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Tet brings age-old traditions

In families, wrapping the banh chung for Tet is the long-awaited festive day for children, but involves much work for their mothers

Nguyen Thi Lan, a resident of the La Phu wool weaving commune, is hoping that the cold weather lasts right on through Tet (Lunar New Year festival).

Lan may only be half-joking, but it is true that her village is profiting from high sales of woollen products due to the cold snap that has swept from the north down through the Hong (Red) River basin area in recent weeks.

Temperatures may have dropped below 10oC, but you immediately feel warm upon entering La Phu Commune and seeing assorted woollens piled in heaps in local homes. Standing at the village gate, you see trucks and motorbikes carrying bundles of wool hats, gloves, and children’s wear to the city, to colder mountainous areas, and to the border area of Lang Son.

Nguyen Hung Duoc, manager of a weaving company in the village, says "to anticipate Tet demand, we bought more machines and raw materials beginning in the eighth lunar month, and I have had to employ hundreds more workers than usual."

Duoc said his company’s production has jumped to 4,000 woollen hats per day in recent weeks, bringing production to more than 100,000 per month compared to usual levels of 60,000 per month.

Fellow villagers have also rushed to invest in weaving machines, spending tens of billion of Dong.

Along the village path, sounds echo from weaving machines and streams of people come and go. More than 1,000 of 1,800 households in the village earn a living by weaving, Duoc says, and the rest provide services like carrying products to market or supplying materials for production.

The sudden rise in demand has provided stable jobs to more than 5,000 villagers and hundreds of seasonal employees, with average monthly incomes of VND600,000 per month.

He adds that his fellow villagers are seeking ways to sell their products to the European market. "Our villagers will have stable work year ‘round, even in summer", he says, eyes gleaming.

Tet staples

In the craft villages that provide Hanoians with their daily needs, life has become hectic as the year’s most important holiday approaches. Farmers would prefer warmer weather for their rice plants, water buffalo and cows, but for traditional cake makers, cold weather means good business.

Residents of the chanh Commune in the Thanh Tri District of Ha Noi are busy making banh chung (square sticky rice cakes stuffed with bean paste and pork), a food eaten traditionally during Tet but also popular year round.

Bui Duc Thach, a fourth-generation banh chung maker, said his family produces several thousand banh chung cakes before Tet.

"We make a thousand banh chung a day to meet the demand during Tet, compared to a normal 50 a day," Thach says. His family used 600kg of pork, 500kg of green beans and 1,500kg of sticky rice last year, along with 60,000-70,000 dong leaves (Phrynuim leaves) used to wrap the banh chung.

"We had to hire 20 more workers to fill the orders," he say.

chanh’s banh chung is in high demand not only in Ha Noi but in other locations around the country and abroad. During the high season, almost everyone in the village is involved in the preparations and production of the cake. Children wash the leaves, women soak the beans and rice and slice the meat and men wrap the cakes and keep watch on the cooking stoves through the long winter nights.

Thach says that he had to begin stockpiling banh chung ingredients and materials two months before Tet because orders began arriving four or five every day.

While sticky rice cakes are a Tet staple food, for a perfect holiday meal they must be accompanied by a delicious meat dish.

That is where Uoc Le Village in Ha Tay Province, 20km outside of Ha Noi, comes in. The trademarked village name ensures that the pork paste and cinnamon flavoured roast paste is made of and manufactured in the highest of qualities. Sadly, in the actual Uoc Le Village, only a few households are still engaged in the village’s traditional craft of making gio (steamed pork paste) and cha (deep-fried cinnamon paste).

Instead, most of the traditional cooks are scattered in Ha Noi and around the country, and have profited by spreading the secret to making tasty gio and cha under Uoc Le’s name, says local villager Nguyen Dang Hung.

"We often celebrate Tet late, on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month known as ram thang gieng, the first full moon, when these people return home."

Unlike other villages where traditional crafts have perished, gio and cha making in Uoc Le continues to thrive because its practitioners have taken their art out of the village and into the city. They bring their profits home, and many households have prospered from the traditional secret recipes handed down from generation to generation.

"Thanks to the trade, villagers have become as prosperous as those in Ha Noi, HCM City or Da Nang," says Hung.

"gio and cha must be made by hand, not by machine, to ensure that they are delicious and firm in texture," says Trinh Thi Thuong, a respected figure in the village. Lean meat first needs to be pounded, then wrapped in young banana leaves and tied with bamboo threads.

"We make the food in a traditional way to ensure its quality, and, as a result, many people, including those in the south, prefer our products to others," Thuong says.

Phung Thi Mai Lan, a shop owner who sells gio and cha on Ha Noi’s Tay Son Street, says that under the name Uoc Le, she can sell 25-30kg of the paste a day and anticipates an increase of four or five times that prior to Tet.

Happiness blossoms

Think of Christmas, think of pine trees. Think of Tet, a Vietnamese from the north will think of a pink peach blossom and a southerner will envision an apricot tree of pale yellow.

In Ha Noi’s cold winters, pink blossoms brighten and warm living rooms and in the south, yellow apricot buds diffuse luck throughout the house.

Additionally, kumquat trees are highly sought-after by Vietnamese people through out the country during the weeks prior to Tet, particularly in urban areas like Ha Noi and HCM City.

In the past, as Tet approached, Hanoians often made pilgrimages to Nhat Tan Village in Tay Ho District to pick a lucky kumquat tree for the season.

Unfortunately, urbanisation has diminished the city’s peach tree plantations, and Hanoians are wondering where they will get the principal decoration of their home during Tet.

Pham Thi Binh, head of the Nhat Tan Agricultural Co-operative, says that people are welcomed to her village to buy their peach trees, despite the fact that the former growing area has been reclaimed.

"Our village’s 22ha of tree-growing area is being used for an urban project, but we are growing peach trees on 20ha along the Hong River plain," Binh says, adding that she expects the area to expand to 25ha this year.

Binh promises that the peach trees planted on the plain will be as exquisite as those once grown inside the village.

She also unveils that the city is planning between 8 and 10ha of land, near Phu Thuong Village and the Nam (South) Thang Long urban area, as a park to preserve Nhat Tan peach trees.

"We can’t lose our traditional tree, once a symbol of the village and the larger city," says Binh.

As Tet approaches in this unusually cold year, Nhat Tan peach flowers are blossoming, but dropping temperatures could ruin the fragile blossoms. Gardeners are hoping that upcoming forecasts will bring news of a less severe coldness.

Not too warm, though.

A real Tet, according to tradition, should be a little bit chilly so that people can wear their woolly sweaters and wrap themselves in warm scarves, eating banh chung, gio and cha.

VNS - (18/01/2005)

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