Brightly painted paper lanterns and piles of children's toys adorn Hanoi's Hang Ma street as Vietnam prepares for the annual Mid-Autumn Festival on Sunday. Among the treats on display is the season's popular edible delicacy, moon cakes: round sweet pies traditionally given as gifts, especially to children.
However, some argue that this gift-giving has taken on a more ominous role in recent years, with boxes of cakes worth hundreds of dollars given to bosses, business partners or others in exchange for favours. The use of the cakes as bribes, they say, threatens to eclipse the traditional value of the custom.
For generations the cakes, traditionally made from mashed lotus seeds, peanuts and Chinese sausage, were given to friends and family as a token of affection, as well as an offering to ancestors. The event, also celebrated in China, is a lunar harvest festival and the cakes themselves get their name from a salted egg yolk in the centre, which symbolises the moon. However, in recent years more expensive versions have sprung up.
At a stall in an upmarket hotel in the centre of Hanoi, moon cake sets wrapped in alluring gold boxes and arranged around a bottle of whisky sell for as much as 3.68 million dong (176 dollars). Cheaper sets, priced at around 30 dollars, are "perfect for family and friends," whereas the expensive boxes are "for the boss only," the young seller says.
Hang, a 28-year-old accountant at a private company in Hanoi who did not want to give her family name, says she heard the company was going to cut staff because of economic difficulties, so she decided to buy the head of the human resources department a present. "I thought about what kind of present to give my boss and decided a moon cake would be most suitable because autumn is coming," she says. Costing just over 100 dollars, or the equivalent of her monthly salary, she says she plans to ask her boss about the job cuts when she offers him the cake. Anti-corruption activist Le Hien Duc argues that the Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally a celebration for children, is being distorted.
"People give what I call 'super moon cakes' to their bosses to get favours from them," she notes. "Clearly, giving expensive moon cakes has totally damaged our good and meaningful traditions ... obviously people who receive such expensive gifts are doing bad things."
Jairo Alcuno-Alfaro, an anti-corruption policy advisor at the United Nations Development Programme, says giving expensive presents in return for favours distorts the more humble tradition of gift-giving in Vietnam. "It is hard to believe somebody in Vietnam will spend a considerable amount of money beyond what is the cultural norm without an expectation of something in return," he says.
Quynh Pham Huong of the local Institute of Sociology believes that while the cultural value of giving moon cakes still exists, it is increasingly becoming associated with corruption. "People who want to get something through corruption can do it at any time," she says. "The best chance is at Lunar New Year, but other times of the year can also be used for this purpose."
It is a problem the government has recognised, Alcuno-Alfaro says. In 2007, the prime minister issued a decision on gifts regulation, under which gifts worth more than 500,000 dong (about 25 dollars) accepted by public employees must be reported and returned. "However, it seems that decision is forgotten already," he adds.
Not everyone agrees with the idea that customs are being defiled. Nguyen Thi Dieu, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and co-author of the book Culture and Customs of Vietnam, argues that occasions like the Mid-Autumn Festival are an opportunity for Vietnamese people to express their gratitude towards their benefactors, be it in the form of cakes, fruits, flowers or money. The more expensive the ingredients, like gold, shark's fin, or bird nest, "the better to convey one's gratitude."
"Traditions are invented and re-invented, particularly in a society like Vietnam, which has entered a global world," he recently told dpa. "Even the so-called 'traditional' moon-cakes are now adapted to the gout-du-jour with new flavours." For accountant Hang, the moon cake is a chance for her to impress her boss during a time of economic uncertainty. "I think others may have also given moon cakes to him," she says. "If I were to give him an ordinary one, he may not remember me."