Beneath the light of a full moon, a group of children gathers, each carrying a brightly lit lantern. The adults lead the youngsters in songs and games, the excitement peaking when drumbeats ring out from down the dark street. The smaller kids shrink back and the older ones run forward as a mythical unicorn bursts into their courtyard--its giant head and sinuous body borne by a team of acrobatic dancers. With its gaping mouth and protruding eyes, the unicorn is both comical and formidable; the dancers lunging closer to the crowd and making the kids scream and laugh at their antics. In the moonlight, the unicorn’s red sequinned body sparkles. The gathered children have been waiting all year for this magical night.
In the weeks before Tết Trung Thu, you're likely to see and hear groups of lion and unicorn dancers practicing in Vietnam’s streets. Some are professional troupes perfecting the acrobatic routines they'll perform at public celebrations and private parties. Others are just kids who've banded together to buy a drum, a paper unicorn head and some colourful robes to earn extra cash performing enthusiastic--but inexpert--dances.
In Ho Chi Minh City, you can witness preparations for this festival on Lương Như Hộc Street in Saigon’s Chinese district, Cho Lon--famous for its lanterns, masks and unicorn heads. While the lion and unicorn heads sold on this colourful street make great souvenirs, professional troupes head to 109 Triệu Quang Phục Street, which has been selling unicorn heads to the city’s best dance troupes for five decades.
If you’re in Hanoi before the Mid-Autumn Festival, be sure to visit Hàng Mã and Lương Văn Can Streets, which will be packed with families buying toys and lanterns. On the night of the full moon, children bearing brightly coloured lanterns form raucous processions and tour their neighbourhoods singing songs. Today, while most lanterns are made of plastic and imported from China, you can still find some traditional Vietnamese ones with bamboo frames. The classic ones are star-shaped and hail from Báo Đáp village in the northern province of Nam Định. Another Hanoi address to visit before the big night is 87 Mã Mây, where visitors can tour a traditional wooden tube house and watch local artisans preparing festival crafts. On Mid-Autumn eve, the Youth Theatre on Ngo Thì Nhậm Street and the Children’s Palace on Lý Thái Tổ Street host children’s musical shows.
All across Vietnam, families welcome Tết Trung Thu by placing a five-fruit tray and cakes on their ancestral altar, then enjoying a feast of traditional foods, including moon cakes. Round or square, these cakes are moulded with designs of flowers, carp or animals. The most popular types are bánh dẻo (sticky cakes) and bánh nướng (baked cakes), the former made of sticky rice flour and the latter with wheat flour crusts. Both varieties are typically stuffed with a sweet and savory mixture of mung bean paste, salty egg, lard and lotus seeds.
While the Mid-autumn Festival originated in China and is celebrated in many Asian countries, the Vietnamese version has its own customs and legends. The best known tale is about a man named Cuội who found a magical banyan tree that could cure sick people. When his wife accidentally urinated on this sacred tree, it floated up to the moon, dragging Cuội with it. While you may have heard about the man in the moon, in Vietnam, people claim to see a man and a tree in the full moon!
If your trip to Vietnam only takes you to large cities, you’re only glimpsing one side of life in this diverse country. Even today, close to 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, with 47 percent of Vietnam’s labour force engaged in agriculture. At heart, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a harvest celebration, held after the rice has been harvested and farmers can spend some quality time with their families.
As you watch a unicorn dance on this very special night, you may see a male dancer wearing a round happy-faced mask that symbolises the moon. He urges the unicorns on and delights the crowd with his comical moves. This is the Earth God, Ông Địa, who represents the fullness of the earth and reminds onlookers to give thanks for the earth’s bounty.