Banh Chung – Square rice cake in Vietnamese Tet

2 Feb

Banh Chung (Square rice cake) is a traditional Vietnamese for lunar new year rice cake which is made from glutinous rice, mung bean, pork and other ingredients. Its origin is told by the legend of Lang Liêu

History and Legend

The origin of Banh Chung can be traced to Hong Bang Dynasty – when the 6th Hung Emperor ruled the land (read Vietnam Early History). Sadly thinking he was too old to lead the country, Hung Emperor wanted to find the one to inherit his position and sit on the throne. Therefore, he held a cooking contest for his 21 sons, and who could fully satisfy his taste would be the winner.

Vietnam Square Cake with the glossy green when they are taken off the steaming pot

Most princes set out on their journey to find special, exotic and far-fetched food, except for Lang Lieu – the 18th son of Hung King, also the poorest and loneliest since he lost his mother at a young age. Not having enough money to afford such delicacies, Lieu just stayed around his house.

Thanks to the help of a fairy in his dream, Lieu came up with 2 types of cake called ‘Banh Chung’ and ‘Banh Day’ and started baking exactly like what he had been told. On a spring day on which all the princes’ labor had to be presented, Lang Lieu and his wife brought Banh Chung and Banh Day to the emperor while other princes presented such expensive and unusual dishes.

Others sneered at Lieu’s cakes, but Hung Emperor was deeply impressed by the special flavor of these cakes. He asked Lieu about the meaning of these cakes. Lieu said that he had cooked the glutinous rice, then molded it into a round rice cake, and called it Banh Day as it symbolized the sky we live under; he also cooked a square rice cake, stuffed it with cooked bean paste and ground meat in the middle, and called it Banh Chung, which was symbolic of the earth we live on.

After that, Hung Emperor decided that Lieu was the winner and passed his throne to him. Since then, Banh Chung and Banh Day become traditional foods during the Tet holiday.

Banh Chung today

Banh Chung can be served as it is or fried to make ‘Banh Chung Ran’ – a delicious for such cold February in Vietnam. In some other regions, especially the Southern part of Vietnam, Banh Chung can be wrap in a cylindral shape with same ingredients, called ’Banh Tet’. A similar one to Banh Tet is ‘Banh Tay’ or ‘Banh Chung Dai’ (Long Banh Chung), served solely in the North with mung bean and little or no pork, hence, can be preserved for a longer period.

There are also many variations of Banh Chung according to regions, religions and likings such as Banh Chung Gu (Humped Banh Chung) of San Diu people, Banh Chung Chay (Vegetarian Banh Chung) for vegetarians and Buddhists, Banh Chung Ngot (Sweetened Banh Chung), etc.

  (Fried Chung Cake is a popular variation of Vietnamese Square Cake)

In traditional context, the process of making Banh Chung is an occasion for Vietnamese family members to get together. Sitting around the warm fire, talking and telling each other past stories, they get ready for a New Year with lots of good wishes.

Although nowadays, not many Vietnamese families keep this habit anymore, Banh Chung is still an irreplaceable dish of Vietnamese ancestor altar on the occasion of Tet. It is the evidence of the Vietnamese loyalty and great gratitude to their ancestors.

The importance of Banh Chung has already gone into poetry:

‘Thịt mỡ, dưa hành, câu đối đỏ
Cây nêu, tràng pháo bánh chưng xanh’

Translation:

‘Rich meats, Salty onions, red couplets
Nêu tree, firecracker, green banh chung’.

Snake dances & catches snake – Competition in Le Mat Festival

30 Jan

Snake dances & catches snake – Competition in Le Mat Festival.

Snake dances & catches snake – Competition in Le Mat Festival

30 Jan

The Festival will make deep impression in tourists’s mind, cause of its unique tradition.

Le Mat village is located in Viet Hung commune, Gia Lam district, about 7km northeast from downtown Hanoi.

It has been famous for a long-standing trade: snake catching and breeding, snake wine and tonics and snake dishes.

Old locals in the village said that snake catching and breeding in Le Mat has been practiced for almost 900 years.  It is handed down from generation to generation among the villagers who consider it a valuable asset of their ancestors. Travelers in Vietnam Tourism to Le Mat nowadays, both domestic and foreign, want to know more about the traditional craft, on the other hand they enjoy special dishes and tonics made from snakes.

This village and its communal house are associated with a legend. While the daughter of King Ly Thai Tong (1072-1127) was on a pleasant boat cruise with her maids on the Thien Duc River (now Duong river), a big snake, pictured in popular imagination as a devil, overturned the boat by means of strong winds and large wave. The crew could do nothing to protect the unfortunate princess. But a young man from Le Mat village dived into the water, fought against the devil and, in the end, succeeded in killing it and saving the princess.

The King was deeply impressed by the young man’s courage and gave him a reward in gold and court titles. But the hero – a member of the Hoang family – graciously rejected the reward and, instead, requested the King to allow him and a number of poor people to reclaim land in the areas lying west of Thang Long, the Royal Capital, which was then surrounded by fallow land. As the King gave his assent, the young man set about rallying poor people from many parts of the country and led them in reclaiming land and establishing 13 prosperous and famous agricultural settlements in the neighbourhood of Thang Long.


Grateful posterity worshipped the young hero as the genius of their villages and on March 23 (lunar year) of each year the inhabitants of the former 13 agricultural settlements flocked in the Le Mat village to attend the festival.

The highlight of the festivities is the snake dance, an original performance held in the yard of the communal house; this dance is significant because the population of Le Mat is renowned for catching and breeding snakes.

The festival starts with a water procession. The villagers fetch water from the village pond, pour it into a big porcelain jar and put the jar on a palanquin and bring it to the Temple. The villagers also catch a big fish from the pond, put it on a tray and cover it with a red cloth, and bring it to the Temple as an offering to the Patron Saint.

After finishing all ceremonial prayers, the villagers gather at the temple yard to see the performance of the young man killing the snake and saving the princess. The snake is made of bamboo plates covered with cloth, 60m long and 60cm in diameter and looks ferocious. It is managed by a dozen young men. The well-dressed princess and her assistants dance beautifully. The man of the Hoang family, in red armour dress and holding a sharp lance, performs around the snake before killing it and saving the princess all to the sound of the drum beating and cheerful cries from the villagers. Visitors in Vietnam travel feel a so exciting, lively atmosphere.

The Festival is an opportunity for the children of the village to learn about and to be reminded of the history of the difficult establishment of their village, to share happiness. It’s a good chance for the villagers to show respect to their ancestors and pride about the land of 1000-year Civilization.

Traveling to Hanoi in 24 hours

7 Jan

Traveling to Hanoi in 24 hours.

Traveling to Hanoi in 24 hours

7 Jan

You have arrived in Hanoi and have 24 hours up your sleeve? Have a read for ideas on how best to immerse yourself in this exotic and exciting city, one full of history and bustling with life.

Hanoi the best place to start is the Old Quarter. Clearly the heart of Hanoi, here you will find a mass of activity and great opportunities to cater all tastes. The web of narrow streets and alleys is bustling with traffic and the concept of navigating your way around can be daunting at first.

Travelling by foot is the best way to view the countless small shops, cafes, restaurants and street vendors. Have a quick break at a café and try the Vietnamese coffee: it’s strong and will give you a boost for the rest of the morning. As you stroll the streets you will definitely find that gift you are after be it clothes, souvenirs or a traditional artwork.

There are many art galleries in the Old Quarter with Vietnam tourism and they are definitely worth a look inside. If wandering the busy streets is not your cup of tea then you can hire a cyclo driver to peddle you around the Old Quarter. They usually offer rides for one hour and will only cost a few dollars. Don’t worry about finding them; they will find you.

Vietnam Hanoi Old Quarter

Old Quarter
Photo by Jared Kelly

After a walk around the Old Quarter the next stop on the agenda should be Hoan Kiem Lake – A beautiful destination. A stroll around the lake is a relaxing contrast to the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter streets.

At the northern side of the lake you will find the Ngoc Son Temple, situated on an island over the little red bridge. It is a picturesque setting so have your cameras ready.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam Photo,

Hoan Kiem Lake
Photo by Andrew Hux

Express Old Quarter visit: Allow a minimum of 1 hour
Old Quarter, take your time and shop away: 2-3 hours

Museums/Temples

Hanoi is full of history and if your time here is short the best way to learn about its past is to explore one of the many museums/temples on offer.

Vietnam Hanoi Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Photo by danaspencer

If there is one place to visit it is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum , a grand and powerful structure displaying the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh himself. It is the main attraction in Hanoi and the lines will curl around for hundreds of metres (although the waiting time shouldn’t exceed 20 minutes).

The lines are in constant movement so you will be in and out within a minute. Security is on hand continually watching proceedings and they expect respect from those visiting. Wear long pants and cover your shoulders and don’t plan on taking any photos.

Despite the constraints it is definitely worth the visit. The mausoleum is free and will only allow people in between 8am and around 10am so arrive early. It is a perfect next stop after visiting the Old Quarter. If you are travelling between October and December you will unfortunately have to leave this one off your list as the mausoleum is closed.

Nearby you will find the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh Stilt House and Presidential Palace as well as the One Pillar Pagoda.

Allow 2 hours

If you prefer the beauty of the Vietnamese architecture and are a bit of an art lover I would strongly suggest the combination of the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum.

The temple is beautiful and the tranquil setting is a welcome change to life on the other side of the wall. As for the Fine Arts Museum you will find a mixture of sculptures, painting and ceramics from a range of periods. Usually one floor displays a collection of modern art which often impresses.

Temple of Literature: Quoc Tu Giam Street
Fine Arts Museum: 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street

Allow 1-2 hours

The Army Museum has a good display of weaponry with tanks, helicopters and downed aircraft from the war. The museum follows the history of the Vietnamese army concentrating on the French and American wars. There is a huge amount of information here and would be one of the better museums for the kids.

Allow 1 hour

Army Museum: Dien Bien Pho Street

If you’re interested in the Vietnamese minorities then the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a must. Here you will find a great collection from the numerous minority tribes that situate Vietnam. You will find the typical objects from the village and the materials used to make them.

The museum explains clearly the difference in location and culture of the many minority groups. Outside the museum you will find a number of full scale replica houses, typical of those found in tribal areas. If your next stop is to any of the villages in Vietnam then you should put this museum on your list.

Allow 1.5 hours

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology: Nguyen Van Huyen Street

Nightlife/Entertainment

If your night is free go and check out the traditional Water Puppets show held daily at the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre. There are shows from late afternoon into the evening. The tickets are cheap and it will leave you with a truly authentic Vietnamese experience.

Otherwise there is ample choice for bars and nightclubs; a vast supply throughout the Old Quarter. A famous hangout is the Bia Hoi Junction in the middle of the Old Quarter. Here you can sample the local microbrew beer on small plastic seats watching the world go by. This place is popular with the tourists and at 3,000 VND a glass it is easy to know why.

Vietnam Hanoi Water Puppets

Water Puppets
Photo by richard vignola
Vietnam Hanoi Water Puppets

The Puppeters
Photo by richard vignola

Water Puppets: 57B Dinh Tien Hoang Street
Bia Hoi Junction: Intersection of Ta Hien Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen Street

Eating

First and foremost you must try the traditional and famous Vietnamese dish pho. Pho is a noodle soup with either beef or chicken. Pho can be bought on the street for around 20,000 VND per bowl. You don’t have to go far to find a pho and the best way to try it is at one of the street stalls. If that doesn’t appeal to you or the tiny plastic chairs are not accommodating then most restaurants will serve the dish as well.

If you want to eat with the locals I would suggest trying the BBQ on the side of the street. Again you are sitting not far off the ground on small plastic chairs but the food is great and the experience not to be missed. There are many options but Ma May Street in the Old Quarter is a winner.

If you don’t want to go to the street food then let the street food come to you. Quan An Ngan is a large restaurant offering street food in a beautiful courtyard setting. The centralised menu means you can pick your dish from all the options and the waiters will order it from the relevant stall for you. It’s a three stars way to try what the locals eat everyday. This place is always busy with locals and travellers alike. You will find Quan An Ngan at 15 Phan Boi Chau Street.

Getting Around

By far the best way to get around the Old Quarter and surrounds is on foot. Hitting the streets at a slow pace gives you a great view of the culture and commerce around you. If walking the streets is a little too daunting or your legs need a rest you can grab a cyclo driver who are only to willing to show you their town.

Vietnam Hanoi Cyclo

Cyclo – Value for money!
Photo by Blue Barnacle

Taxis are in abundance and it is never too hard to find one in Hanoi. No city is without its shortcomings and for Hanoi it must be said that many of the taxi drivers will try to scam tourists on the fare.

This is mainly done by rigged metres randomly jumping in price. I have had many friends tell me how they have been charged over 100,000 VND for a taxi fare that should cost around 40,000 VND.

This can be frustrating and put a damper on your short time in Hanoi. My advice is to stick to the companies you can trust and for me they are Mai Linh Taxi (green emblem on the side of the car) and Hanoi Taxi. If you are pressed for time and need a taxi right away negotiate the price first and tell the driver not to use the metre. For short to medium trips the cost should be 20,000-60,000 VND. Any more than this would probably mean that the driver is being cheeky!

If you are feeling a bit more adventurous I suggest taking a xeom (motorbike taxi). They will take you anywhere you want to go starting from 20,000 VND. It is the next best way to driving the streets after driving a motorbike yourself (if you felt up for this, ask your hotel to organise you a motorbike rental for the day for approximately 100,000 VND) and it gives you the chance to experience the Hanoi traffic from within.

The xeoms are amongst the fastest riders on the streets but I have not met anyone who hasn’t enjoyed themselves on one. As with the cyclos, the xe om are plentiful and drivers will offer their services on nearly every corner of the city.

Ba Na Mountain Resort – An ideal destination in Central Vietnam

10 Dec

Ba Na Mountain Resort – An ideal destination in Central Vietnam.

Ba Na Mountain Resort – An ideal destination in Central Vietnam

10 Dec

With a height of 1,487m above the sea level and a temperate climate, Ba Na Mountain is a real treasure of Vietnam. Only a 50km drive from Danang city to the West, tourists in Vietnam travel can reach one of the most spectacular sights that is Ba Na.

As not far from Danang city, only about 50km to the west, tourists in Vietnam travel can finally reach one of the most spectacular sights you would have ever visited. With a height of 1,487 meters above the sea lever and a temperate climate, Ba Na Mountain is a real treasure of the country.

Ba Na Danang

For many reasons, travelers joining tours in Vietnam come to Ba Na, but no one can deny that the rejuvenating atmosphere and the wonderful scenery of Ba Na influence them the most when deciding to come to this unique land. To get to the top of Ba Na Mountain, tourists would have to conquer a 15-kilometer zigzag road if they visited some years ago (the topography there is pretty flat like a mini highland, luckily!).

Nowadays, as the longest cable car system in the world has been constructed there, no one have to bear the long and taunting 15-kilometer trip anymore. You can still do if you happen to be an adventurer, but it is highly recommended that you take the cable car.

The reason is not for safety, of course but you will gain the rewarding experience of looking over a huge scenery of Danang City, VungThung bay, Hai Van Pass, Son Tra Peninsula, My Khe Beach, Marble Mountain and Thu Bon River, Cu Lao Cham Island. In only a ride, you will witness a like-no-other Fengshui picture.

Each of the four seasons appears within a single day in Ba Na: spring in the morning, summer at noon, autumn in the afternoon and winter at night. One particular characteristic is that the clouds are at the mid-height of the mountain, so the peaks are always clear. Ba Na also possesses very beautiful forests with green pine hills.

Bana mountain resort

Moreover, Ba Na has a diverse ecosystem, including primitive jungles which are home to 256 animal species and 543 plants species, eco-tourism has developed there for a long time. Particularly, many villages, resorts and hotels have been built on the slopes of Ba Na Mountain and King Mountain since the beginning of the 20th century. Even though the wars have destroyed a great part of these constructions, they have been restored recently to their former glories.

With its wild beauty endowed by the Nature, Ba Na Mountain welcomes thousands of visitors from everywhere in the world annually. It promises to attract more tourists in Vietnam, contributing to the tourism development of Danang city next time.

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