Leaf wrappings for Tet cakes on Saigon streets

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A market full of green has returned to Ho Chi MInh City for the last days of the lunar year, selling leaves for wrapping the Lunar New Year sticky rice cake banh chung.

The vendors on Cach Mang Thang Tam Street in Tan Binh District said the tradition of making the cake seems to be picking up again as demand for the wrapping, dong leaf (Phrynium placentarium), has increased. 

The leaves were traditionally offered around ten days before the first day of new lunar year, which is January 31 this year, but they were available earlier this year and the market was busy around two weeks before the festival's peak.

Banana leaves are also on the street for wrapping banh tet, a cylinder-shaped sticky rice cake that is more popular with southerners and is usually referred to as the southern counterpart of the legendary banh chung, which is in the square shape of a paddy field.

Both cakes are boiled sticky rice stuffed with ground mung beans and pork, but according to a Vietnamese legend, banh chung is the original as it beat all other offerings as the favorite of a prince during the Hung kings period two thousand years ago thanks to its symbolic meaning, simplicity, its close association to the agriculture tradition and its ability to be kept for several days.

Nguyen Thanh Hoang, a customer at the market every year, plans to make around 100 banh chung and banh tet for his many children and grandchildren.

“I make them for fun and for the children to know how to make the traditional cakes.”

Tran Thi Nha, another local, is also making around 20 banh chung this year to give her friends.

The leaf vendors said they got their supply from the outskirts district of Hoc Mon and the nearby Dong Nai Province.

Dong leaves retail for VND70,000-200,000 (US$3.32-9.50) every hundred leaves, depending on their size, and banana leaves VND10,000-12,000 a kilo.

They are going to sell until two days before Tet.

Frames for banh chung are sold for between VND20,000-30,000 apiece, and bamboo strings for tying the cakes at VND6,000 per pack of 40 strings.

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