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Banging the drums in autumn in Vietnam

Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 21:29 GMT+7
Banging the drums in autumn in Vietnam
This cartoon shows children having fun during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam.

It’s that time of the year again for the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu) (the 15th day of the 8th lunar month) – often in late September or early October, after the harvest season. This year it falls on October 1.

The festival is popular around the country, especially as a large percentage of the population live in rural areas as farmers. Most Asian countries have similar festivals.

This is the time to bang the drums, celebrate a good harvest, and for the kids to run around in dragon outfits. This year’s usually noisy event might be more muted and children may wear face masks and take some caution while hanging around large crowds.

Youngsters carry lanterns as part of an old legend about a man called Cuoi, who held on to a magical banyan tree as it floated up to the moon. It’s claimed that you see the man sitting under the tree if you look at the moon hard enough. However, the moon is also at one of its lowest points to the horizon at this time of the year so it looks a bit brighter than usual.

Usually in the weeks leading up to the festival, local kids practice their drumming for it as parents whiz around the markets to buy mooncakes and goodies for their celebration. I haven’t heard much drum practice this year but even if the noise is annoying to me, I hope it will be a wonderful and fun time for the kids. The COVID-19 situation has been hard on children who missed out on lessons, stayed indoors, and were unable to hang out with their friends.

Parties and family get-togethers begin well before the appointed night. You’ll see ancestral shrines decorated with mooncakes and other goodies, to be eaten later on. The most common are banh deo (soft, sticky cakes) and banh nuong (baked cakes).

Naturally, you’ll see the kids in groups wearing lion dance clothes, yet the whole affair needs some explaining. There’ll be one dancer with a large happy face leading the procession – he represents the Earth God, Ong Dia, to give thanks for the earth’s reward of food. The lion is welcomed into the home or business to bring good luck for the coming year. The goal is a dance that is as funny and noisy as possible. Children do this for fun and a gift from the homeowner of candy. The older, larger boys are often in semi-professional groups and towns and villages do sometimes hold competitions for them.

This cartoon shows kids enjoying lion dance during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam.

This cartoon shows kids enjoying lion dance during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam.

The festival is also important for the re-telling of traditional stories and singing the old songs. It’s considered as a strong example and education to the young of Vietnam’s culture and traditions. Thus, you’ll see lots of families on motorbikes riding from one drum group to another for the children to witness the fun and, if old enough, participate in some drum bashing. The toy shops do a roaring trade in costumes and masks as well.

Less known is the value of the festival as a means of promoting poetry, dance, arts, and crafts. Many schools teach young students the old stories and paint decorations for the event as well. Older students often help out in groups to build displays which are located within the grounds of the school or the local people’s committee hall. These can take weeks to put together with bamboo, wood, and colorful materials.

This year’s celebration can also be seen as an expression of relief from our recent social distancing and hardships. Life can be hard in the countryside with people still growing the majority of their own food, so a good harvest becomes a serious thing to be honored. For us Westerners, I’m not sure if we consider how precious the relationship between us and nature is, even though most countries in the world hold events in honor of the bounty we get from Mother Nature.

And as the damage from climate change grows and spreads, we would do well to treasure our world a bit more. Just as the Vietnamese teach their children to do.

Still, it’s a great time to be alive and witness the fun. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone!

Stivi Cooke / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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