Unless we have a Couchsurf host arrangement already made, we typically spend our time visiting popular free destinations in the country. We’ve been here for a week now, and all family we’ve made have been incredibly hospitable. Experiences like riding motorbikes, grabbing tropical fruits like coconuts and mangoes from the garden, eating traditional (vegetarian) foods, etc. There is no better way to reconnect with our language and culture like getting acquainted with family.
Vietnamese foods that take 2.5 hours to get to back in the US are accessible here within a short 5 minute motorbike ride, and at a fraction of the price. The closer we get to the holidays, everyone celebrates by making lots and lots of food.
Vietnam has a prominent Buddhism background, which means that finding artificial vegetarian meat is pretty easy. It also helps that a lot of our family in Vietnam has been buying at local vegetarian shops all these years.
Bánh tét, a traditional rice cake with mung bean filling, is usually eaten during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
My mom and I have made banh tet back in the United States as well, but this is a whole different process. It’s not so easy when you have to keep a fire alive in heavy rain, keeping the smoke from your eyes, and trying to evade mosquitoes.
When it comes to making banh tet, my grandma is a pro. She’s been making delicious banh tet for decades, and her techniques are near flawless. Years ago, she made 100+ banh tet’s to sell at our local market during new years. Today, she makes it specially for family and friends only.
The ingredients of banh tet is pretty simple: sticky rice, banana leaves, mung bean (fried and seasoned to taste), and any additional filling you may like. There are many variables to make good banh tet, which is where my grandma comes in.
Compared to our banh tet in the US, my grandma’s are much bigger, almost twice as big! She also uses a different kind of fiber that is really strong, and (I’ve noticed) used to tie up a lot of vegetables at the market.
My grandma’s banh tet can afford to be so big because it’s made over wood fire in a giant pot. Because they make it in such large size and quantity, Vietnamese people typically set up a giant pot outside and cook it outdoors (back “yard”). It’s pretty cool how we used just scrap wood and log pieces to fuel the fire. We have to cook it a total 7-9 hours, depending on how consistent the heat is!
We set up several bricks to support our pot of banh tet. Thank goodness I’ve had experience with camping, as it made me not so ignorant in front of my more experienced aunt and grandma.
Receiving news that an incoming storm, we had set up a raggedy umbrella right by the pot to save the fire from getting soaked. We also put on a tarp to keep the wood from getting wet. The umbrella had done a wonderful job in protecting me from the pouring rain. However, the smoke and steam caught under the cover is highly deadly.
Sitting around for 7+ hours is a perfect time to connect with family. During this time of the year, families would gather around the fire, tell stories, and listen to festive Tet melodies.
Power outage, reminded me of my first time in Vietnam where the power had cut out every other day. Today, the internet in Vietnam is better than the United States (where I live anyway).
Despite the gruesome, humid, dirty, hot, dangerous conditions of making banh tet, this is the most authentic experience making it.
What are some tough, but worthy, experiences you’ve had while exploring culture?