Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam: The drums are calling!  

The fest is around the corner

A woman smiles under lanterns in a 'lantern-making village' in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Heard the drum practice yet? That annoying half beat, drum roll, half beat, that you can’t get out of your head. 

The Mid-Autumn Festival is soon upon us – Tet Trung Thu, in Vietnamese. A harvest festival, falling around the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar with full moon at night – late September to early October – it’s mainly a children’s fest with drumming teams visiting homes and businesses during it to ward off evil spirits and seek… ahem… um… lucky money, it’s a lively time!

Did you know that the festival, celebrated in many southeastern countries and in one form or another in most of the world, is more than 5,000 years old? 

This is when you get to see all the color and pageantry of the dragons dancing and the kids drumming their hearts out. In 2017, it occurs around October 4.

There are contests in some regions for the older and more experienced teams too. For tourists who’ve never witnessed it, the noise and display can be a little bit overwhelming. With as many as five or ten teams visiting each place in succession, it becomes too much too quickly.

Weather depending, the majority of the rice harvest is completed by the 15th, although Vietnam’s issues with drought, unseasonal rain and harvest schedules are increasingly getting out of time with the seasons and typical crop gathering timetables. 

Kids play with lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Kids play with lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre

So with many parents busy with the crops, the Mid-Autumn Festival time is spent with their children. Even urban families and the fishing workers take time out to devote time to their kids.

In central coastal Vietnam, where I live in Hoi An, dozens of youngsters pull the large drum cart while the dragon dancers do their thing in front of bars and cafés in the old town. Meanwhile, local village kids wander up and down the coastal highway village areas, banging away madly into the deep purple colors of the seaside night. 

On a lot of lunar full moons, you’ll see locals burning paper for luck and praying to their ancestors and the Buddha for good luck, health and prosperity. It gets more grandiose with a whole table of goodies for their departed loved ones and to pay homage to the ‘Earth God’ for the harvest. I remember someone telling me it was all a bit too superstitious for him at the time, but as I pointed out, this is still a country where people are directly reliant on the land for their survival – when you see it that light, it makes more sense to a foreigner’s point of view.

Vietnam takes its beliefs in ghosts, spirits and evil things floating around, fairly seriously, hence the lantern lights, drum noise and fires. It’s fascinating when I get well-educated young adult Vietnamese who tell me that they still believe in ghosts. Still, we shouldn’t laugh or criticize too much, since we Westerners celebrate Halloween at the end of October with a lot more spooky stuff than the Vietnamese folks!

You could describe it as a cross between Halloween and (American) Thanksgiving with heaps of food, wearing masks, making noise and games involving parents and kids.

A family enjoys the atmosphere of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam.
A family enjoys the atmosphere of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam.

If you’re traveling around the country, ask your receptionist about local festival activities, particularly boat races, which are very funny, intense and highly competitive. The photo opportunities are everywhere if you plan ahead.

Wealthier urban families celebrate by attending local festivals with games and street food while poorer rural families hold community events, often funded by the local people’s committees, including songs and dance events which locals use to display their singing skills or even funnier… when they can’t sing! 

While folks laugh at some of the more inept performances, I’ve never heard of or seen people booed off stage or heckled for their annoying or pitiful attempts at entertainment. Vietnamese are more non-judgmental than us about music, huh?

So if you heard the drums, don’t worry, it’s not forever! It’s just a celebration of life…

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