Đức Viên
Buddhist Temple

Our visits to San José have been dominated by time spent on 80, 280, 680. Pick your poison. Navigating the interstates meant missing the rich patchwork of neighborhoods that makes up what many forget is the Bay Area’s largest city. As we got into our second season of Bay Area By Hand, we recognized that this was also a blindspot of the series.

We started looking into San José stories in December of 2022. Lunar New Year was on the horizon. Juliana Nguyen, our production intern extraordinaire, suggested we take a look at bánh tét. These glutinous rice cakes are often filled with banana or mung bean, and wrapped in banana leaves. Served in slices with pickled vegetables, they are a staple of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, or Tét, celebration.

San José is home to the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside of Vietnam. It is also home to one of the largest Buddhist temples in the region. A temple that happens to crank out thousands of these offerings every year. As Juliana described it, it was the perfect Bay Area By Hand story.

Wrapping and Unwrapping

Juliana got in touch with the nuns and staff at Đức Viên Temple, who graciously invited our small crew down to capture the multi-day process of crafting bánh tét. Arriving before the sun, we filmed the filling, wrapping, and steaming of countless cakes. The nuns were assisted by community volunteers of all ages. Families. Grandparents. College students. Every generation was involved.

After capturing the intricacies of the bánh tét creation process, we sat down for interviews with several of the nuns. What started as conversations about this particular Lunar New Year tradition began to open up. They told us stories of coming to America, sleeping outside in an empty lot, and gathering recycling to fund the temple. We rapidly realized that what had started as a simple food process documentary was becoming something much more. Back in the editing room, we set about weaving together these elements. Here is that story:

A week at the temple

Celebrating Tét

Our last day of filming on the project was a night shoot at the temple on Lunar New Year. Firecrackers blowing out our speakers. Lion dancers flashing past. Hundreds packing the temple courtyard to celebrate into the wee hours. It was fitting that the last day of filming had, at face value, little to do with the process of wrapping rice in banana leaves.

In this day and age of social media, it can be easy to fetishize a dish. To focus purely on the aesthetics of the plate. In some ways, we approached this story in that way. We were interested in how these cakes that we had seen in Vietnamese markets across the Bay came to be. But like our understanding of San José, the story that unfolded forced us to take a step back. The nuns reminded us that food is often just the first layer of creating community. That the hands making the dish are often more important than the dish itself.

We would like to thank Juliana, all of the nuns, temple staff, and volunteers for giving us the chance to tell this story.