Under the Moonlight

The Moon as a Spiritual Connection and Artistic Muse in Vietnamese Culture

To fully understand the relevance of the moon in Vietnamese culture, it’s important to understand the concept of “ngày rằm.” Ngày rằm, translated as full moon day, falls on the 15th day of the lunar month. There are 12 ngày rằm in a year. According to ancient belief, it’s a day when ancestors and descendants reunite and gather together in harmony. On this day, people commonly treat guests, light incense, and earnestly make offerings to their ancestors. By offering these gifts, Vietnamese people believe that everything will be peaceful and auspicious.

Soaring Waves by Duy Võ

The Moon as a Spiritual Connection

Several significant annual holidays coincide with ngày rằm including Lễ Vu Lan (Buddhist Mother's Day) and Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival). In these celebrations, the moon is a centerpiece.

In its most essential form, the moon's glow offers the guiding light under which to gather, reminisce, celebrate, and live. Its importance in Vietnamese culture is indicated in some of the largest holidays such as Tết Trung Thu.

These celebrations manifest in different ways within Việt Nam itself, which reflects our own diverse cultural facets. Khmer communities in the Mekong Delta celebrate Ok Om Bok, their largest and most anticipated festival, on the 15th day of the 10th month in the lunar calendar. Hoa people celebrate Tết Nguyên Tiêu (Lantern Festival), which occurs during the full moon of the first month of the year.

The moon presents people an opportunity to get in touch with their spirituality. With Taoist and Buddhist origins, the seventh month of the lunar calendar is regarded as tháng Cô Hồn or the Ghost Month. This month focuses on embracing family connections while upholding spiritual offerings. Lễ Vu Lan (Buddhist Mother’s Day) and Lễ Xá Tội Vong Nhân (Wandering Souls Day) both fall on the 15th day of the month, which has a dual meaning to many people. On this day, the door to the spiritual realm opens and allows the souls of the dead to visit the mortal world. According to popular belief, the Lễ Vu Lan emphasizes the expression of gratitude to both dead and living family members and ancestors. And the Xá Tội Vong Nhân ritual highlights the act of bestowing blessings upon wandering souls who have not yet been liberated and still linger in the mortal realm.

Left: Boat racing competition during Ok Om Bok. Source: VoV.vn
Right: Lễ Vu Lan ceremony in Thừa Thiên Huế. Source: laodong.vn

During the 8th month of the year, the approach of Tết Trung Thu is unmistakenly heralded by the lively sights and sounds. The festival is held on the 15th day and has been celebrated for centuries. You’ll find processions of animal shaped lanterns carefully crafted out of paper, ancestral altars featuring intricately molded mooncakes, and tables flush with endless amounts of fruit. Tết Trung Thu is a celebration of the harvest, featuring cheery festivities and ancestral offerings as a means of giving thanks for a bountiful season.

Commonly regarded as a children’s festival, you’ll find vibrant celebrations in Vietnam and in diasporic Vietnamese communities worldwide. Under the light of the full moon, people feast, dance, sing, and give gifts – which these days looks like exchanging boxes of mooncakes that seem to grow more elaborate and ornate with every passing year.

Left: Tết Trung Thu in Hà Nội 1928. Unknown photographer. Source: manhhai.
Right: Paper lanterns shop in Sài Gòn 1961. Photo by Jack Garofalo. Source: manhhai.

The Moon as an Artistic Muse

Hàn Mặc Tử. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Alongside these celebrations, the moon emerges as a timeless source of inspiration of many folktales and has long been a muse for Vietnamese poets. Hàn Mặc Tử, one of the most celebrated Vietnamese poets during the colonial era, gazed upon the moon as a living entity, awoken with its own soul. Through the verses, he employed the moon’s ethereal glow to convey his emotions. As if he could hear its breath and graceful dance of the moonlight.

"Chỉ có trăng sao là bất diệt / Cái gì khác nữa thảy đi qua.
“Only the moon and stars are immortal / Everything else passes by.”
— Hàn Mặc Tử, 1938

A deeper dive into Vietnamese poetry reveals that the moon exists not just as its geological and physical self – a huge glowing rock in the sky – but also as a door into a differen trealm. Through time, it has been regarded as a trusted confidant, a reflective looking glass, a window into one’s internal world, and a representation of the inner psyche. A closer reading of how the moon has been written about provides us a lens in which to understand larger cultural moments in Vietnamese history.

Under the moon, characters in Vietnamese medieval literature find themselves ruminating on lost loves and lost youth. In the simultaneous darkness of the night and the comforting soft moonlight, lyrical characters express vulnerabilities not quite accessible under hotter, harsher daylight.

“Nguyệt hoa hoa nguyệt trùng trùng / Trước hoa dưới nguyệt trong lòng xiết đau."
“Moon and flowers, flowers and moon, over and over again / Before the flowers, under the moon, within the heart is pain.”
 – Đặng Trần Côn & Đoàn Thị Điểm, 1741

Amidst the tumultuous historical uphealvals and shifting societal paradigms of the 1900s, Vietnamese poetry also transformed. New ways of being and cultural understandings of the self brought fresh conceptualizations of the moon. No longer a mere companion, the moon now evolves as one’s essence and identity.

“Không gian dày đặc toàn trăng cả / Tôi cũng trăng mà nàng cũng trăng.”
“The space is full of the moon / I am also the moon and she is the moon too.”
— Hàn Mặc Tử, 1938

Romantic, poetic, soothing, and inspiring, the moon is not only an object of nature but has come to symbolize and comfort the soul. It acts as an artistic muse and a spiritual connection. The moon is a steady and reliable companion for Vietnamese people in the homeland and diasporic communities who are searching for a deeper relationship to their own selves and each other.