by Paul Whymark, Greenheart Travel English Teacher in Vietnam
Folklore, ancient mystical tales, something of romance and the intangible provides the Vietnamese with an ability to celebrate just about anything. There are, it seems, simultaneously multiple events and reasons to take part in celebrations all year, both in the Luna and Western Calendar year.
Much of the traditional festivals are linked to the Luna Calendar, which is also used in conjunction with the Western Calendar. The Luna month calendar rituals are regularly evident on the lighting a personal temple, though not religious as such people have a sense of spirituality originating from Buddhism and live life on a range of customs from ancient to modern. In the autumn (or fall as some say), many people think of Halloween (All Saints Eve) and for me this links to thoughts of days in the Cub Scouts and competitions of bobbing apples (a big bowl of water and a few apples bobbing around, then with arms tied behind ones back and maybe even a blind fold in some cases then having to bite an apple out of the water). In more recent times Halloween seems to be more associated with ‘trick or treating’, and on a small scale this has arrived in Hanoi too. Either way on Halloween night a few people dress up in spooky costumes and decorate with face paint.
Being in South East Asia however the more interesting festival of autumn in Vietnam is called a traditional Mid Autumn Festival. This provided confusions initially on more than one level. I was first told of the Mid Autumn Festival on arrival back in the summer, so consequently didn’t expect anything for a while until Halloween time, thinking it was a southeast Asian one – to – one equivalent. Then I heard it was in August, so thought that is very early but still had not fully understood that it is based on their Luna calendar, and hence August meant September in a Western Calendar. It was therefore quite a different feel and interpretation of autumn. It’s the full moon that is celebrated as this is said to be the largest moon of the year, which I guess has something to do with the earth’s position or relative to the moon on its entire axis.
Though not an exact comparison to me, it felt like a time of year when one catches that moment of seasonal change before it really happens. Like one of those days in August most years when the morning starts off decidedly cooler and more over cast and there is a breeze which forebodes of summer’s forthcoming demise. In Hanoi the temperature in the day was still over 30 C and in the upper 30’s C every day for the next 9 weeks, so autumn might not quite be how it would be described in the UK. However the rhythm of life is just geared higher in terms of warm weather and there are still variations of nature’s ever changing state.
Mid Autumn Festival celebrates children, who take center stage. Families go out in the evening when it’s dark to the parks and celebrate with small gifts and special culinary treats. Adults all look back on memories of childhood at this time with mystical and romanticized memories. It is not difficult to see why, with the brightest of moons lighting the sky and feverish excitement with communal gatherings and a special energy. This is mirrored in the children’s enjoyment revealed in millions of little smiles.
Moon cake is one of the treats served during this festival. It is an unusual production to western tastes, and even here in Vietnam it seems to divide people a bit like the alleged ‘Marmite effect’ has in the UK. Moon cake is eaten all year round, though at Mid Autumn Festival it is at its height perhaps a bit like fruit cake is eaten all year but at Christmas especially. Having had 3 samples of moon cake I am still not entirely sure if it is a savory or sweet product? Some have a hard boiled egg in the middle! Yellow and red stalls line many a street at some point and these sell the moon cake in all its variations.
Other foods eaten while celebrating festivals throughout the year in Vietnam include Round Cake and Square Cake, which has a folk story behind it and one is said to represent the sky and the earth. The two go together and are very much the same product in different formats. These are quite starchy and gooey with fillings of what seemed to be coconut and spices, but only mildly sweet. Again, I have been told this can be cooked further by frying it or eaten in the semi cooked stage, which come wrapped in leaves and tied up neatly.
These cakes are said in some way to be represented by the fruit Cau and its leaf Trau, in a winding tale of how people gave their lives for others whom they loved. The leaf and fruit of the Betel tree or something similar, which grew from the stone at the place which those who waited for their loved ones stayed. These are evident on celebrating a wedding in Vietnam which goes on for three days. Though at the party, before the actual ceremony of marriage, these fruit and leaves are strategically placed next to a heart shaped money box and miniature cups of green tea. It didn’t seem though that anyone was expecting huge donations and it is more an act of ritual, from former times gone by. At the Vietnamese wedding celebration, the locals were only too delighted to welcome Westerners to their party, and regular shots of rice wine. The wedding was an interesting microcosmic reflection of the mix of old and new and where Vietnam is at in 2012.
Rice wine is never far from a celebration, or the other way round. Rice wine has the same base of boiled then distilled rice alcohol, after which it is infused with a many different types of herb, mushroom and flavors mostly said to have medicinal properties. Many rice wines are individual to the locality as they use the herbs, natural flavoring or fungi from the area which steep the rice wine, so no two ever taste quite the same.
With National Teacher’s celebrations Nov. 20, and last month’s honoring of National Vietnamese Women’s Day, there has been plenty of rice wine as of late. The Vietnamese in general are widely accepting of western cultural celebrations and festivals. However, shortly after the western new year is the Luna New Year and festival of Tet. This begins their new year around mid – late January building for the actual event in early – mid February. This also starts the festival of spring and lasts for about 3 months, called Kuong Pagoda, and continues the Luna calendar of festivals.