By Jenna Jolie
Vietnam's festivals follow the Chinese lunar calendar – the country’s culture and festivals are strongly influenced by the country’s past as a Chinese vassal state. Thus many of the festivals in the list below are moveable relative to the Gregorian calendar; while the dates relative to the lunar calendar do not change, the dates relative to the Gregorian calendar do.
Some of these festivals are celebrated nationwide; as some provinces have their own series of festivals unique to the locals, we’ve tried to include some of the more notable local ones too.
Hoi An Full Moon Festival
Every 14th day of the lunar month, Hoi An’s old town bans all motorized traffic and transforms itself into a massive performance venue for Vietnamese arts contemporary to the old trading town’s heyday in the 18th to 19th century – Chinese opera, Chinese chess, and of course, the region’s famous food.
Shops put up brightly-colored lanterns, turning the narrow old streets (even theold Japanese bridge, pictured at left) into a radiant, festively-illuminated light spectacle, augmented by the haunting strains of traditional music audible from just about everywhere in the old town. Just for the night, you won’t be required to buy or show a ticket to enter Hoi An’s old attractions. The temples are at their busiest during the Full Moon Festival, as the locals honor their ancestors during this auspicious time of the month.
Tet is Vietnam's equivalent to the Chinese New Year, and is just as auspicious . The Vietnamese consider Tet to be the year's most important festival. Family members gather in their hometowns, traveling from across the country (or the world) to spend the Tet holidays in each other's company. On the stroke of midnight, as the old year turns into the new, Vietnamese usher out the old year and welcome the Kitchen God by beating drums, lighting firecrackers, and goading dogs to bark (a lucky omen).
On the 13th day of the first lunar month, visitors come to Lim Hill in Bac Ninh province to watch performances of "quan ho", traditional songs performed by both men and women from boats and from the Lim Pagoda. The songs cover numerous topics, such as greetings, exchanging love sentiments, and even trivial objects like village gates. Bac Ninh is only twenty minutes' drive from Hanoi, and worth a side trip after exploring the capital's must-see sights.
Huong Pagoda Festival
The Perfume Pagoda is Vietnam's most famous Buddhist pilgrimage site, welcoming hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who arrive at the sacred cave to pray for a happy and prosperous year ahead. This stream of pilgrims reaches its peak at the Perfume Pagoda Festival - devotees travel through a picturesque gauntlet to the sacred caves, first boarding boats that pass a landscape of rice paddies and limestone mountains, then going by foot past historical shrines and up hundreds of stone steps.
Phu Giay Festival
At Phu Giay Temple in Nam Dinh province, tribute is paid to Lieu Hanh, one of the Vietnamese "four immortal gods", and the only one based on a real person (a princess of the 16th century who died young). Many devotees from all over make a pilgrimage to Phu Giay Temple, located about 55 miles east from Hanoi, to join the festival, taking advantage of the traditional lull in work during the third lunar month. Traditional diversions like cock-fighting, "keo chu", and folk singing are held all throughout the festival.
A biennial (once every two years) festival celebrated in the former imperial capital of Hue, the Hue Festival last took place from April 7 to 15, 2012, and the next one is scheduled to occur on April 12 to 20, 2014. The Festival condenses the best of Hue’s culture into a single week-long festival: theater, puppetry, dance, music, and acrobatics will be performed in different places around the city, although most of the activities are conducted around the grounds of the Hue Citadel.
Chu Dong Tu Festival
Downstream from Hanoi on the Red River, the Da Hoa and Da Trach temples in Khoai Chau district host a festival to Chu Dong Tu, one of the four immortal gods worshiped by the Vietnamese. The festival is topped off with traditional games and activities like human chess, wrestling, and Vietnamese dances.
Thay Pagoda Festival
If any Buddhist monk deserved worship, it was Tu Dao Hanh, innovator and inventor. He made numerous advances in medicine and religion, but is mainly remembered for inventing Vietnamese water puppetry. The Thay Pagoda Festival celebrates Tu Dao Hanh's life with a procession of the monk's worshipping tablet, borne by representatives from four villages. The festival is celebrated by laymen with many water puppetry performances, particularly at the Thuy Dinh House in front of Tu Dao Hanh's pagoda. The Thay Pagoda is located about 18 miles southwest from Hanoi, or about a 30 minute drive from the capital.
This festival celebrates the legendary birth of Vietnam’s first kings, the Hung Vuong. Details of their origin remain sketchy, but the story has become rather embellished over the years: born from the union of a mountain princess and a sea dragon, the Hung Vuong came from a hundred sons hatched from a hundred eggs laid by said princess. Half the sons went back to the sea with their father, while the rest stayed behind with their mother and learned to rule.
Lang Ca Ong (Whale Festival)
Vietnamese fishermen believe whales are their protectors on the high seas. The Lang Ca Ong festival thanks the whales for their support and prays for prosperity in the coming year. This festival occurs in the middle of the third lunar month, and is common in fishing communities throughout Vietnam. Devotees offer prayers to the whale god for his continued protection, and proffer sacrifices (which do not contain seafood). At dawn on the second day, a fluvial procession is performed to propitiate the whale gods. The Whale Festival takes place on most of the month of April.
Buon Don Elephant Races
Vietnam’s Buon Don district has long been famous for its M’Nong wild elephant tamers and trainers. Demand for their skills may have dried up somewhat, but Buon Don continues to celebrate its proud heritage every year with its annual Elephant Races, held every year in the forests near the Sevepoi River. The race takes place on a short racetrack a mile or so long, set on level ground. Each elephant is ridden by two jockeys; one steers the elephant, while the other manages the animal’s speed. Elephants can move at a surprisingly fast clip (25 mph), especially when encouraged by crowds yelling and beating gongs!
Buddha's Birthday is celebrated with much gusto in Vietnam, despite its nominal Communist status. Most Buddhist temples and many towns throw great festivals in honor of the Buddha, drawing thousands of devotees from nearby towns.
The Mid-Autumn festival, or Tết Trung Thu, is marked with fanciful lanterns to help a legendary moon-bound figure back to Earth. The Mid-Autumn Festival is a favorite with children, as the occasion calls for more toys, candies, fruit, and entertainment than any other time of the year. Mid-Autumn parties serve cakes like the banh deo and banh nuong, shaped like fish and the moon. Finally, lion dances are commonly performed by traveling troupers who go from house to house to perform for a fee.