It’s not often you get to take part in a festival that goes back 3,000 years, but this is one of them. Held in mid-September, the Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the legend of Cu?i, who was stranded on the moon with a magic Banyan tree and wants to come back to Earth. Celebrations are all about light and lanterns (to lead Cu?i back home), and you will see them in great numbers, huge and small, in all kinds of crazy shapes, paraded through town and hung over doorways and especially around temples. There’re also parades, lion dances, firecrackers, games, celebrating and more Mooncakes than you can eat in a lifetime.
Despite religion being closely-monitored by the Vietnamese government, a unique form of Buddhism is practiced by a large chunk of the population. On May 17th, millions turn out at lavishly-decorated temples all across the country to celebrate Buddha’s birth (and enlightenment, which legend says was achieved on his birthday) by taking part in parades, games, and sermons, and by spending time with friends and family. You’ll likely need a facemask to avoid all the incense smoke drifting around at times, but it just adds to the atmosphere of this solemn and important celebration.
If you’re a fan of games (and who isn’t?), you shouldn’t miss this festival in early March in northern Nam Dinh province, which pays homage to Lieu Hanh, a famous goddess from Vietnamese lore. Devotees come from far and wide to join the procession to Goi Pagoda and pray for good luck while carrying special bamboo relics and wearing colorful costumes. Once this is done, all manner of games are played, from small rounds between friends to capture-the-flag type events, to giant games of ‘human chess’ that draw throngs of spectators.
If you’re close to Hanoi in mid-February, you should definitely join the thousands of Vietnamese on this pilgrimage, which has been going on for the past 600 years. The landscape couldn’t be more beautiful as you row up the calm Yen River past rice fields and limestone cliffs, and begin the (long) ascent past various temples to Huong Tich Cave, where flags, food offerings, statues, incense, and crowds mingle in a fantastic display of piety. Bonus: Bring a cute friend! The festival is seen as the perfect time to begin a romantic courtship.
The most vivacious, colorful and noisiest festival on the Vietnamese calendar, it’s kind of like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving all rolled into one. As with many holidays in SE Asia its date varies, but sometime in late January or early February people travel great distances to be with family, visit temples, light firecrackers, stuff their faces, share some drinks, and make enough noise to wake the neighbors in Cambodia. Definitely not one to miss if you’re in the region.