Arriving in Vietnam, the first thing that hits you outside the airport doors is the blanketing rush of wet heat, and the way the dark of the night seems more velvety, and the sweat that’s already started to coat your skin is actually kind of pleasant, and the adventure begins then. Out there are bugs the size of buckets, stores that sell only hangers and buckets, and more importantly (to some) – recipes that involve crazy things that are somehow impossibly delicious, people at this moment cramming pork neck into your dessert and you’re just loving it.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive in Hanoi somewhere in the middle of September, the rush of arrival with be triple-fold and you can really revel in the wacked out festivities that are at a fever’s pitch everywhere as the taxi driver takes you to your hotel/hostel that’s inevitably in the heart of the warren that is the Old Quarter, ie – Mid-Autumn Festival central. Stare out the taxi window. Note the hundreds of faces, all young, and lit up with glowing pink, red and mint green from the shop-fronts, holding lanterns shaped like pentacles and buying inflatable fake mallets and drinking syrupy lemon tea on a SCHOOL night, no less. Notice them mill around your car paying absolutely no attention to it, cause there are already motorbikes whipping around them that they have to give more care to, and you’re moving at a standstill anyway in the river of talking faces.
Spend the first night with your eyes half-spinning at all of this. Get disoriented. Stare at the banyans growing into the powerlines and have absolutely no idea what the city looks like beyond the three blocks that you can remember enough to return to. Get some sleep.
Later, when you wake up, you might want to learn that the Mid-Autumn Festival (or Tết Trung Thu) is some serious but not in any way sombre business here in Vietnam. The story goes that a man named Chu Coi (or Cuoi) loved a Banyan tree with special healing powers and it was obviously so rad that it was forbidden to pee on it, which his wife Chi Hang obviously did, and obviously (obviously) it started to grow upwards to the moon and took her right with it, where she lives to this day. Apparently that’s part of what the lanterns are about – guiding her way back home (but really I just think the parents are making up for being so busy while they were reaping in that titular Harvest and now they want to tell their kids lots of colourful stories and give them 2 weeks to have fun ;) ). There’s also a fairy tale about a carp that wanted to become a dragon, and eventually it worked hard enough and succeeded, becoming the symbol Cá hóa Rông – a reminder again for the kids that they can do anything if they perserve. So yeah, it’s about the little ones. And they are everywhere, and they are adorably agog with all the attention that’s getting paid to them. It’s super cute.
Mooncakes are the sweet of choice for the festival, and you can find a confusingly vast but likely-to-be agreeable array of cakes in red boxes that are packaged so nicely it seems terrible to eat them yourself and not give them as gifts (but it’s delicious to do so, and I recommend doing both). You can find those everywhere. You can also – if you look carefully – find a very, very special kind of mooncake, called Bánh nướng nhân thập cẩm, or mixed cake.
I did some research with Google translate. There’s crazy wonderful jazz in there. I mean, the first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy. There is a LOT going on. Then, you cut in and notice that it’s a little like someone’s gelled up a grey mud puddle and trapped seeds, jellies and other mysterious objects inside, like a kind of edible amber, and it tastes, well, like….. sweet, gooey, aromatic, strangely meaty soft jelly candy with a wine-y kind of tone.
Here’s the general list, more or less:
nuts (cashews), roasted sesame seeds and melon seeds, sugar, Chinese sausage, pumpkin jam, lotus jam, ginger jam, lemon leaves, soya sauce, winter melon, pig’s nape fat, cinnamon apricot wine, chicken (!), and probably other things, wrapped in dense pastry, I DON’T KNOW.
It’s freaking great.