The Double Five Festival (Doan Ngo) on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (which falls on June 23 this year) is approaching. This marks the transition from spring to summer, traditionally a time when there is an outbreak of epidemics. To prevent diseases, people everywhere organise a festival to head off disaster – especially those brought on by plagues of freshly emerging insects.
The festival makes me remember 50 years ago, when my grandmother and my mother prepared cakes and bought fruit to welcome summer. My grannie would wake up early to worship the ancestors with a plate of glutinous rice (banh tro), a bowl of fermented sticky rice and a plate of fruit, usually plums.
After worship, she would tell us to wake up and clean our teeth. "We have to eat these cakes and fruits early. Those who don't eat up could be eaten by insects," she used to say.
Although we didn't like fermented sticky rice, we were very afraid of insects, so we tried to eat everything grannie gave us – particularly banh tro dipped in honey and the plums!
My grannie said banh tro was indepensible at the festival because it was so good for your health. You feel cool and healthy when eating it.
"It is particularly suitable for the elderly and children," she said, adding that it also helped release poisons from the body to prevent gout, hypertension and diseases relating to the kidney.
Today, urban people, including this writer, don't have the time to make banh tro, so we buy it from the market for the Doan Ngo Festival. However, I still remember how to make it, because I saw my grannie prepare it for years.
As I remember, she would buy 2kg of top quality glutinous rice. It had to be very fragrant. She soaked it in water mixed with fine ash for three days and three nights and then washed it in clean water and left it to drain before covering it with young phrynium leaves or boiled bamboo leaves.
The cake itself had to be boiled in ash water (lye). The finished cake should be amber colour and look transparent. The cake is particularly delicious when dipped in sugar-cane molasses instead of honey.
I can never forget my grannie's formula for making banh tro. My children want me to make it by myself this year on June 23.
The name derives from the fact that farmers, on this day, get rid of all pests to start growing their crops for the new season. Therefore, creatures and people must become stronger in both their health and their souls to overcome this.
On this occasion, the whole family have to get up early and eat fermented sticky and fruits. The worshipping is held at noon. The tradition of eating dumplings, especially lye-water dumplings, extends from the belief that the dumplings will cleanse one's body of any unwanted parasites.
The two traditional types of food to be eaten on this day are banh tro and fermented rice.
Lam Kieu, a friend, whose native village is in the central province of Quang Nam, said local people welcomed the festival by drinking a brew made from something called mung nam leaves – as well as fruit and banh tro.
"My father cuts the leaves from the forest 15 days before the festival," said Kieu.
Water made from mung nam leaves is dark yellow, delicious and fragrant. It is never lacking in Quang Nam households during festival time.
"My father said the water from mung nam leaves prevented indigestion from overeating, particularly during the festival," Kieu said.
The festival is called Doan Ngo because during the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the sun is so bright at noon.
In the past, the festival was a day that people worshipped. It marked new weather that is brighter and fresher that could help them release ailments from their bodies. Prayers also wish for safety and a prosperous life.
In some regions, people take the festival as a chance to express thanks to herbalists to save them from heavy ailments.
Today, urban people wake up at dawn to go to market to buy goods to celebrate the festival. Many households in rural areas still try to make banh tro and fermented glutinous rice to keep the tradition alive.
The festival is being celebrated nationwide.
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