The streets were crowded with stalls full of colorful lanterns—small, medium and large. Some had wires to hang from trees. Others had dowels for children to hold. Some of the lanterns were the usual round shapes, most were forms of boats, rabbits, frogs, lobsters or bright orange and yellow carp. Others were magical dragons or unicorns.
Small candles, placed inside, gave the cellophane lanterns a soft glow that illuminated towns and villages in Viet Nam weeks before the official beginning of Trung Thu . In 1963, the mid-autumn festival began on October 3. Every year the date it was different because most Vietnamese holidays were set on the lunar calendar that kept track of the full moon.
I remember seeing special lanterns displays in Hawaii when we lived there in the ‘50s. The Chinese immigrants celebrated the mid-autumn festival with lanterns and moon cakes, the same as the Vietnamese.
There are many legends concerning the holiday, but the one told most often in Viet Nam was about the love of an emperor for his wife. Emperor Minh Hoang brought her to a lake during a full moon on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. The full moon reflected on the onyx black lake was a beautiful setting for romance. When the moon was at its fullest in the cool night sky, Emperor Minh composed a poem in honor of his wife.
I don’t remember seeing any poems for sale in the busy Saigon markets in the weeks leading up to Trung Thu, but there were beautiful boxes of moon cakes for sale. All the cakes were the same round shape, but were filled with different treats. Some had peanuts or seeds of lotus or watermelon. Others had rich duck egg yolks, or raisins. These sticky rice cakes always looked delicious.
What a surprise when I took my first bite. Although it looked and smelled very sweet, my moon cake tasted bland. I was used to sugary American desserts, but Vietnamese cooking was about balance of taste—not too sweet, not too salty.
Trung Thu moon cakes were special. They were sold in colorful paper boxes. If they were presented as special gifts, customers purchased more ornate boxes. I liked the boxes better than the moon cakes.
The mid-autumn festival was considered a celebration for Vietnamese children. The beautiful lighted lanterns were made for children to play with after the sun set much like Fourth of July sparklers. Streets were illuminated with the colorful lights weeks before the official holiday.
On festival night, children gathered with their glowing lanterns, forming a procession that wound its way through the darken streets. In the larger villages or towns, people dressed as unicorns accompanied them, dancing to the music of drums and cymbals.
What a wonderful way to celebrate children and the poetry of the full moon in the autumn sky!