21 October 2006

Mid-Autumn Festival

This year I participated in the October 6th Mid-Autumn Festival/ Moon Cake Festival/ Tet Trung Thu. The school where my Vietnamese teacher is employed had a party for the students. I arrived at the school, after a scenic tour of downtown by the taxi driver, to find the hallways and the large classroom decorated with candles glowing out of small, hand-made, paper holders. Students and teachers with families in tow, mingled and introduced themselves, and munched on the snacks that lined two tables. I knew a few of the people from my trip with them to the shrimp farm.

There were about thirty people in the room when we sat down to hear about the Mid-Autumn festival and listen to a story. One young American woman was asked to translate. When I spoke to her later and found out that she had only been in Vietnam for one year, I was shocked at her proficiency. She then explained that her entire year had been spent studying Vietnamese. She was working for some sort of charitable organization that had allotted her two years to learn the language before starting some sort of project for street children. I drooled. That has been one of those life dreams that never came true; to have someone pay for you to learn a foreign language in a foreign country, for a year or two. Hell, the Peace Corps gave me two months.

Essentially being a children’s festival, we did kid things. The first was to break into groups and try to put the story we had just heard into order, from cut up sentences. Yes, it is a language school, and this is a language school activity. Fortunately for us, it was in English, which did not mean that you could do it without really reading the cut up sections. My group rushed through but kept getting it wrong.

Next, we had a choice: learn a song or make a lantern. I gathered five people, sat on the floor with a packet of materials, and cut and glued. All very fun, and we ended up with a nice piece of work.

Then it was off to Cho Lon, the Chinatown of Ho Chi Minh City. This is where all the action really happens. I had wanted to go last year, but not alone. This year my teacher said she would take me. We jumped in a taxi for the twenty minute ride, streets becoming increasingly crowded as we neared “Lantern Street”.

A festival ritual is that children are given a lantern in which they can put a candle or just carry around. The night before, our apartment complex had organized a celebration for the little ones. There must have been at least fifty kids running around with lanterns of all sizes and shapes, while two adults in traditional costume lead them in song and games. I was really glad that there weren’t burning candles inside.

And now I could see where lots of those lanterns came from. We got out of the taxi at an intersection branching off onto a street lined with sidewalk shops filled with lanterns. There were paper fish, lotus flowers, and happy faces; cellophane boats and animals; high tech plastic things that moved and beeped with flashing lights. There were also some other kid toys. My favorite was a small lion dancer mask and cape that was fitted on top of an electronic toy so that it danced and shook. Upon closer inspection I saw the moving part was actually a T Rex. The streets were jammed with parents walking with kids and picking out lanterns. An equal number were on motorbikes, driving up to a stall and letting their child pick out something. It was a madhouse.

We then walked for another twenty minutes back to the community center where lion dancers and dragon dancers were performing. They had already finished the show by the time we arrived, but it was fun to walk amongst the joyous kids running around and laughing.

I never did eat any moon cakes, but there is always next year.