Traditional Tet food has long been a signature feature of the holiday season.

By Tran Vo on February 08,2018 11:41 AM


Photos: Hong Nga & Ngoc Linh

You only need to watch TV and see the countless advertisements for food, cakes and drinks to know that Tet is just around the corner. A feature of modern life is the focus on convenience, with those who are busy or lack the time to properly prepare for Tet need only having to go to the supermarket to find whatever they need. For many, prepared or not, what they buy will be influenced by TV and other advertisements that catch their eye, and there’s a host of new items and promotional programs.

To enjoy traditional food and cakes from central Vietnam in HCMC, head to Ba Hoa Market on Tran Mai Ninh Street in Tan Binh district.

Like many things, preparations and welcoming in Tet has been changing in recent times. My mother used to say that the traditional value of Tet will be lost when most families don’t cook traditional dishes at home anymore. She often reminisces about the wonderful days just before Tet, when members of her family gathered together to cook traditional dishes and make cakes to worship their ancestors.

Those who grew up in the countryside, like me, have childhoods filled with good memories of Tet. The atmosphere in my village picked up from the first days of the 12th lunar month. Every house had to choose a suitable day for their year-end party, called Tat Nien. Mothers and daughters usually cooked dishes to place on the ancestors’ altar to worship and thank them for blessing the family over the last year. The family then invited relatives and neighbours to join the party, and children always had their own private table.

I grew up in a small village in central Vietnam in the 1980s. I remember Tet being full of flavours, with most dishes and cakes prepared at home by my mother and my sisters and I. The air seemed to be constantly filled with the aroma of homemade food. For the adults, there was much to do, but it was a delightful time for the kids, who would always tell each other which home was making what cake, and would then plan to go house-to-house to eat what they could. We used to always hope that some of the cakes would break during baking, so that we could eat them straight away and not have to wait until Tet.


Sticky rice is the main ingredient in cakes made for Tet. Most families in my village made the same traditional cakes, such as bánh in (made from roasted sticky rice flour mixed with sugar syrup), bánh nổ (roasted sticky rice mixed with sugar syrup and ginger), bánh bó (roasted sticky rice flour mixed with sugar syrup, carrot, ginger, and roasted peanuts), bánh chưng, or bánh tét, (steamed sticky rice cake mixed with green beans and pork and wrapped in a banana leaf), and bánh tổ (steamed sticky rice flour mixed with sugar syrup and sesame and fried). Others without sticky rice include bánh đậu xanh (green bean cake), bánh thuẩn (roasted cake made from flour, eggs and sugar), and bánh trái tim (a roasted cake in the shape of a heart made from flour, eggs and sugar), while jams are also popular, such as ginger jam, coconut jam, and mứt dẻo (pineapple, carrot, orange peel, and ginger). The person in a village who makes the best cake of a particular type traditionally takes others through the process or makes large quantities to share around. I remember my mother made the best bánh chưng and would show other women how to pack it and boil it and how to make it last longer, as most families had no refrigerator.


One of the cakes I really liked when I was a child was bánh nổ, because of its tasty flavour. Making it involves many complicated steps, so many families in the village would make it together. Firstly, sticky rice was roasted in a very large pan to separate it from its husk. The roasted sticky rice was then sieved in a bamboo basket to fully separate the husks, Finally, both adults and children sat down and joined together to pick at the husks. These steps took a lot time, maybe three or four days, depending on the quantity of sticky rice, but it was a joyful time for people in the village, talking happily about what they would prepare for Tet and about the events of the last year.

From one week to just a few days before Tet begins, friends, relatives and neighbours would present each other with gifts, most of which were homemade. Other gifts included pots of fresh flowers, such as daisies, marigolds, and dahlias, which they planted themselves.

Even my village is now being influenced by the modern world, but every Tet it’s the only place I want to be.

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