Rumor has it that Chinese toys contain carcinogens, prompting a neighborhood to revive a 50-year-old handicraft.
While International Children’s Day falls on June 1, the Vietnamese equivalent falls on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, a day when the moon is at its brightest.
Arguably the second most important festival in Vietnam after the Lunar New Year, the Mid-Autumn Festival used to be a time when people gazed at the moon wishing for bountiful harvests and more babies. Today, it’s also known as Children’s Festival, bringing families together for a fun night out under the moon, weather permitting.
As the name suggests, the night is dedicated to children and can satisfy even those with the sweetest tooth. No, they’re not indulging in chocolate; it’s mooncakes and exotic fruits like pomelo, followed by parades in a night lit by lanterns.
Legend has it that there was once a man named Cuoi who was given a sacred banyan tree which leaves could make one immortal. It was forbidden to water the tree with anything impure. But one day, Cuoi’s wife Hang Nga accidentally peed on the tree, which then shot up to the moon together with Cuoi who was desperate to pull it back to earth.
Since then, parades of children carry lanterns, often star shaped, to show Cuoi the way back home during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Today on Lac Long Quan Street in Saigon’s District 11, you can still find a neighborhood of migrants from the north who make these traditional lanterns. Phu Binh, as the neighborhood is known, has been around for 50 years. The mid-1990s was its heyday with lanterns shipped as far as Singapore, Taiwan and Korea. But things changed at the turn of the century, when people started opting for electric Chinese lanterns.
The road leading into Phu Binh Village used to be empty at Mid-Autumn Festival, and only a handful of families clung to their traditional craft.
But over the last few years, widespread rumors about Chinese toys containing carcinogens have drawn customers back to traditional lanterns, reviving lantern-making in the Saigon neighborhood.
Nguyen Manh Tung, a senior artist with over 30 years of experience, said that leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival three years ago, he made a mere 100 lanterns per day. However, this year he has received bulk orders so the craftsman has put his entire family to work.
“Three generations of my family have stuck to this profession. See-through paper and vivid colors are two key features of Phu Binh lanterns,” Tung said.
Aged 17, Nguyen Huu Phuc from Phu Lam High School has been painting lanterns every year for six years. It’s not just to support his family, Phuc said, but also to help preserve Vietnamese heritage.
One craftsman told VnExpress that making a lantern requires a lot of time and effort. The craftsmen have to transport bamboo from the southern province of Binh Phuoc to Saigon, cut them into thin spokes and bend them into the desired shape.
Every detail of the lantern is painted carefully.
Final products are hung from the ceiling to dry.
An average lantern is sold to wholesale markets for VND14,000 ($0.6), while a 1.5 meter-long star sells for VND120,000 ($5.4)
Thu, a lantern maker, is happy to be busy again but she also can’t help but worry. “Production costs are rising but we are forced to keep the same price in order to compete with the mass-made alternatives.”
Each lantern, on average, brings in VND7,000 ($0.3) after production costs.
In addition to traditional styles, each year craftsmen create new models inspired by popular characters like Doraemon or Hello Kitty to attract children.