The Mid-Autumn Festival is well on its way in Vietnam, and along with it comes a barrage of palm-sized pastries materialising on every street corner and bakery in sight. Although both the mooncake and the festival are traditions originated from Chinese legends, the Vietnamese have long put their stamp on the special occasion. Here, the Mid-Autumn Festival traditionally emerged as an opportunity for parents to spend quality time with their children after harvest season ended, usually around September. The event would be held to celebrate both the harvest and a special time to bond with close family members. Usually held under the full moon, a circumstance thought to symbolise life and prosperity, families gather to make offerings to their ancestors and eat disk-shaped cakes, often gifting them to relatives and friends as a token of love and gratitude.
The cakes are part of a tradition that has remained intact over several hundreds of years and their fillings (which can include anything from savoury fillings such as dried sausage to sweeter flavours with mung beans or fruit) are as variable and elaborate as their shape and design.
Although the significance of the Vietnamese mooncake has remained well documented, the process in achieving their intricately adorned patterns is a lesser known part of the beloved food’s history. In the outskirts of Hanoi, a small village called Thuong Cung houses the few remaining artisanal workshops left in Vietnam that are tasked with designing and hand-crafting the elaborate moulds for the ubiquitous mooncakes. One of those family-run workshops is Ban Tam and has been operating for 35 years, now run under the wood-carving expertise of Tran Van Ban.
“I first started carving mooncake moulds when I was 20 years old, following in the footsteps of my parents, who started out making wooden sculptures. After working in factories in Hanoi, they brought the practice back to the village and began making moulds. Before the existence of plastic and aluminium moulds from China, the industry was thriving.”
Despite the industrialisation of the trade, Tran is keeping the artisanal practice alive and well in his workshop and sells his moulds to countless restaurants, hotels, and bakeries in Hanoi and a number of other provinces. “The moulds can last up to one hundred years, but many businesses choose to buy new ones every year to offer their customers new shapes and designs.”
Tran’s moulds are works of art – most of the designs he makes are commissioned by customers who will often bring a picture or a general idea which he will then convert into a carvable design. The process from start to finish is mesmerising, with Tran sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by wood shavings from previous sittings and armed with an array of sharpened carving tools, each with a slightly different shape or depth and its own specific function. Clutching the wooden panel with his feet and assured of the correct angle, Tran will expertly hack at the material with remarkable precision – chisel in one hand and a block of wood in the other – knocking the tool with enough force to make a sizeable dent. Slowly but surely he will chip away in a rhythmic and methodical manner, while pieces of wood frenetically flying through the air, almost inexplicably leaving intricately adorned patterns in their places.
On the wall above the floor space of where Tran works is a majestic archive of his handiwork, where moulds of all shapes, sizes, depths and designs hang in their ancestral glory. Many of the designs pay homage to traditional Vietnamese imagery, with lotus flowers, fish and peach blossom common running themes, regularly reworked in a number of unique ways in each product.
The smaller and simpler designs only take Tran a couple of hours to complete and cost around VND150,000, whereas more complex and detailed moulds could take a number of days or even a week to finish, pushing the price up to VND500,000.
Tran learnt the tricks of his trade from his own parents, and nowadays during the busier seasons of the year, which unsurprisingly coincide with the months leading up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Tran usually enlists the help of his own son and daughter. With a tradition arguably as meaningful as the mooncakes themselves, the love and expertise poured into every single mould made in the Ban Tam workshop parallels the celebration of unity and family embedded in the cakes that are eventually baked in them.
Ban Tam mooncake mould workshop is located at Thuong Cung, Tien Phong Village, Thuong Tin District, Hanoi.