HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

There Be Dragons

Note: From now on I will upload my videos to Youtube and embed them on my blog, since Blogger doesn't handle HD videos well. If you view these posts through email, you won't be able to see the videos. They must be watched on this page.

Some of you may consider me mad for doing this, but after flying back into Saigon from the U.S. last Thursday afternoon, I went home for four hours, and then went straight back to the airport for a flight to Da Nang, followed by a taxi ride to Hoi An.

I had originally booked my flight there because my roommate was going to participate in the Vietnam Triathlon, which took place on September 10th. However, she had to go to Australia on business, so I ended up just going with another friend of mine for a relaxing weekend. I won't go into what we did there, since I basically went to the same places as I did back in January (http://mike-alongthemekong.blogspot.com/2011/01/hoi-please-come-into-my-shop.html). However, we were there during something noteworthy: the Mid-Autumn Festival.

This festival is the second-most important in the country, after Tet. Both are based off of a lunar calendar that I haven't taken the time to figure out, and they are massively popular in Vietnam. The actual day of  'Mid-Autumn' took place on the 12th, but people were out celebrating its approach all weekend; and young Vietnamese greeted it most spectacularly.

One night, as we walked into town from our hotel, we heard the distant sound of drums. We were unsure of what was going on, until we approached a shop with the scene you see in the above video taking place outside. Two boys, dressed as a dragon, were dancing in the street, while others drummed away. The dragon then went into the store, while a child in a mask (you can see one of them towards the end of the video) chased after it with some sort of fan. Once the masked kid scared the dragon back out of the store, the owner gave him some money for the whole group. Vietnamese are very superstitious, and I gathered that the dragon signified bad luck for the remainder of the year, and the shopkeepers were rewarding the others for chasing off poor luck.

Charmed by the show, we moved on. As soon as we walked away from the drumming of this group, we came into earshot of another group. We quickly realized that crews of children and teenagers were scattered throughout Hoi An's Old Town. Drumming echoed through the narrow lanes and alleys of this colonial-era town, as dragons of all colors stormed into restaurants, cafes, and tailoring shops; only to be run off by someone in a mask.
a dragon

drumming away
Some groups had their own custom t-shirts and carts on which they placed their drum. Some of the dragon heads had lights in them, while the younger children had very basic decorations.

They start 'em young here.
The following night (Saturday), there were even more groups of dragons out, as was seemingly everyone under the age of 20 in all of Hoi An. The cramped Old Town streets were packed, and ways were blocked as crowds formed to watch the dragon boys do their thing to a store.

At one point, we noticed a huge mass of people in front of a bar across the river. We wandered over, and came upon what must be the premier dragon crew in town: their drum was on something that nearly resembled a Mardi Gras float, and the dragon was decked out in resplendent gold. The owners of the bar were making the young men work for their reward: they had a 100,000 dong bill stuffed into a bamboo pole, hanging from the second floor. Undeterred, the group hoisted the two guys in the 'dragon' up on a circular piece of wood. Next came something totally unexpected: the dragon began spewing sparks out of its mouth. ('Fire hazard' isn't a phrase that anyone in Vietnam knows the meaning of.) The crowd was awed; children were scared. Its flames spent, the young man in the dragon's head hopped onto his partner's shoulders, and snatched the bill. The crowd roared in approval, and we retired for the night, just as the rain began to fall. All of this can be seen in the pictures and video below:
Reaching for the money in the bamboo.
Getting ready to jump up.

What I loved about these dragon scenes was that they were pure culture: the gawking tourists were ignored, and no money was requested for the performance (At least, not from us.). In Saigon, I've seen young boys walk up to a table on the sidewalk, take a swig of gasoline, and blow fire out his mouth, before demanding money from everyone that saw it. There was none of that here. It was nothing more than a celebration. The dragon outfits and their dances reminded me of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans: an ancient tradition that has largely been pushed into the shadows by modern society; only to be gloriously brought into view once a year. I was thankful to have witnessed it.

I'll post some pictures from the Triathlon in my next entry.


  1. Geez... 2nd time in Vietnam, and I missed Mid-Autumn Festival again... (the only difference is that, last year, someone gave a moon cake).

    Great to know this post is incredible (as writer Mr Tatarski experienced it first-hand)! :-) Hope not to miss this festival next year!

  2. That's a shame you missed it again - it is quite the spectacle.