A new short documentary shines a light on the Lunar New Year tradition of making bánh tét, the banana leaf-wrapped cakes that are popular during the holiday in Vietnam. The nine-minute movie, simply titled “Buddhist Nuns Make Vietnamese Rice Cakes (Bánh Tét),” went live on Saturday via YouTube and follows the Đức Viên Temple in San Jose as the community gets ready for the big celebration.
It’s not just Bay Area Vietnamese Americans who swoon for bánh tét. The mung bean, pork belly, and glutinous rice cakes are hugely popular, but the labor that goes into their creation is less so. “These are tasks and jobs done by hand that many of us don’t think about,” moviemaker Jacob Seigel Brielle says. “But we rely on these things on a daily basis.”
Juliana Nguyen was no stranger to bánh tét, the banana leaf-wrapped cakes made by the thousands in anticipation of Lunar New Year each year. She was wrapping up an internship at production company and creative agency Pedal Born Pictures when the team was discussing handmade, artisan goods to feature in their Bay Area by Hand series. She thought bánh tét could be a perfect fit. “We went with [bánh tét] because it was so much more personal,” Nguyen says. “Lunar New Year is my favorite holiday, and that love comes from my family.”
Nguyen suggested the glutinous rice-stuffed leaf-coated goods, as there are open hours for children and their families to come join the church members to pitch in. Nguyen helped the team with researching her home community, cold calling the temple, and serving as the main Vietnamese translator on set and in post-production. In total, the team spent about five days shooting on-site in early 2023. Then, post-shoot, the team returned for the Lunar New Year festival, fireworks and firecrackers exploding up and down the street.
Seigel Brielle and Isaac Seigel-Boettner are the brother-owners of Pedal Born Pictures. They earned acclaim for their film A Way Forward, a movie about gender equality and biking in Kenya. But both credit production assistant Nguyen for catapulting this short documentary about a Buddhist temple in San Jose and the thousands of bánh tét the temple-goers make each year from concept to reality. She felt then, and now, that food is a tender window into the soul. Further, she says making bánh tét is specifically a meticulous process one needs tons of help, both elderly and young, to pull off. “People who want to feel community go and buy bánh tét,” Nguyen says. “My mom’s church was taking pre-orders back in December.”
The San Jose Vietnamese community is robust. It’s the largest California city by both population and area and home to the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. It was this information that clicked when the moviemakers decided they could zoom their lens on the banana leaf-wrapped treats made each year for the community. Nguyen learned about the Đức Viên Temple from friends she met while attending UC Berkeley and working with the Vietnamese Student Association. They all knew they were onto something huge when they realized this particular temple is not only one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Bay Area, but was also built by nuns who collected recycling to help fund the creation of the temple in the first place, according to Seigel Brielle.
Lunar New Year may not be celebrated by everyone in the same way, but, whether you’re enjoying the elusive dragon beard candy or watching Awkwafina lead the parade in San Francisco, you’re taking in a part of the tradition. Nguyen and Seigel Brielle wanted to amplify a part of the work that makes the annual celebration so special. In the film, they point out delis beyond the temple to tap in with for more bánh tét goodness. More than those tactile and visual elements of handmade goods, or even the significance of the holiday, Nguyen says it’s just an amazing experience to withhold. “It was my first time in a Buddhist temple,” Nguyen says. “I saw an elderly woman explaining to a kid how the sticky rice was like the community, binding us together. It was so meaningful.”
“Buddhist Nuns Make Vietnamese Rice Cakes (Bánh Tét) - Bay Area By Hand #12” is free to watch on YouTube.