Mid-Autumn Festival (trung thu) is a bustling time in Vietnam. This festival is celebrated on August 15th of the Lunar calendar. However, preparations for the festival start one or two months before. When you wander around town, you will see lots of streetside shops selling mooncake and lanterns. The color red is festooned around the city, many homes and every corner is decorated. Local people will buy mooncake as gifts for their loved ones. In fact, mooncakes are everywhere. You will see many Vietnamese people enjoying a feast of mooncake and tea.
We also celebrate with a little music! Many music concerts are held throughout the Mid-Autumn Festival, especially at schools. The local children love lanterns. You’ll see many children holding their colorful lanterns, walking alongside their parents, and joining the festival celebrations. Even young adults join in on the fun. They still love lanterns, take nice photos at colorful lantern shops, and hang out with their friends until late at night. On August 15th, the downtown areas of all the major cities are crowded. Despite the traffic jams, everybody is clearly in a happy mood. This is a special occasion for everyone to celebrate a big festival together.
Behind these bustling scenes, families are hard at work during this time to prepare for a successful festival. These special people are mooncake bakers and lantern makers. On this occasion, I interviewed two families who represent why this festival is so wonderful every year. Meet Dong Hung Vien bakery and Phu Binh traditional lantern village.
Dong Hung Vien – Traditional Mooncake
Dong Hung Vien was established in Saigon’s Chinatown in 1954 after the original owner, Ong Co, fled Hanoi during the war. Ong Co would later move to America and you can actually visit a Dong Hung Vien bakery in California. In 2007, Mr. Phuong and his brothers took over the business in Saigon after their father. Mr. Phuong’s father learned the heirloom secret of how to make mooncake from a chief baker of Dong Hung Vien but he is indeed not related to the original owner. His father kept the brand “Dong Hung Vien” and developed the business in Vietnam. During the year, each member of the family has his own business to attend to but come the Mid-Autumn Festival, the whole family comes together for the holiday.
Dong Hung Vien only makes mooncake from the beginning of July to the 10th of August on the Lunar calendar. Therefore, the bakery sells all their mooncake before the Mid-Autumn Festival. This is quite different from other bakeries. Many bakeries will sell a large number of mooncakes and discount them after the Mid-Autumn Festival. That’s why the Dong Hung Vien mooncakes are always fresh and delicious. But this isn’t just because of their timely baking schedule. Dong Hung Vien chooses the best ingredients and some are sourced from different provinces in order to maintain the high quality.
Approximately two to three months before mid-autumn arrives, the syrup consisting of just water and sugar is cooked so it has time to cool. The syrup is later mixed with wheat flour to make the crust. The baking process consists of the following steps. To prepare the filling, first mix the mooncake filling, place the salted duck egg yolk into the filling, and knead the filling into a round shape. Then, encase the filling with wheat flour, press the mooncake into the mold, and bake. After the mooncake has been baked once, spray egg yolk onto the mooncake, bake for a second time, and put the delicious cakes in an isolated room to cool. Baking the mooncake twice gives it a beautiful amber color and of course, you’ll taste the difference. After that, the mooncake will be packaged and ready to sell.
Some bakeries will buy ready-made mooncake filling to save time. But Dong Hung Vien does no such thing, they use an heirloom secret paired with fresh ingredients. This makes their mooncake more delicious and distinct.
In the past, most bakers used wooden molds and braziers to make mooncakes. This traditional method requires a lot of labor. Nowadays, Dong Hung Vien has changed to a modern baking method using electricity and gas to increase their quantity. Every year, ten tons of mooncake are made and sold by Dong Hung Vien.
Dong Hung Vien has many kinds of mooncake, including coconut, lotus, mung bean, taro, and mixed filling. The mixed filling usually includes nuts and seeds mixed with Chinese sausage, roasted chicken, ham, and more. The mung bean, coconut, and mixed filling mooncakes are the most popular among the local people. In particular, when Mr. Phuong took over Dong Hung Vien, he created fruit fillings such as kiwi, pineapple, strawberry, and blueberry. These newer and fruitier mooncakes have become crowd favorites. You can find several different sizes of mooncake at Dong Hung Vien: small, big, round, or rectangular. Lots of companies order a big number of mooncakes with their brand name to gift their customers and staff in the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Ten to twenty bakers do all the work in the few months before the Mid-Autumn Festival. Some bakers are seniors who have baked mooncake for Dong Hung Vien for a long time. They are mainly responsible for important baking steps. The others are younger newbies or just bakers with a few years of experience. Just like the owner, these bakers have different jobs throughout the year, but they come back just to work the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Dong Hung Vien has distribution shops in Nha Trang, Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot, Bien Hoa, and Ba Ria city. In Saigon, there are two shops: one in Binh Thanh district and another one is the main bakery in 176 Ben Bai Say street, District 6. Since Dong Hung Vien does not focus on marketing or advertising, they don’t have many bakeries. However, they have many loyal customers who come back year after year.
Phu Binh Traditional Lantern Village
Phu Binh Traditional Lantern Village is actually originally from Nam Dinh province in the North of Vietnam. Later, many villagers moved to Saigon during the war and they brought their traditional jobs with them. Nowadays, Phu Binh village is located in a small alley at 243, Lac Long Quan street, District 11.
Life obviously changes over the years, which sometimes means that traditions can change too. In this day and age, some local people don’t follow tradition and don’t buy lots of lanterns to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. Therefore, some families in Phu Binh village have had to seek other jobs in order to make a proper living. However, Mrs. Loan still took over her family’s business as the third generation in Saigon. Her entrepreneurial spirit has made her shop the biggest in Phu Binh village. You’ll notice that many workers at her shop are the local people that live in the alley.
The lanterns are all made in Mrs. Loan’s family house which is both a wholesale and retail shop. That’s why she is busy all day making lanterns. She quit her job to be a full time lantern maker. And if you’re wondering about what she does the rest of the year, know this: lanterns can be sold all year during Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas, Lunar New Year, and other festivals throughout the year. This actually surprised me because I used to think that lanterns were only used as decoration during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Her shop also sells a large number of lanterns to many provinces in Vietnam.
Mrs. Loan’s shop has three types of lantern: glass-paper, folded paper, and plastic. Her most popular product is the glass-paper lantern. When I entered her shop, the red color was almost palatable. The bamboo sticks, watercolors, and paintbrushes littered the floor but it was a comfortable sort of creative mess. Everyone was concentrated on their work.
Not only is the vibrant red color worth mentioning, but the patterns are beautiful as well. The lantern maker combines both traditional and modern patterns to create lots of unique and attractive designs. And when I say lantern, what I really mean to say is that you can find fish, butterflies, birds, boats, stars, and more. The crowd pleasers are the fish and butterfly glass-paper lanterns. You can also purchase animal and cartoon characters.
The process of making these lanterns is actually quite simple. First you must measure the size and saw the bamboo proportionally. Using bamboo sticks to make the frame, paste the red glass paper onto the bamboo frame. The last step is the most fun and creative. The artists will paint patterns on the red glass paper. All lantern makers are very skilled and have many years of experience.
Despite the simple structure, some lanterns can be as expensive as hundreds of Vietnamese Dong. Of course, you can get cheaper lanterns as well. There are many sizes, from a tiny lantern to giant ones. The lanterns made in Phu Binh village are of good quality and come at a cheap price. Therefore, lots of local people really like them. Nowadays, Phu Binh village is still one of the most famous traditional villages in Saigon.
Our journey to discover these two traditional jobs during the Mid-Autumn Festival in Saigon is finished. This year, Christina’s Saigon would like to create and share good memories by coordinating a Traditional Mooncake and Lantern Workshop. This once-in-a-year experience with a professional baking studio (The Open Space) will teach you how to make delicious mooncakes, decorate your own lantern, and enjoy a good time with new people. Click this link if you’re interested in this special workshop.
Keep reading below about other lovely local people in rural areas of Vietnam.
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