Hanoi and Saigon may be steaming ahead when it comes to modern development, but rural Vietnam and in particular Hoi An has kept a firm handle on its roots in tradition where generations of families still hold faith in myths, legends, fables and folklore which for thousands of years has formed the heart of the community, protecting health, the home and more importantly the family.
It is this and of course the influences of UNESCO in promoting Hoi An for its culture and history that make it one of the best places in Vietnam to visit if you are hoping to see a festival during your stay. The most famous is the monthly Lunar full moon celebrations which still attract more local Vietnamese from outlying communes and hamlets than Western tourists.
With a calendar bursting with reasons to put on a party if we were to choose just one must-see event in Hoi An it would be the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the harvest or children’s festival. Held mid-September after the final rice harvest of the year, this centuries-old festival is a chance for families to celebrate a good yield, spend time with their children, chase away bad spirits and honour the moon.
Hardly celebrated in towns and cities that no longer rely upon farming for their income, Hoi An’s celebrations get bigger and longer every year. The atmosphere in the town and surrounding villages becomes fuelled with excitement as children rehearse their dragon dance in the street weeks in advance and shops burst with vibrant and elaborate costumes, masks and drums, making it feel a bit like Christmas to those from the West.
Celebrations traditionally kick off with a procession of excited children carrying star, moon and animal shaped paper lanterns, which represent the sun circling the moon. Then it’s the turn of the dragon dancers arriving en masse to bestow good luck and fortune to the shops, businesses and homes in the form of a choreographed dance, where the dragon urged on by a smiley moon faced ‘tamer’ representing the Lord Earth enter each building and run wild.
For epic performances, head towards the big businesses in town like Yaly or Cargo as night falls and you will be rewarded with professional dragon dancing teams climbing huge bamboo poles and breathing fire; it’s a must-see performance that escapes every health and safety law you can think of and attracts huge crowds. Hold on to your handbag!
Riverside Bach Dang Street, which due to a wider road tends to be the easiest to navigate, is a good meeting point if you get lost amid the madness. Aided by the thousands of paper lanterns on the river, it’s possibly the best-lit spot and from here you can either escape on a riverboat tour. Or work your way to the quieter edge of town, where you will find dozens of tiny kids playing at their own dragon performance for fun, which somehow feels a bit more authentic and makes for much easier photo opportunities and involvement – give these kids 20,000 VND and you will get your own performance and their parents will love you for it.
The Mid-Autumn Festival officially takes place on the 14th and 15th day of the eighth lunar month — September to you and I generally, though you can bank on seeing a few performances anytime during September. Apparently the reason for this prolonged celebration is because it takes the kids quite a long time to make back their costume investment!
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.