a snackwich-shaped waffle on a stick. Nearly every child had a traditional long den - a type of paper lantern with a candle inside. The lanterns often turn from the heat of the candle and cut-out paper figures inside throw moving shadows on the lanterns walls, giving the effect from the outside of a shadow-horse galloping, or some animal or person moving, inside the lantern etc.
This is also a lucrative time of year for the big bakery syndicates in Vietnam who mass-produce mooncakes and sell them, in pairs of four, by the millions. Thousands of tons of mooncakes are sold in the month preceding the Mid-Autumn Festival and many more during it. Kinh Do and Ha Noi bakeries are two of the largest producers and set up shop on every major street in HCM City. Their mooncakes range from cheap to the more exclusive - such as imported mooncakes from China and South Korea (a batch of four could set you back about (VND 500 000 or $32).
Although Trung Thu is all about the kids having fun with a lot of myth and history supporting the tenets of the festival, it seems as though consumerism and commercialism is also taking its toll just like it does with Christmas in South Africa and other westernised countries. I bet Pick ‘n Pay and Spar have already put up their Christmas decorations, painted fake snow on the windows and put Boney M’s A Christmas Collection on repeat?