Tet falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year. And for the Vietnamese, this is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and people travel home for the holiday. Like most celebrations, it’s a time full of symbolism rooted in age-old traditions. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.
VIETNAMESE TET COMES EARLY
Ask the Vietnamese and they will tell you that Tet (also known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most popular holiday of the year. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it heralds the coming of spring. In tropical Vietnam, this usually occurs sometime in late January or early February.
Spring in February you say? Well, as we discovered after a month here in January, there is little variation between the seasons. Since Vietnam is located near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates. So people typically mark the seasons, not by temperature, but by amount of rainfall and what’s blooming.
Vietnamese Tet flowers outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh
This year, Tet takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations are well underway. Every day brings new Tet blossoms; yellow Mai flowers decorate business entryways, peach blossoms appear in shop windows and kumquat trees heavy with fruit embellish many a living room and hotel lobby.
And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower has its own special meaning.
Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry
YELLOW BLOSSOMS (HOA MAI)
It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t feature at least a jar of these brilliant yellow blooms. Commonly known as yellow Mai flowers (Hoa Mai), they are considered the quintessential symbol of spring.
In southern Vietnam, Hoa Mai are some of the first plants to bloom. For this reason, they are considered to be the embodiment of Tet. In Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find many artificial ones as well.
But that’s only half the story. Each aspect of Hoa Mai also has a meaning. The five petals, for instance, stand for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health, and love of virtues. And the color yellow symbolizes happiness, prosperity and good luck.
Hoa Mai blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam
PEACH BLOSSOMS (HOA DAO)
By contrast, in northern Vietnam it’s the peach blossom that takes center stage. In Hanoi, these rosy-pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely-colored ones are the most favored.
Peach trees flower early in cooler northern Vietnam. As a consequence, people say the flowers have ‘brave heart’ since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that Hoa Dao keep the family peaceful and healthy.
Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh
Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon
KUMQUAT TREE (CÂY QUAT)
It may not be a flower, but the kumquat tree also plays a key role in Vietnamese Tet traditions. During the Lunar New Year, it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruits symbolize fruitfulness. Kumquats are also believed to bring good health and good luck to family businesses.
Pruned kumquat trees
For the best luck, the Vietnamese search for a tree with 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. In accordance with Tet tradition, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday.
Most businesses, in fact, place the shrubs at their entrance in clear view of the street.
Kumquat tree fruits
As with the Tet flowers, all parts of the kumquat tree are significant. In this instance, they represent successive generations. As a rule, 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 KEY VIETNAMESE TET FLOWERS
Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in Vietnamese Tet traditions, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), and cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.
Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh
During the holiday, pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers can be found in homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.
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