What are vietnamese mooncakes?

Bánh Trung Thu – What Are Vietnamese Mooncakes?

Vietnamese mooncakes are a hearty, thick, sweet-bean pate baked with a thin, doughy exterior. There are many varieties of mooncake interior, including sweet-taro, red-bean, lotus-seed, and more.

The cake is only really eaten around the Mid-Autumn Festival in Vietnam and China and other Sino-derived cultures.

Vietnamese mooncakes are a hearty, dense, thick sweet-bean cake

Pronunciation and Meaning

In Vietnamese, they are called bánh trung thu, which means bread mid-autumn, and is pronounced as…

  • bánh – cake (sounds like bang? with an up-tone)
  • trung – mid (sounds like chewng with a long ew)
  • thu – autumn (sounds like two with a hard, aspirated th)

Listen the correct pronunciation here:

Therefore, in Vietnamese, the cakes literally mean mid-autumn cakes. And, like their name suggests, they are principally associated with the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn Festival (aka, the Full-Moon Festival, aka the Children’s Festival).

You can read more about the origins and meaning of the Mid-Autumn Festival here. Briefly, the Vietnamese Mid-Autumn festival is an ancient Sino-area holiday meant to:

  • celebrate the brightest moon of the year (occurring on the full-moon nearest to the Autumn Equinox);
  • rest after the autumn harvest; and
  • have children parade around in costumes and eat candy.

Nowadays, the costumes, masks, and candy make the autumn-festival more and more like a Vietnamese Halloween, complete with Disney and Marvel characters and junk-food.

However, traditionally, the staple of Mid-Autumn candy was the mooncake — it is still beloved by all Vietnamese, despite more broader appreciation for chocolate and ice-cream and Choco-pie other Western sweets.

What are Vietnamese Mooncakes made of?

Mooncakes are typically 3-4cm by 2cm thick sweet-bean cakes. There are two varieties:

  • moochi-like cakes with a thin, white doughy exterior; and
  • pastry-like cakes with a baked and slightly flaky exterior.

…both of which are made from a highly-refined sticky-rice flour.

Vietnamese mooncakes
Mooncakes. Image credit: Will @ VietnamDaily

The interior of mooncakes is a hearty, dense, sweet and proteinaceous filling that is like a baked pate. It has the consistency of dense zucchini-bread or baked potato. There are many varieties, including:

  • sweet mung-bean
  • sweet red-bean
  • taro
  • lotus-seed
  • green-tea
  • sweet-chicken pate

Nowadays, young people are experimenting with fusion-cakes with chocolate or cheese interiors.

Where to get Mooncakes?

If you are a tourist in Vietnam, you will be able to find street-vendors selling mooncakes in any Vietnamese community, in the week or two-weeks leading-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. In 2023, the festival occurs on September 29th (it changes every-year based on the Lunar Calendar).

Mid-Autumn festival in Saigon
Mid-Autumn markets in the lead-up to the festival, Saigon.

If you are in the Western country, there will be two sources of mooncakes:

  • in your nearest “Chinatown”
  • handmade by local Vietnamese expats/immigrants (don’t be afraid to ask!)

If you live in the USA or Canada or UK or Australia or France, there is a very high probability that here is local Vietnamese community — they are almost guaranteed to be hand-making mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn celebration (it is a lucratively little side-hustle).

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Vietnamese community-members and ask about the cakes. They are more than happy to share their cuisine and culture.

Mooncake Scandals in Asian

Mooncakes have been getting extra scrutiny lately in China. Why? Because in Asian business cultures, including Vietnam, it is an imperative for business-leaders to schmooze their VIP-clients and government-connections with gifts around Mid-Autumn and Tet.

Normally, such client- and government-gifts are simple luxuries, like European wines, or flowers, or handmade crafts… or artisanal mooncakes!

In China, such gift-mooncakes have gone beyond mere high-end luxury. For example, gold and titanium encrusted mooncakes, or mooncakes with rare animal parts. These bizarre mooncakes are almost assuredly meant as money-laundering for bribes. I.e. a way to mask illegimate expenses as seemingly innocuous cakes. This is why China has recently placed limits on the price of mooncakes.

Such madness isn’t so rampant in Vietnam — but there is a similar business-culture. Read more about Vietnamese business culture.

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