Linh Son pagoda, Houston. Click on the image to see more pictures of the pagoda.
Although not all Vietnamese living oversea can take a day off to go to the pagodas on the first day of Tet, many manage to keep the tradition. Of course there is no strict requirement that one has to be looking at and praying to the Buddha at a certain day, for a certain amount of time, or with a certain prayer. Tet is not a religious based tradition. But many Buddhist and even non-Buddhists like to go to the pagodas on the first day of Tet to have a peaceful start of the new year, to feel spiritually lightened (hopefully enlightened as well) and pure on the important day. Many also choose to eat no animal product on this day, as it’s the new spring and every creature deserves to be happy and live in peace. Nonetheless, vegan restaurants are somewhat scarce in the conservative town, places with banh chung banh tet for sale don’t generally make the vegan version, and to deprive a Vietnamese of banh chung banh tet on a Tet’s day is somewhat cruel. So the pagodas take on the precious task.
Dua mon is pickled vegetables, here packaged in jars, and apparently on sale for $5? I believe I haven’t had dua mon. I’m not big on veggies in vinegar-sugar-salt mix, the only exception to me is pickled bean sprout (dua gia). But perhaps because every house during Tet is so overabundant with meat and glutinous rice, the dua being a bit tart, a bit sweet, crunchy, and light is a nice change in both taste and texture. In fact, with its economic nature and longevity, a big jar of dua on its own makes Tet in poor households.
Back to the star of Tet food. The square ones are banh chung, the cylindrical ones are banh tet. Banh chung is wrapped in dong leaves, banh tet is wrapped in banana leaves (theoretically). Banh chung declothed:
If you’re wondering, yes, their basic structure, except for the shape, is the same. Thick coat of glutinous rice outside, simple mung bean paste inside, since these are vegan banh made and sold at the pagoda. The meaty version of banh chung has lean pork amidst the bean paste, and that of banh tet has fatty pork. The outermost rim of glutinous rice is somewhat greenish yellow, naturally dyed by the leaves wrapping them and the long cooking process, in which they are submerged in water for hours. Banh chung was born in the North of Vietnam over 2000 years before Jesus was born, and especially made for Tet and Tet only. It even has a myth to explain its symbolism. Banh tet was its little brother, made for easy cooking and carrying, more popular in the South, available in one form or another all year long. The rice layer is soft and gummy, the bean paste middle is a little salted and sweetened. It’s vegan, but it doesn’t lack flavor. It’s really really heavy though. One khoanh of banh tet for breakfast and I was full from 10AM until 7PM! I would have been starved otherwise, classes all day, and school cafeterias don’t serve vegan food. That means if you like to keep yourself reasonably full, with 6 bucks you are full for 3-6 days of banh tet, and 4-8 days of banh chung. Pretty good huh?