Steeped in history and tradition, Vietnam's festivals offer a unique insight into its rich culture. From paying tribute to national heroes and ancestors to religious and New Year celebrations, festivals in Vietnam cater to everyone.
Whilst most festivals are celebrated nationally, these celebrations can vary across different regions. In fact, with over 8,000 festivals falling on dates across the lunar calendar, the chances are you will be able to experience one!
Here are 6 must-see festivals in Vietnam to fit into your travel itinerary.
January to March
January: Perfume Pagoda Festival
As Vietnam's most important Buddhist pilgrimage, the Perfume Pagoda Festival is a religious festival that welcomes thousands of pilgrims every year. The Perfume Pagoda is located roughly 70km outside of Hanoi and is a large ancient network of Buddhist temples and shrines spread around Huong Tich mountain.
Pilgrims and festival-goers are rewarded with scenic splendour as they pass through paddy fields, limestone mountains and rivers to reach the most sacred site, Huong Tich cave, to pray for a prosperous year ahead. There you will also find colourful displays of food offerings, traditional costumes and incense-filled prayer sessions, as well as spectacular mountain backdrops.
If you feel up for it, ascend the 1,000 step stairway to reach the top of Huong Tich cave. If not, there are also cable cars available (100,000 VND single; 160,000 VND return). Though the Pagoda is open all year round, be sure to plan ahead and steer clear of popular Vietnam holidays to avoid the crowd.
February: Tet Nguyen dan/Lunar New Year
Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet festival, is the most important national festival in Vietnam. Spanning 9 days, Tet festival marks the beginning of the lunar calendar and the beginning of Spring. Similar to Christmas in Christian countries, lights and festive decoration dress the streets and the air is filled with excitement as many prepare to return home for family reunions. Dazzling flower garlands, peach blossoms and kumquat trees are symbols of hope and prosperity.
Families sit down to large feasts and give lucky money to children, before heading out to enjoy street parades charged with firecrackers, drums and cultural events. If you are in Vietnam, trying the traditional food is a must. Festive specials include Banh Chung, a sticky rice dish filled with meat and wrapped in banana leaf, and Gio, a Vietnamese sausage served with sticky rice. As you wander the streets, don't be afraid to wish the locals Happy New Year in Vietnamese by saying Chúc mừng năm mới, pronounced chook moong nahm moi. It's a surefire way to make any Vietnamese person smile around Tet Nguyen Dan!
If you visit Vietnam during Tet, make sure to book your accommodation in advance and check the opening times of malls, restaurants and art exhibitions, which may be closed.
April to June
April: Hung King Festival
The Hung King Temple Festival is a national public holiday celebrated across Vietnam. The festival commemorates the 18 Hung Kings, who are widely credited with establishing Vietnamese civilisation. Ruling at a crucial and volatile time in Vietnamese history, the 18 Hung Kings made significant agricultural and societal advancements, laying the foundations for Vietnamese patriotism which continues to this day.
From April 8-11, celebrations take place at some 1400 Hung temples across Vietnam, but many Vietnamese people also make the journey to Phu Tho Province, where the main event is celebrated. The Hung King Temple Festival is a cherished time for Vietnamese people to pay tribute to and teach the young about their historical roots.
Dressed in colourful traditional clothes, processions of children and their families honour shrines as they ascend Nghia Linh Mountain, whose peak is home to the most important Hung temple. Lavish feasts filled with traditional foods like banh giay (sticky rice) and banh chung (sticky rice cake), folk music, human chess, dancing, wrestling and bamboo swinging competitions will give you a joyful atmosphere and a unique insight into Vietnamese culture.
May: Buddha's Birthday
Taking place in the fourth lunar month, Buddha's Birthday, known locally as Phật Đản, is an important festival for millions of Vietnamese Buddhists. All around Vietnam, monks lead prayers and perform religious rites for followers, whose flamboyant gifts and incense burning pay tribute to the founder of Buddhism.
Arguably the holiest event in Vietnam, the Buddha bathing ceremony - a ritual watering of the newborn Buddha - symbolises Vietnamese Buddhists' desire for peace and purity in the new year. In larger cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, monks lead street parades lined with paper lanterns and Buddhist flags, offering gifts to the poor and needy along the way.
At night, lotus flowers filled with lit candles float on rivers and lakes across Vietnam, symbolising rebirth and hope for the future. If you are eager to get involved, pagodas welcome volunteers - both Buddhists and non-Buddhists - to help clean and decorate Buddha altars in exchange for vegetarian food.
If you happen to be in Hoi An, be sure to head to the old town for the parade and a glimpse of the flower parade boats and lanterns on the river Hoai.
September: Mid-Autumn Festival
Vietnam's mid-autumn festival (Tet Trung Thu) falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. Although traditionally a harvest festival celebration, the mid autumn festival now centres around children and family reunions. Family gatherings under the full moon symbolise reunion and wholeness for Vietnamese people.
Mooncakes, usually round wonderfully decorated and filled with sweet and savoury fillings, are synonymous with the mid autumn festival. Banh Nuong (oven-baked mooncakes) are usually filled with preserved taro, sesame and sausage, whilst banh deo (soft crust mooncakes) commonly contain black sesame, mung bean paste or lotus seeds.
Parents also give hexagonal, star and koi fish shaped-lanterns to their children, whose excited faces light up the night. Street performances include the popular lion dance, a cherished street performance involving stunts and dancing, believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to families.
Hang Ma street in Hanoi, Cholon district (Chinatown) and Luong Nhu Hoc street in Ho Chi Minh City, are highly recommended places to soak up one of the happiest festivals in Vietnam.
Hoi An Lantern Festival (every month)
Hoi An's Lantern Festival remains one of the most famous festivals in Vietnam for tourists and locals alike. Held on the 14th day of every lunar month, this festival is a special time for Vietnamese families to gather and pay homage to ancestors with fake money, food and drinks.
Make sure you indulge at the food booths and restaurants, before wandering through the old streets towards An Hoi bridge and the Hoai river, where the magical glow of lanterns awaits. Popular local dishes worth trying include cao lau (bbq pork rice noodles), red bean mooncakes, and bánh vạc (prawn dumplings).
Whilst you waltz through the ancient town area, there will also be many street performers and musicians playing traditional instruments, showcasing Hoi An's local culture. Bai Choi, a series of spectacular performances featuring singing, painting, poetry and acting, is highly recommended.
You can also rent a sampan boat, but make sure you negotiate prices before leaving the dock. Homemade lanterns are also available to buy (10,000-20,000 vnd), giving you the perfect photo opportunity as you drift leisurely amongst the sea of flickering lanterns.
The enchanting combination of lanterns and lights in the laid-back ancient town make the Hoi An Lantern festival truly unmissable.
Imbued with history and rituals, Vietnam's festivals will offer you unique insights into this fun-loving nation.
From the electric streets of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi to the intricate details found in food and lanterns, Vietnamese people cherish everything about their traditional festivals.
Get yourself involved in the action, and you may just find yourself coming back for round two!
If you want to get armed with knowledge before wading into the festivities, make sure to check out our travel guides to Vietnam.
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