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Saigon market sells traditional Tet sweets from central locales

Saigon market sells traditional Tet sweets from central locales

Thursday, February 04, 2016, 11:00 GMT+7

Want some traditional Tet (Lunar New Year) cakes from Vietnam’s central localities? A market in Ho Chi Minh City has it all for you.

Ba Hoa (Ms. Hoa) Market, nestled on Tran Mai Ninh Street in Tan Binh District, stands out from other conventional markets in the city by offering a wide range of products indigenous to the central locales, namely Quang Nam Province, Quang Tri Province, Quang Ngai Province and Da Nang City.

About one month before Tet (Lunar New Year), which kicks off this year on February 8 and is celebrated for around one week, many stall owners, also from the central localities, display various kinds of traditional Tet cakes for sale.

The delicacies, which are sold in retail or bulk, are a reminder of Tet celebrations of bygone days and soothe migrants’ homesickness.

Such rarely made specialties were considered luxuries during Tet feasts and given as ancestral offerings during the festive occasion.

‘Nha Banh Ba Ngat’ (Ms. Ngat’s Bakery) is believed to be the oldest shop selling pastries from Quang Nam at the market.

Dinh Thi Phu, 75, has prepared and sold such treats as ‘banh to’ (square-shaped, dark brown cake); ‘banh ro’ (a smaller version of ‘banh chung, ' or square glutinous cake); ‘banh u’ (pyramid-shaped cake), ‘banh it la gai’ (three-cornered patty), ‘banh no’ (puffy patty) and ‘banh thuan’ (steamed cupcake) for the past 40 years.  

These cakes are mostly made of glutinous rice, or flour and eggs along with other ingredients.

Phu moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City)  with her family in 1974.

She tried her hand at making and selling the pastries of her hometown, and found that they were heartily embraced by others from the central localities.

As business thrived, the woman soon found herself the owner of the stall at Ba Hoa Market.

Her bakery now supplies up to one thousand 'banh ro' cakes each day.

Other cakes and patties are prepared in smaller amounts, but also sell well.

By around 9:00 am on any given day, 'Nha Banh Ba Ngat’ is packed with shoppers.

Her family members and hired hands gather inside, wrapping the cakes before cooking them.

The task involves putting banana leaves, which have been dried in the sun or over a fire, and strings into moulds, pouring glutinous rice, placing fillings, and wrapping and binding the cakes.

WK4cFCsX.jpgPeople gather and wrap traditional Tet (Lunar New Year) cakes exclusive to central Vietnamese localities. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Pham Yen, 60, also from Quang Nam, has wrapped cakes at the bakery for six years now.

In order to meet demand, the number of workers soars from eight or ten on normal days to about thirty, ten days prior to Tet.

“Whenever I’m too busy to make my own cakes, I bring home the patties from the shop. They are fixtures on altars during Tet,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nguyen Thi Bong, from Quang Ngai, moulds and bakes ‘banh thuan’ cakes at her stall.

Three minutes after the batter is poured into moulds, the light yellow, fragrant sweets are ready for consumption.

Bong and her husband, from Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, revealed that she uses three kilograms of eggs on weekdays and doubles that amount on weekends.

She has her hands full around one month prior to Tet, as demands for the desserts and other Tet gifts surge.

Some ten years ago, locals, particularly kids in the central locales, would wait until Tet to savor these delicacies and even save them for days afterward.

These traditional cakes, however, are now a rare sight in modern families’ Tet feasts, and have been replaced by gorgeous-looking imported confectionery.


Tran Mai Nguyen, a patron at Ba Hoa Market, said that such sweets strongly remind her of her fun-packed childhood in Quang Ngai, her hometown.

“As Tet was nearing, my mother would not allow us to incubate our chicken eggs, and rather saved them as an indispensable ingredient of ‘banh thuan’ cakes,” she recalled.

“We kids were tasked with stirring the batter. We would gather around stoves, praying that the cakes would not ‘bloom’ like a four-point star, so that we would not have to eat such ‘broken’ products.”

“People consider half-bloom ‘banh thuan’ an omen for a poor year,” she explained.

A tour around Ba Hoa Market gives her all the delectable traditional patties to display around the home and savor during Tet.

“We do not usually return to our native town during Tet, but the cakes are a must when it comes to ancestral offerings and guest reception,” Nguyen Thi Xinh, another stall owner at Ba Hoa Market, said.

“My ‘banh thuan’ cakes are free of additives or preservatives, so it’s safe to use around the year,” she added.

Rice papers to the world

Young women baking ‘banh trang’ (rice papers) over flickering fires are a common sight along Tran Mai Ninh Street, where Ba Hoa Market is situated.

While many stall owners make bulk orders of the delicacy from their hometowns in the central localities and have them transported to Ho Chi Minh City by truck, which may leave products cracking or breaking, Bong, a shop owner, chooses to bake ‘banh trang’ at a rented land plot in the outlying district of Hoc Mon.

d8fAxN4X.jpgA close-up view of ‘banh thuan’ (steamed four- or five-pointed cupcakes). Photo: Tuoi Tre

Apart from their clients at the market, Bong’s husband delivers around 1,000 items to local restaurants and eateries each day.

“Many also place orders through us to be shipped to other countries, mostly Australia and the U.S.,” Bong added.

Do Thi Thanh Nga, another store owner, disclosed that most of her overseas Vietnamese clientele originate from the central Vietnamese provinces.

Their orders generally come in boxes, each weighing dozens of kilograms, amounting to hundreds of ‘banh trang’ sheets.

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