Vietnamese Culture
                        Copyright 1998 Tran Thong

Issue 32. The legend of ba'nh chu+ng, ba'nh da^`y and the watermelon.

Please direct all questions to [email protected]

Issue #1:  Tet 1971 in Vietnam! by Phu Si, VB710118
Issue #2:  The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, VB710118.
Issue #3:  The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods, by
           George F. Schultz, VB710118.
Issue #4:  1971 - The year of the Pig, by Van Ngan, VB710118.
Issue #5   The Joy of "first writing of the new year", by Thuy Ngoc,
Issue #6:  Traditional Vietnamese male attire, by Van Ngan, VB710208
Issue #7:  The legend of Princess Lieu Hanh, George F. Schultz, VB710215 
Issue #8:  The dialogue on Mount Na-Son, George F. Schultz, VB710222
Issue #9:  The secret housewife, George F. Schultz, VB710301
Issue #10: The golden axe, George F. Schultz, VB710308
Issue #11: Golden age of Viet Nam under the Hung Kings, Pham Tung, 
Issue #12: The legend of Chu Van Dich, George F Schutlz, VB701221
Issue #13: The sandalwood maiden, George F. Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #14: Legend about Emperor Ly Thai-To, George F Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #15. Chu Dong-Tu and Princess Tien Dung, George F. Schultz,
Issue #16. The husband's most difficult task: teaching his wife, 
           Van Ngan, VB 691216
Issue #17: Superstition in Viet Nam, Van Ngan, VB6911?? - May 8, 1996.
Issue #18: Hair: VN style, VB7007?? - May 15, 1996
Issue #19: Funeral rites in Viet-Nam, Van Ngan, VB7006?? - May 22, 1996.
Issue #20: "Non Bai Tho" or the "Poetical Leaf", ???, VB7011??.
Issue #21: The different systems of writings in Viet-Nam, ???, VB710201.
Issue #22: Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom", ???, VB710201.
Issue #23: The boat of illusion, Nguyet Cam, Heritage Sept/Oct 1995.
Issue #24: Tran Hung Dao's proclamation to his officers, 
           George F. Schultz, VB 710201.
Issue #25: The refined pleasure of tea-drinking, Tuong Minh, The 
           Saigon Times Weekly, No. 238.
Issue #26: The hero of Phu Dong, ADT
Issue #27: The genie of Ta?n Vie^n, ADT
Issue #28: The magic crossbow, ADT
Issue #29: The legend of tra^`u cau, ADT
Issue #30: Tu+` Thu+'c and Gia'ng Hu+o+ng , ADT
Issue #31: Tru+o+ng's wife, ADT
Issue #32: The legend of ba'nh chu+ng, ba'nh da^`y and the watermelon.
In celebration of the upcoming Te^'t, I would like to contribute 
the following two stories about traditional cakes and fruits used 
in the ceremonies to honor our ancestors on the eve of Te^'t, or 
Giao Thu+`a. Of course after the ancestor have received the 
offerings ... we get to eat them!

Happy Te^'t Ma^.u Da^`n.

          The legend of Ba'nh Chu+ng and Ba'nh Da^`y

During the Ho^`ng Ba`ng dynasty, the King, the sixth of the dynasty,
with his health failing and after a long reign 
that included the war with the A^n (see the legend of the hero of Phu` 
DDo^?ng, Issue #26), decided to select his successor. His many wives 
have given him twenty two  princes. They were all grown-up. 
The King thought: 

"Many of my sons are talented. This is actually the reason why I 
need to select my successor wisely so that the others will not 
contest my choice".

He thought many nights over this problem, but could not make up 
his mind, which of the twenty two sons to pick as his successor. 
Finally one of his minister suggested that a contest be organized 
to select the next King.

So, the King had all his sons assembled and declared:

"I know that I am close to the earth and far from the sky (ga^`n 
dda^'t xa tro+`i). I would like to pass this throne to one of 
you. I decided that my selection will be based on a contest. I 
would like all of you to find or cook a special offering for the 
feast of the ancestor on the eve of the new year. I will abdicate 
in favor of the one of you who can come up with the best 

So, all the princes set out to find the best ingredients in the 
universe. They went up the mountains, down the ocean in search of 
the best foods. Anything that was reputed to be delicious was

Of the twenty two princes, Prince Lie^u was the 18th. He lost his 
mother at an early age, so he spent most of time by himself. 
While the other princes have servants to help them find the best 
foods, Prince Lieu was at a loss on what to do because he had 
nobody to help him. There were only three days left and Prince 
Lieu still has not come up with any special dish to prepare. That 
night, he reminisce over all the special meals that he had 
partaken. He thought and thought ... and felt asleep. In this 
state, he dreamed he was competing with his twenty one brothers 
in preparing the offering to the ancestors. Each were in small 
cottages in the contest camp that the King had built for the 
occasion. Prince Lieu did not know where to start. Suddenly an 
angel came down from the heavens. She said:

"In the universe there is nothing more precious than rice. Let us 
not prepare a sumptuous feast! Only two special dishes are 
sufficient. Please get me some (sticky) rice and some (mung) bean 
(also called green bean, dda^.u xanh). 

When Prince Lieu came back with the rice and the bean, the angel 
has already gathered some big green leaves. The angel explained:

"This first cake will represent the earth. The earth has rice 
fields and mountains, thus it must be green. Since the earth is 
square, this cake must also be square. For fillings, we must have 
meat and bean, since the earth supports animals and plants. ... 
The green leaves around the cake with the filling is also another 
symbol of the love of parents who always protect their children.

For the second cake, we must knead the sticky rice until it 
becomes smooth to represent the heavens. It must be white and 
round, like the heavens..."

Prince Lieu woke up and prepared the cakes as suggested by the 

That year Te^'t eve, when the princes were due to present their 
special offerings to the ancestors, was one of the most joyful 
day in Phong Cha^u, the capital. People from all over the kingdom
came to the capital to celebrate this special Tet eve, which will 
start with the contest and will end with the coronation of a new 

Exactly at sunrise, the King arrived on the royal palanquin at 
the contest field. Flags were flying all around, and the sound of 
drums and cymbals created a very lively atmosphere. Everybody 
waited for the decision of the judges.

They tasted "nem co^ng" (peacock meatloaf), bear feet, rhino 
liver, ... But surprise! None were a match for the two very 
simple cakes prepared by Prince Lie^u. When the judges first saw 
his offerings to the ancestor, they all disapproved because the 
cakes looked so simple ... so common. However, as were their 
duties, they tasted them... and changed their mind. One minister 

"These have a very special flavor even though made from rather 
common ingredients".

The judges presented their choice to the King. He tasted the two 
cakes and was also very surprised by their special favor. He took 
uncut cakes and looked at them closely, turning them over and 
over. He had Prince Lie^u come and explain to him how the cakes 
were made. Prince Lie^u truthfully told him of his dream and how 
he prepared the cakes. 

That afternoon, the King convened all his sons and declared that 
he will pass the throne to his eighteenth son. He showed the two 
special cakes and told the assembly the reason for his selection:

"These two cakes are not only delicious but they hold special 
meanings. They are symbols of filial piety, respect of the 
parents like the heavens and the earth. They are also symbols of 
a love for the country and the rice fields. They can be made with 
the most precious of the precious pearls of the universe, but 
everybody can easily get them. Only one blessed by the Heavens 
can come up with such perfect cakes".

Since then, our customs calls for preparing ba'nh chu+ng and 
ba'nh da^`y as offerings for our ancestors. Prince Lie^u became 
King Tie^'t Lie^u, or King Hu`ng the seventh.

Author's comments: While the ba'nh chu+ng is still common fare 
during Te^'t, the ba'nh da^`y has not fared as well, at least in 
the South. Most probably because it requires much more involved 
preparation ... and is not as filling! My memory of the ba'nh 
da^`y is that we ate it with Vietnamese ham (cha? lu.a). Cha? 
lu.a was viewed as more of a northern delicacy, so was not as 
widely available in the south.

An interesting side note. In the South, people do not cook ba'nh 
chu+ng. They prepare ba'nh te't, which uses the same ingredients 
but is cylindrical. Could it be a merger of the ba'nh chu+ng and 
ba'nh da^`y. Anybody knows the history of the ba'nh te't?
The custom in the South it to prepare ba'nh te't and ba'nh i't 
for Te^'t. 

From a practical point of view, the reason for preparing ba'nh 
chu+ng is because there were no market for weeks at the beginning 
of the year. Thus, it was not possible to buy fresh food. The 
ba'nh chu+ng can be kept for a couple of weeks (eat them fresh 
at first, then fried towards the end of the holiday). Watermelon,
the subject of the next story, can also be kept for a month without

           The story of the watermelon

King Hung the 18th has an adopted son, Mai Ye^?n, with the 
nickname of An Tie^m. He grew to become an important minister at 
the court. However this very bright youth was very boastful. He 
frequently claimed that his success was completely due to his 
outstanding intelligence and talent and he never had relied on 
the support of anyone. This latter phrase got to the ear of the 
King who considered him an ungrateful son and decided to exile 
him to an isolated island off Nga So+n (now Thanh Ho'a). 

When the exile decree was delivered, An Tiem's wife was very 
concerned about how they were going to survive on a deserted 
island. But An Tiem belief did not waiver. He declared: "God made 
us. Life and death are decided by God and us. Why worry!". 

So, An Tiem, his wife and son,  were delivered to their exile. 
They spend the first nights on the sandy beach of the island 
where they built a hut. Working hard, soon they have managed to 
clear a big field where they were able to plant a small crop. 
They supplemented their diet with hunting. 

One Autumn day An Tiem shot down a strange bird that flew in from 
the West (East is the Pacific ocean!). As his wife cleaned the 
bird, she found some unusual seeds in its belly. An Tiem threw 
them in a small plot of land without much thought. Soon, big 
creeping plants grew on that plot of land. And around the end of 
the year, they bore big round green fruits. When they looked 
ripe, An Tiem collected them. He was very surprised when he cut 
them to find a delicious red and sweet pulp. An Tiem collected 
the seeds and replanted them. Very soon he had a large patch of 

One day, a merchant ship trying to evade a big storm, dropped 
anchor by the island. An Tiem was very pleased to host these 
unexpected guests. As they left he gave them watermelons as 
present. The ship captain gave him some dry goods in exchange. 

Soon, words got around lingdom about the delicious watermelon 
from the island of An Tiem. A trade developed between the island 
and the mainland. Watermelons were send to the mainland in 
exchange for various goods. With this trade, An Tiem can now lead 
a rather comfortable life.

Because the watermelon came from the West, An Tiem named it Ta^y 
Qua? (Western fruit). The Chinese liked the watermelon and 
complimented it with "Ha^?u" (good). This was changed to "ha^'u" 
and thus the watermelon came to be called "du+a ha^'u".

Back to An Tiem. After a few years, the King heard about the 
watermelon from the island of An Tiem. He tried it and liked it. 
Thinking about how An Tiem overcame adversity, the King became 
very proud of his adopted son and had him brought back to the 
court. An Tiem got back his ranks and power. From his experience 
on the deserted island, An Tiem mellowed and became a good 
minister of the court. 

He brought back his seeds and gave them to the people. Thus came  
the watermelon to our country!
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