Apricot blossoms flowering in southern Vietnam
Falling on the same day as the Chinese New Year, Vietnamese Tet is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. It’s a time when businesses and schools close up shop and people return home to their families to celebrate. During this festive period, Vietnamese decorate their businesses and houses with colorful symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.
Spring comes very early
Tet is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Based on the lunar calendar, it marks the arrival of spring. This usually falls somewhere in January or February.
Spring in February you say? Well as we discovered after a month here in January, there is very little variation between the seasons. That’s because Vietnam has a tropical ‘monsoon’ climate. Being near the equator, its temperature changes very little year round. Instead, the seasons are defined more by how much rainfall there is and naturally, what’s blooming.
Vietnamese Tet decorations outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh
Vietnamese Tet 2019 takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for quite a while. Every day brings new surprises – bright yellow apricot trees flank business doorways, deep pink peach blossoms embellish shop windows and kumquat trees heavy with ripe fruits are displayed in living rooms and hotel lobbies.
And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.
Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry
Yellow apricot blossoms (Hoa Mai)
It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a bouquet of these brilliant yellow flowers. Popularly known as yellow mai (spring) flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.
The shrubs blossom profusely here during Vietnamese Tet, where they are viewed as the spirit of the holiday. The timing of their blooms, coupled with the fact that the plants can endure the year-long heat and humidity of the region, make them very special flowers indeed. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are many beautiful artificial renditions as well.
The five-petal variety, most common in the southern part of the country, symbolizes the ‘Five Blessings” of longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And the deep yellow color represents good luck, happiness and prosperity.
Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam
Peach blossoms (Hoa Dào)
Although you’ll see plenty of them in southern Vietnam, too, it’s the reddish-pink or pink petals of peach blossom that take center stage in northern Vietnam. Here, they are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely colored ones are most favored.
Peach blossoms are believed to ward off evil spirits. Blooming in early spring in the north (during Tet), they bring fresh vitality to the home. Given that northern Vietnam is colder than the south, the flowers also are believed to have ‘brave heart’ as they bloom while while other plants remain dormant. They are believed to keep the family healthy and peaceful.
Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh
Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon
Kumquat tree (Cây Quãt)
A popular decoration for the living room, the many deep orange fruits of the kumquat tree symbolize, well, fruitfulness. And they bring good health and good luck to family businesses as well. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, you see the plants for sale on virtually every corner.
Pruned kumquat trees
For the best luck, a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. Trees are carefully selected and prominently display in living rooms during Vietnamese Tet.
Businesses will typically place the shrubs at the front door where they are in clear view of the street.
Kumquat tree fruits
Tradition holds that the kumquat tree represents many generations. The fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.
Bonsai and other important flowers
Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in the festivities, each with their own special meaning. Among them are the marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, which are broadly referred to as the yellow daisy.
Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh
Pots of these bright yellow flowers can be seen all over the city, in front of homes, businesses and in temples and pagodas. Symbol of life, these flowers are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.
The Vietnamese purchase these special plants from lunar mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Thi Ky in Ho Chi Minh City. They keep them from the beginning of the holiday until mid- Lunar New Year.