Vietnam rice paper artisans roll with tradition

Nguyen Thi Hue cooks rice paper over a makeshift charcoal stove at the exit of a ferry crossing near Thuan Hung Village on July 7, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

CAN THO, VIETNAM (AFP) - Stuffed, rolled, baked or fried: rice paper rules in food-obsessed Vietnam, where diners have spurned factory-made versions for homespun ones, propping up a thriving cottage industry in the Mekong Delta.

They're a staple on dinner tables from north to south, eaten fresh with fish, fried with pork, or baked on an open flame and eaten like crackers - a popular bar snack.

But regardless of how they're prepared, one thing most people in Vietnam agree on: homemade is always better.

"It's better than the factory version, try it, it's tastier," Nguyen Thi Hue told AFP, offering a baked coconut version at her roadside snack stop in southern Can Tho province.

She sources her "banh trang" in nearby Thuan Hung village, known for producing some of the finest in the Mekong Delta, long renowned as the "rice bowl of Vietnam".

Some families earn a living making rice paper, even as factories have popped up producing creative flavours like salted shrimp, coconut or versions made with the notoriously potent durian fruit.

"Customers prefer those produced handmade in the village. We don't use chemicals, they're just natural," said 26-year-old Bui Minh Phi, a third-generation rice paper maker in Thuan Hung.

He can earn US$65 (S$87) per day spinning the trade, or double that during the busy lunar new year period.

It's a common sentiment in Vietnam, where many diners eschew fast food joints for home-style restaurants serving pho noodle soup or banh mi sandwiches like their grandmothers might have made it.

Rice paper making is a matter of family heritage for many like Ha Thi Sau.

On a recent morning in Thuan Hung, she tutored her daughter on the age-old technique she learned from her aunt: pour the sweetened batter - a secret family recipe - onto a pan, before transferring to a bamboo mat.

The operation remains a family affair: Sau's son-in-law feeds the fire with rice husks, while her 83-year-old mother washes dishes on the river bank. Though other jobs are available in her village - once a rural backwater now dotted with modern cafes and mobile phone shops - she doesn't dream of abandoning her trade.

"I've been making rice paper for so long, I don't want to leave it for another job," she said, as the scent of coconut wafted in the air.

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