If you’re lucky enough to be in Hoi An in the middle of September, you’ll have a chance to join the most magical moment of the year: the Mid-Autumn Festival, or Tết Trung Thu in Vietnamese.
On this special night, beautifully dressed Vietnamese families will wander along the banks of the Thu Bon River. Thousands of colorful silk lanterns will glow above the streets and from the sampans on the water. Drum beats will echo from the temples, the smell of incense will fill the night air, and high above, the brightest full moon of the year will light up the whole scene and the tiled roofs of the Ancient Town.
Though many places in Asia mark the 15th day of the 8th month in the lunar calendar, Hoi An is a truly alluring setting to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Here’s an easy guide for travelers who want to join the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hoi An.

Hoi An is one of the best places to join the Mid-autumn Festival in Vietnam

The origins of the Mid-Autumn Festival

No one knows exactly how or where the Mid-Autumn Festival began. In one common tale, an emperor of the Tang Dynasty had a tall castle built to appreciate the moon, and ordered his people to hang lights, walk in lantern processions, drink wine, and sing songs to celebrate his birthday, which fell on the night of the full moon in the middle of Autumn.

In Vietnam, this festival has been celebrated since the 9th century. The writer Phan Ke Binh noted that on this day, Vietnamese would make offerings to their ancestors, and have feasts by moonlight in the evening. In some parts of Vietnam, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a time for boat races, water puppet shows, and ‘hát trống quân’ (traditional love songs.) In 1945 revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to the children of the country on the Mid-Autumn Festival, marking this day as a holiday for children.

The tale of Chú Cuội

Vietnamese folklore has many legends about the Mid-Autumn Festival, including a well-known hero’s tale about Chú Cuội (Uncle Cuội), a poor woodcutter who discovered a magical banyan tree in the forest, and replanted it near his bamboo hut. The woodcutter used the tree’s leaves to help many people, including the beautiful daughter of a rich lord. Cuội married this woman and they lived happily until one day while planting flowers she hurt the roots of the banyan tree.

The tree groaned in pain, and began to pull its roots out of the ground. Cuội came running from his work in the fields and grabbed tightly to the tree’s roots to try to hold it down; but the tree was too strong and it flew up and into the sky with the woodcutter still clinging to its roots. The banyan tree flew all the way to the moon and settled in the moondust.  There Cuội still sits under its leaves, looking for a way to return to his wife and village. At the Mid-Autumn Festival, children join lantern processions to help Cuội find his way back home.

Preparations for the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hoi An Vietnam

Preparations for the Mid-Autumn Festival

In Quang Nam, the Mid-Autumn full moon coincides with the end of the year’s second rice harvest season. After many days of working hard in the fields, the festival is time for the whole family to relax, reunite, and celebrate together. Many families hang lanterns in their trees, and burn joss paper, paper effigies, and sticks of incense outside their homes to honor ancestors in the afterlife.

Around Hoi An you’ll see the local people preparing elaborate feast trays on the sidewalk or in their family courtyard. These festival trays carry green tea, mooncakes, mung bean cakes, and seasonal fruits, and are set outside to enjoy under the moonlight. Often there will be a small separate feast tray prepared for children to snack on throughout the evening.

Hoi An: best place to enjoy the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam

Children all over Vietnam and Quang Nam look forward to the Mid-Autumn Festival as a time when they will receive new toys and their own red lantern. Parents make or buy simple toys such as paper-mache masks, rice flour figurines, and wooden drums. Each child is given a lantern on a stick made from bamboo and red cellophane in the shape of a fish, a star, a butterfly or other animals.

In the days leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival, local troupes of teenagers can be seen and heard practicing their drum and dance routines. The dancers wear the head of a kỳ lân – a mythical and auspicious unicorn-like animal – and a long flashing tail with glittering scales. To the sound of drum beats, they perform acrobatic leaps and striking movements.

Mooncakes in Vietnam's Mid-autumn Festival

The story of mooncakes

Every household in Quang Nam will buy mooncakes to eat together and to give to close friends. In the past mooncakes came in just two varieties: bánh dẻo (snow skin) or bánh nướng (baked crust.) Traditional snow-skin mooncakes are made with steamed sticky rice and mung bean filling. These are eaten fresh or offered at pagodas. Baked mooncakes have a flaky wheat crust and a filling with a mix of ingredients such as smoked sausage, lotus seeds, and lime leaves. Square mooncakes represent the earth, while round mooncakes represent the sky.

In old times, finding a creamy, salted duck egg yolk in your mooncake was a lucky treat. Today, most mooncakes have a delicious insert, and there are countless new flavors and varieties, including luxury mooncakes made with chocolate and truffles. No matter the flavor, it’s always a delight to cut open a mooncake and reveal the inner filling. Because of their richness, mooncakes are sliced into thin wedges and served together with fragrant green or jasmine tea.

Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival in Hoi An Vietnam

Celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival

In Hoi An, the Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated for a full four days. The streets of the Ancient Town will be crowded and buzzing with excitement, as locals gather to watch unicorn dances and play folk games along the river. Many people take boat rides to see the lanterns shimmering on the water, or sit in cafes sipping tea and sharing slices of mooncake and other treats.

On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, Vietnamese children carry their lit lanterns in processions around the neighborhood, singing favorite songs for the full moon. Each district organizes parties for young children, with games and prizes. Lucky children may get a mooncake with their zodiac animal baked in the crust, and a golden egg yolk in the center.

Celebrating the Mid-autumn Festival in Hoi An Vietnam
Hoi An: where to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival in Vietnam
Hoi An: best place to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival in Vietnam

In the countryside and in the cities, unicorn dancers put on exciting shows for residents and onlookers. The troupes roam the streets from house to house. When a host invites them in, they perform a dramatic dance said to drive away bad spirits, and are rewarded with lucky money in return. The unicorn dancers are accompanied by a male dancer wearing a round, happy mask. He represents Ông Địa, the spirit of the earth, a jolly character who has the power to summon the kỳ lân.

In the countryside, extended families gather at home to spend time together under the light of the full moon. The adults sip tea or wine and sing songs. Children play with new toys and lanterns, or wear masks and create their own unicorn dances. Everyone gets a taste of mooncakes, and gives thanks for another harvest season and the blessings of family.

Tips for travelers to celebrate the Mid-autumn Festival in Hoi An Vietnam

Tips for travelers in Hoi An

For travelers in Hoi An, the Ancient Town is the best place to immerse yourself in the festival atmosphere. The streets of Hoi An will be full of people on the nights of the festival. Restaurants may be crowded, and taxis can be hard to find. You may like to stay within walking distance of the Ancient Town to get back easily, or organize transport back to your hotel before you join the festivities.

If you want to, you can take part in a lantern-making class or buy mooncakes and tea to share with other travelers. Many hotels organize unicorn dance shows for their guests, but if you want to see more of the action, just head to the Ancient Town with the locals. If you stay up until midnight, don’t forget to catch the reflection of the full moon in your teacup!

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