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These Illustrations of Vintage Trung Thu Lanterns Are a Ticket to Your Childhood

There are many harbingers of mid-autumn in Saigon: the mushrooming of street-side mooncake vendors, the gradual arrival of corporate mooncake boxes, and a kaleidoscopic tapestry of lanterns along local “lantern streets.”

While there’s something for everyone in the family to enjoy every Trung Thu, the cozy occasion has always been a special time for children. I don’t remember much about mooncakes from my childhood, save for the fact that I rarely had enough time or attention to relish them, because I was always on my feet, eagerly waiting for permission to take my lanterns out to parade with my buddies.

Rước đèn, or lantern parade, is an important ritual for Vietnamese children that takes place every Trung Thu. The handful of us, clad in our mid-autumn best, would gather in front of our hẻm, fire up the tiny candles inside our lanterns, and amble around the neighborhood while belting out children’s songs. It’s as cheesy as one can imagine, though for kids, Trung Thu is always a special time of the year because it’s among the few times we were allowed to burn things (candles) and stay outside late into the night. For one night, we are intrepid explorers plunging into the ghoulish darkness of... the neighborhood playground, wielding only our lanterns as the meagre light source.

A rabbit lantern from the 1920s and a fish lantern from 2000.

Those lanterns, an indispensable part of the storied traditions of mid-autumn, become the centerpiece in a collection of illustrations by artist Nguyễn Như Thái Hiển. In a series of intimate artworks titled “Mộng Mười Lăm” posted on his Facebook page t. hờ, he provided a brief primer of Vietnam’s most recognizable lantern designs through time, a touching tribute to the collective memories of past and present Vietnamese whose memories of Tết Trung Thu are intricately interwoven with homemade toys.

The title “Mộng Mười Lăm” can be translated as “A Dream of Fifteen,” and according to Hiển, it embodies a personal wish to go back to the golden days when he was 15 and 16, a time when his hometown was still full of kids and every night was its own “festival” filled with games and laughter. Even then, the Mid-Autumn Festival — with the addition of incandescent lanterns, mooncakes, and familial rituals — was the pinnacle of those idyllic days.

The star is a common style for lantern designs then and now. On the left, a double-star lantern based on archive images from the École française d'Extrême-Orient. On the right, a standard star lantern from northern Vietnam illustrated based on specimens from the US National Museum of Natural History.

Hiển was born in a small village in coastal Ninh Thuan Province, but moved to Saigon in recent years for his college education. He’s a recent architecture graduate, but decided to pursue his love for illustrations. “I arrived in Saigon at a young age when the eagerness to experience independence outweighed the need to record past memories,” he reminisces. “So, when my living situation stabilized and I had a moment to reflect, many things have faded away, so I want to keep a visual record of those memories as much as I can.”

All 14 types of lanterns featured in “Mộng Mười Lăm” are traditional originals made from paper, bamboo and lit by candles. According to the artist, homemade lanterns are among the things that distinguish how he and childhood friends used to celebrate Trung Thu compared to kids in Saigon these days. Rước đèn is also a rare occurrence, perhaps due to the increased pressure on urban children to spend time in classes.

Carp- and crab-shaped lanterns from 1920s Hanoi. The design is based on images from the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

“Back in my hometown, the night of rước đèn was super fun. Even when I was a bit older, there were still packs of [kids with their] lanterns, both traditional and electronic, parading around the village,” he shares. “At nightfall, we gathered in the courtyard of the village primary school to receive treats, divide them among ourselves, and revel until late at night.”

The idea to illustrate Vietnamese lanterns came to Hiển earlier in the year when the whole country underwent social distancing. After a successful collection of áo dài illustrations, many encouraged him to continue exploring other facets of Vietnamese culture and history, and lanterns became a natural “muse” for his next project. Many designs were inspired by archival images from museums and libraries, such as the crab- and carp-shaped lanterns of 20th-century Hanoi, which are portrayed in the archive of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. The final illustrations were created on Adobe Photoshop using a drawing tablet.

Homemade lanterns with a spinning mechanism. These are usually put on the ground instead of carried.

When asked if Tết Trung Thu and lanterns mean a lot to his upbringing, Hiển agrees unequivocally, because apart from being an anchor of childhood nostalgia, they were also part of a bond with his dad.

“My dad is a farmer so we weren’t not too wealthy, but he still wanted me to have a fulfilling life as much as possible,” he recalls. “Therefore, every year when mid-autumn came, even after a whole day working in the field, he still labored over each bamboo stick, each piece of glass paper to make a lantern for me to go play with the village kids. Some years he made đèn cù or a spinning lantern from milk cans. Thinking back to those times now, I realize that he was trying to cultivate good childhood experiences for me, so I’ll never forget.”

Have a look at the rest of the “Mộng Mười Lăm” series and relive your own childhood experience with Vietnamese lanterns:

Lantern designs from the 2000s. On the left, a design by artisans in Hoai Duc, Hanoi. On the right, a stork-shaped lantern with a movable neck that bounces with each step. 

More designs made from paper.

Left: Another economical lantern design made of paper or metallic cans that are specially cut. Right: A Chinese-style revolving lantern.

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