Sure, the food is delicious, the scenery amazing and the history is astounding, but if there’s one thing to love about Vietnam it’s the incredibly diverse range of celebrations that take place right across the country.
From lantern-filled full moon festivals in Vietnam’s cultural capital, to dragon boat races and commemorations of ancient kings, folk music and doomed souls, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the traditions and customs of this fascinating country, and experience some once-in-a-lifetime events. Find 9 amazing celebrations and festivals to put on your Vietnam travel radar ahead. All that’s left to do is figure out how many you can make it to!
Tet Nguyen Dat
Of all of Vietnam’s festivals and celebrations, Tet Nguyen Dan – or Lunar New Year – is the biggest. Usually falling in late January, think of it as Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter all rolled into one. Friends and families come together to feast on traditional holiday foods, time is spent praying and lighting candles at temples, children are gifted lucky money, and fireworks explode across the night sky. Houses, shrines and shops are decorated in bright hues of red and yellow (the Vietnamese believe these colours bring good fortune), while public stages are set up to host cultural performances. Just keep in mind that during the Lunar Festival in Vietnam many attractions and restaurants in smaller towns shut down, so it’s a good idea to stick to the larger cities.
The Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam, also known as Tết Trung Thu, is a time of great joy and happiness as it signifies families coming together after a busy harvest season. Traditionally held in the middle of the eighth lunar month, celebrations involve lanterns and lion dances, while speciality treats such as mooncakes and sweet sticky rice are offered up to household altars as a sign of respect and worship to ancestors who have passed. Festivities take place throughout the country, but the major cities of Hoi An, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are hotspots for parades, street performances and colourful lantern processions. The carnival-like atmosphere make it a spectacle the entire family can enjoy.
Hoi An Lantern Festival
It’s a sight to behold; once a month the shops, businesses, bars and restaurants of Hoi An turn off all forms of electricity and allow for the twinkly glow of candles and lanterns to illuminate the city. The magical event that is Hoi An Lantern Festival coincides with the full moon, which is a particularly sacred time on the Buddhist calendar as it’s believed Buddha was both born and gained enlightenment during the full moon. Most of the action takes place in the Ancient Town and along the Hoai River, where lanterns of all colours, shapes and sizes illuminate the streets and float peacefully on the water. This lantern festival on Vietnam’s central coast is one not to miss.
Wandering Souls Day
If you’re travelling through Vietnam on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, it’s best be on the lookout for spirits, ghosts and ghouls – it’s believed the gates of hell are thrown open on this fateful day. Wandering Souls Day, often referred to as the Ghost Festival, is a time when all sinful souls who were condemned to hell have the opportunity to return to their mortal homes and seek absolution. Those who are Earth-side flock to Buddhist temples and graves, bringing offerings of flowers and food for any ancestors that return, while paper money is also burnt to honour them. Hue and Hoi An are considered the epicentres of this sacred event, which is more about sombre reflection and prayer than it is wild celebrations.
Still a relative newcomer on the festival scene (it first took place in 2000), the biannual Hue Festival is fast becoming one of the country’s most popular cultural events. Held across six days in either April, May or June, it aims to both preserve and showcase many of the remarkable traditions and customs of UNESCO-listed Hue – a city that reigned as the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty. Highlights include film screenings, art exhibitions, boat racing, kite flying and human chess, while the Dialogue of Drums and Percussion, Hue Poetry Festival and Ao Dai Fashion Shows all draw huge crowds. Consider it one of the more unique things to do in Vietnam.
Perfume Pagoda Festival
Drawing thousands of pilgrims and spectators year upon year, the Perfume Pagoda Festival is one of Vietnam’s most important Buddhist events. The spiritual crusade begins not long after Tet, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, and sees devotees journey past limestone karsts, historical shrines and rice paddies to reach the Perfume Pagoda – a hugely significant site located about 70 kilometres south of Hanoi. Prayers, offerings and incense burning are all crucial parts of the festivities, as is making a wish for good fortune, prosperity and luck in the ancient Huong Tich Cave. While the Perfume Pagoda is open year-round, there’s something extra special about visiting during the festival.
When it comes to Vietnam music festivals, it’s safe to say you can’t really expect a Coachella-type event. Instead, you’ll get something like Lim Festival: a traditional event best known for showcasing Quan Ho folk songs. This singing extravaganza takes place in Lim Village on the 13th or 14th day of the first lunar month, and also commemorates the enlightenment of Ba Mu, a Buddhist nun who led a religious existence at Lim Pagoda and who is also said to have protected the village from a severe drought. Music and singing performances aren’t the only drawcards though; there are also displays of weaving, wrestling, bamboo fighting and tug-of-war.
Cat Ba Dragon Boat Race Festival
It may have originated in China, but the Vietnamese have also turned their hands to remarkable dragon boat festivals. And the best one happens on Cat Ba, the largest island in Halong Bay. The event first took place on 1 April 1959, when President Ho Chi Minh visited the small fishing village, and it now occurs annually, representing both the opening of Cat Ba’s tourist season and the start of the fishing season. While there’s windsurfing and swimming competitions, the main event is definitely the dragon boat race. Both male and female teams come from all over the country to challenge the Cat Ba squad, with the winner bringing great honour to their district.
Hùng Kings’ Temple Festival
Any festival that doubles as a public holiday is a popular one, which makes Hùng Kings’ Temple Festival a favourite among the Vietnamese. It honours the legendary Hùng kings, who ruled during the prosperous Hồng Bàng Dynasty and who are considered the traditional founders of the nation. The main acts of worship happen at Hùng Temple, which is perched at the top of Nghia Linh Mountain in Phu Tho Province, although offerings appear at temples across the country. On the eve of the festival, which begins on the eighth day of the third lunar month, 100 lanterns are released into the sky, while flower ceremonies, pilgrim processions and classical music performances follow over the next three days. Ask any local and they’ll tell you it’s one of the best things to do in Vietnam, especially if you’re seeking authentic cultural experiences.
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