Chung Cake (Bánh chưng): A Symbol of Unity for Vietnamese Lunar New Year

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, also known as Tết Nguyên Đán, is celebrated on the first day of the first lunar month, which usually falls in late January or early February. It is the most important holiday in Vietnam, and it is a time for families to come together and celebrate the new year. One of the most important symbols of Tết is chung cake, a square, sticky rice cake with a meat and mung bean filling. Chung cake is a symbol of unity and family.

The legend of Vietnamese banh chung

Chung cake
Chung cake

Vietnamese banh chung is a sticky rice cake that is central to Lunar New Year traditions. According to legend, the banana leaf-wrapped cake dates back to a contest held by a Vietnamese king in the 3rd century B.C.

The Contest

The legend states that King Hùng Vương held a contest to choose a successor. He asked all his sons to bring him a dish that would signify the essence of Vietnamese identity. The one who created the best dish would become the next king.

While the king’s other sons went about gathering extravagant ingredients and cooking elaborate dishes, his 18th son, Prince Lang Liêu, took a simpler approach.

Lang Liêu’s Creative Solution

Legend of Chung Cake
Legend of Chung Cake

Prince Lang Liêu gathered only basic ingredients—glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork. He mixed them together and wrapped them in “dong” leaves, tying the bundle securely.

When he presented his simple rice cake to the king, Hùng Vương declared Lang Liêu’s dish the winner. He named Lang Liêu his successor, stating that the cake represented the essence of their agriculture-based land.

Meaning Behind the Ingredients

The ingredients Lang Liêu chose reflect Vietnam’s wet rice civilization. The sticky glutinous rice signifies the cohesion of community, while the mung beans represent the earth and pork signifies nourishment.

Wrapped up in “dong” leaves, the cake resembles a square parcel, like the earth itself. This shape also represents the bringing together of heaven, earth, and humankind.

The meaning of chung cake for Vietnamese Lunar New Year

Chung cake for Tết
Chung cake for Tết

As the legend indicates, chung cake (bánh chưng) chu carries deep meaning for the Vietnamese people. The dish represents wishes for the new year.

Unity: The process of making chung cake fosters unity. Family members come together to prepare the ingredients, assemble the cakes, and then boil them in a communal pot. Eating bánh chưng together promotes harmony. The dish connects people to each other, their ancestors, and their culture. Even Vietnamese people living overseas take time to make chung cake during Tết.

Prosperity: Sticky rice is seen as a symbol of prosperity because it sticks together in clumps. Vietnamese people believe eating bánh chưng during the new year will bring economic success in the coming year. The square shape of the cake also represents the accumulation of wealth. People strive to achieve success in the four directions—north, south, east and west.

Health: Ingredients like nutritious pork meat and protein-rich mung beans provide nourishment and vitality. The bean and rice filling offers energy to start the new year strong. Glutinous rice is also easy to digest. The fermentation that takes place while boiling bánh chưngmakes it especially gentle on the stomach.

Good Fortune: In Vietnamese culture, round or square shapes signify good fortune and the cyclicality of life. Because chung cakes are square, promise favorable circumstances in the future. The green color of the banana leaves that encase the cakes also symbolizes prosperity. As they boil, the leaf color infuses the white glutinous rice, giving it an attractive pale jade hue.

Ingredients and how to make traditional Chưng Cake

Traditional Bánh Chưng ingredients

Chung cake ingredients
Chung cake ingredients
  • Sticky rice
  • Peeled green beans
  • Pork (shoulder)
  • Dong leaves, bamboo slices
  • Spices: Salt, pepper, dried cardamom

How to make tranditional Bánh Chưng

Make tranditional Bánh Chưng
Make tranditional Bánh Chưng

Making a bánh chưng might seem simple, but it requires a lot of time and effort. It’s a full-day process, with preparations starting the day before.

The locals soak the glutinous rice and mung beans in water for a day and marinate the pork with salt, pepper, and grilled dried cardamom for several hours. To achieve the square shape of Vietnamese Banh Chung, people usually use a wooden mold to wrap it. However, experienced individuals can wrap it perfectly with just their hands.

Use 4-5 dong leaves to wrap banh chung. Once the leaves are laid out, the ingredients are added, starting with a layer of glutinous rice, then mung beans, fatty pork, another layer of mung beans, and finally, another layer of rice. Bamboo strings, which are also soaked in water beforehand, are used to secure the square shape of the Banh Chung.

The chung cake is then boiled for 10-12 hours until the rice is cooked through, softened, and perfectly blended into a sticky and savory cake.

How to eat chung cake in Vietnam

Eat chung cake in Vietnam
Eat chung cake in Vietnam

Chung cake is mainly eaten during Tết celebrations in Vietnam. It has a dense, chewy texture and a savory flavor. There is a special process for eating this special holiday cake.

Time of Enjoyment

  • Bánh chưng are only consumed during the first three days of the Lunar New Year.
  • They are eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on these days as a primary meal component.
  • Leftover cakes can be enjoyed for snacking during the following weeks until supplies run out.

Serving Customs

  • Bánh chưng are cut into uniform wedges right before eating.
  • They are served arranged neatly on a tray or plate.
  • Vietnamese people do not usually eat cakes directly with their hands. Custom calls for using chopsticks or a fork and knife.


  • Banh Chung is often served with molasses or sugar, accompanied by pickled vegetables.

Beverage Pairings

  • Bánh chưng wedges make convenient on-the-go snacks during the busy holiday.
  • Vietnamese black coffee is a popular caffeinated beverage pairing.
  • Bánh chưng also goes well with green tea or a chilled fruit juice like orange or pineapple juice.

Leftover Usage

  • Banh Chung can be preserved for up to a month by storing it in the refrigerator. To enjoy it, you can either reheat the cake to regain its fresh-out-of-the-oven texture or slice it into smaller pieces and pan-fry them. A pan-fried Banh Chung becomes crispy and delectable when paired with sweet chili sauce.


As a whole, bánh chưng embodies major themes of Vietnamese Lunar New Year – unity, prosperity, good health, and fortune. The legend and meaning behind this ubiquitous Tết dish connect people to the past as they look forward to a prosperous new year.

Chung cake preparation strengthens family bonds while the ingredients symbolize the people’s agriculture-based livelihood. Its square shape personifies the earth and orientation toward the four directions.

Come Tết season, no one can resist the alluring aroma of chung cakes boiling. Family members look forward to partaking these special cakes together – signifying a meaningful, hopeful start to another fruitful, lucky new year.