Chapter X: Bánh trôi nước

Translator’s note & disclaimer: The title of this chapter is the name of a famous Vietnamese dessert. It’s roughly translated to “Floating Cake.” However, we chose to keep the name in Vietnamese as the English translation doesn’t work perfectly. The dessert is also the name of a poem by Hồ Xuân Hương, an 18th century Vietnamese poet. Here is some extra information on the poem if you’re interested (The articles linked are simply for the related content, we have no other relation or affiliation to the two authors whatsoever). Additionally, here are some visual aids for you to better imagine what it looks like later on.


“Okay, you be careful now! Come back immediately after you’ve eaten a bowl of bánh trôi. And remember two things. First, you’re absolutely forbidden from criticizing the dessert in any way. No matter how disgusting it seems, you’ll eat it like it’s the best food you’ve ever tasted. Even if you want to throw up, you’ll ignore that instinct and gulf it down. Second, it’s better if you just swallow the whole thing without knowing what’s inside. That’s all I can tell you about the rules here. If you know what’s actually inside the food, you’re not allowed entrance, and our trip here would have been for naught.”

After their sampan docked at a peninsula in the river, Điền Quý gave her instructions and promised to come back with the Water Spider in an hour to pick her up.

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

“Can’t even if I wanted to. Look at that sign over there: No Điềns allowed. You can ask the ferryman if you don’t believe me.”

The Water Spider said:

“There’s indeed such rule, miss.”

After the coffin sampan left, she didn’t want to waste any more time, either, so she jogged inside the small island.

The peninsula wasn’t a big one. At the center of it stood a hill–about 20 meters high with gentle, easy-to-climb slopes–with a small temple on top. While it was unclear who was enshrined here, incense smokes can be seen coming out of it from afar. A scene such as this was very much ordinary in the world of the living, but here, in the middle of the River of the Dead full of strange things, this peninsula with the temple at the center stood out like a sore thumb.

A paved stone road connected the wharf straight to the temple. On either side, banana and pineapple trees–heavy with fruits–were grown, alternatingly, in straight rows.

As soon as she set foot on the road, Phượng Ngân felt like something was off. Even though she was entirely alone on the big road, she felt as if she’d just walked into an arena ring, with thousands and thousands of eyes watching her from all sides.

Her steps quickened as a result.

It wasn’t a long way from the wharf; she was at the temple gate in almost no time at all. Phượng Ngân didn’t rush in immediately but stopped to look around.

“No couplets engraved, no guardian statues, either. Hmm, not sure if this temple is even enshrining anything good. Also, why go to a temple to eat bánh trôi?”

She was still thinking to herself when from inside the temple, a hoarse voice called out:

“If you’re here to eat, why haven’t you come in already?”

“Coming!”

Seeing that whoever inside was already aware of her presence, Phượng Ngân found no reason to delay the inevitable. Might as well come in to see what they wanted. Besides, if Điền Quý had wished to harm her, he wouldn’t need to bother with this many tricks.

The interior of the temple was quite simple. The yard was paved with red bricks, with bamboos planted on either side. The main hall was built in an arc as if hugging the well in the middle of the yard. All rooms were closed and carefully sealed with sealing papers[1]As a reminder, “Bùa,” as explained previously in chapter 2, is a term in Asian culture, referring to a piece of paper, white or yellow, with writings on them to use for various purposes, … Continue reading. The well was also sealed shut with a copper cap–fixed to the ground by iron chains–with design patterns from the Phùng Nguyên Era.

An old woman with a hunched back sat atop the well. On the table next to her were a large pot and stacks of bowls and spoons for eating. As the old woman lifted her head to look at her, Phượng Ngân was slightly spooked by her white eyes and creepy grin behind the curtain of gray hair.

“You’re here for the cake, yes?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Coming right up! Sit, sit! I haven’t had a customer here in a while!”

The old woman eagerly opened the pot and prepared her a bowl of bánh trôi nước. A single glance at the content of the bowl was almost enough to make Phượng Ngân throw up. The liquid was sticky and gooey, with a few dozens of black seeds–bigger than sesame seeds–floating back and forth. The cakes themselves were pale green, gave off a fishy and rotten odor, and occasionally moved. In short, the bowl of bánh trôi from the hunched-back woman looked like phlegm swimming in a bowl of toads’ eggs.

Phượng Ngân reached for the bowl and immediately withdrew her hands. It was as hot as a furnace; her fingertips were already turning red from the touch.

She never expected a bowl of dessert that looked cold would be scalding hot instead.

The old woman said:

“Sometimes life is like a bowl of floating cake; if you rush into things, you might get burnt. How about you let it cool for a bit and–if you don’t mind–talk to this dying old woman in the meantime? It’s been a long while since anyone came to this remote island in the middle of nowhere[2]Original Vietnamese expression: “khỉ ho cò gáy” (literally “monkey cough, crane roost”), an idiom used to say remote, out of the way, so far from civilization where “monkey would cough … Continue reading.”

Not sensing any ill intention from the old woman, Phượng Ngân said:

“Grandmama, can I ask a question? Please forgive me if it offends you.”

“You want to know if I’m even a living being to be dying, right? I am, indeed, flesh and blood and everything.”

She paused and stared far away. Light reflected off her eyes as if scenes from her past were playing in front of her.

After a while, the old woman patted the hunch on her back:

“If it weren’t for this little ol’ debt, I’d be dust and bones a long time ago.”

“You are…”

“I’ve long forgotten my own name, child. Hundreds of years have passed. Flowers bloomed and withered; people came and went. Everyone just wanted to finish their business and go away as fast as they can. If no one cared who I was, what’s the point of remembering what I’m called? After all, no one ever uses their own name.

A mortal woman who had lived for hundreds of years on this River of the Dead?!

Phượng Ngân couldn’t believe her own ears. She silently wondered how the old woman could possibly bear the loneliness gnawing at her soul after all this time.

The old lady smiled:

“Oh, pardon this old woman! I’m rambling, aren’t I? It’s been so long since I’ve had a conversation. The food should be cool now. You should hurry up and eat it so you could be on your way.”

“Grandmama, I’m actually not in any hurry. I’d like to hear your story if you’d like to tell me. What is this temple? Why don’t you leave?”

“Why would you want to know these things, child?”

“If someone dares to keep you here against your will, then I’ll take care of them for you, grandmama. I may not look it, but I’m actually very strong, you’ll see!”

Phượng Ngân said with a smile and put her hand on her heart as if taking an oath.

The old lady laughed:

“Oh, no, dear. No one is keeping me here. I volunteered to watch over this temple, child.”

“If you’ve said so, then I won’t ask about that anymore. But who does this temple enshrine, ma’am?”

“Look at this temple, child. What does it look like to you? Two rows of trees on either side, the main hall shaped like a circle around the yard, a well in the middle…”

“Hmm, what does it look like?”

“An eye, don’t you see? This temple is called ‘Linh Thị Miếu,’ or simply speaking, it’s the Temple of the Eye, child.” – The old woman answered with a laugh.

Phượng Ngân continued:

“I saw a sign near the wharf that says, ‘No Điềns allowed,’ I happen to have a friend with this last name; could you tell me why there’s such rule?”

Hearing that, the old woman’s face changed. She asked:

“Your friend’s a Điền? He didn’t come in, did he?”

“No, ma’am. He knew about the rule, so he didn’t dare set foot on this island.”

“That’s good.”

The hunched lady gave a sigh of relief, then explained:

“The Điềns are banned from this place according to Heaven’s Will. I don’t know why myself. When I took over the position here, they told me that the Điền family was an insolent bunch who didn’t respect the gods. So, they are absolutely not allowed to set foot anywhere on this island.”

The two of them chatted for a while, Phượng Ngân updated the hunched woman on current events in the world of the living. When hearing about the recent wars, chaos, and famine that lasted half a century, the old woman cried:

“No wonder why there were so many Ma Da in this river these past few decades. Oh!”

Phượng Ngân then told her of more happy news. The old woman was in a much better mood as she smiled widely.

Glancing at her watch and realizing she was late for the appointed time, Phượng Ngân hurriedly brought the bowl of bánh trôi to her mouth and took a sip. As soon as it touched her lips, the two big cakes went straight down her throat before she could taste a thing.

Phượng Ngân said goodbye to the old woman, promising to visit when she could, then ran like the wind out of the temple. With her speed, it didn’t take long to reach the wharf, where the coffin sampan had already been anchored down and waiting since who knew when. The Water Spider’s legs were crossing and uncrossing as if he was incredibly nervous about being there. Meanwhile, Điền Quý was lying on his back like he didn’t have a care in the world, his eyes seemingly glue to the paper he had in his hands. The fact he was holding it upside down outed him as a crook pretending to be a scholar[3]A common Vietnamese expression/idiom. Meaning fairly self-explanatory., though.

When the Water Spider saw her coming, he said:

“Oh, you’re okay? That’s good!”

She glanced over at Điền Quý and sighed.

The guy looked as calm and collected as ever, as if he didn’t care whether she lived or died. For anyone who didn’t know any better, they’d think Điền Quý was a stranger, while the Water Spider was her companion.

Phượng Ngân replied:

“What’s to worry about? She’s an easy-going woman, isn’t she?”

The girl sat down, temporarily ignoring the awe-filled gaze of the Water Spider to turn and ask Điền Quý:

“The bowl of bánh trôi was not that bad. Why did you have to overdo with the warning like that?”

He sat up:

“You enjoyed the taste?”

“Aside from looking awful and smelling really bad, it didn’t really taste like anything after cooling down.” – Phượng Ngân replied, her voice indifferent.

Điền Quý gave her a thumb up to praise her:

“That bowl of bánh trôi is the absolute worst thing anyone can taste in their life.”

“But…”

“You don’t understand. The pot was enchanted. No matter who you are–be it gods, demons, ghosts, or men–, it will taste like whatever you find most disgusting in all your life.”

“But I honestly found it normal. If what you said is true, then wouldn’t it be even more absurd?” – Phượng Ngân asked.

Điền Quý shook his head:

“Not at all. The old woman must have really taken a liking to you to have given you such special treatment.”

The Water Spider’s jaw dropped in disbelief. He stammered:

“No way! You mean to tell me someone managed to catch the eyes of that ill-tempered hundred-eyes old hag?”

“Hey! Don’t you two feel ashamed for talking behind her back like that? Wait a minute! Hang on, hundred-eyes?”

Notes:

Notes:
1 As a reminder, “Bùa,” as explained previously in chapter 2, is a term in Asian culture, referring to a piece of paper, white or yellow, with writings on them to use for various purposes, including, but not limited to, warding off evil, sealing entities, bewitching someone, etc. As there are no one equivalent words, it’ll be translated depending on the usage between paper talisman, sealing papers, etc.
2 Original Vietnamese expression: “khỉ ho cò gáy” (literally “monkey cough, crane roost”), an idiom used to say remote, out of the way, so far from civilization where “monkey would cough and crane would roost.”
3 A common Vietnamese expression/idiom. Meaning fairly self-explanatory.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: