Apricot blossoms flowering in southern Vietnam
Given that Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year fall on the same day, you could say it’s like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and family members return home for the holiday. One of the most important aspects of the festivities are the many decorative symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. 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 important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it celebrates the arrival of spring. This usually occurs somewhere in late January or early 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 barely fluctuates year-round. So generally, people mark the seasons 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 for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees appear in business doorways, peach blossoms pop up in store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit arrive 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. Commonly known as yellow mai (spring) flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.
Apricot shrubs bloom naturally in the south during Tet, where they are also viewed as the spirit of the holiday. The timing of their blossoms, coupled with the fact that they can endure year-long heat and humidity, make them very special flowers indeed. There are many artificial renditions as well.
Moreover, each of the flower petals stands for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. Even the color yellow is significant. According to Vietnamese Tet traditions, it represents happiness, prosperity and good luck.
Apricot 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 blossom early in the north. Given that northern Vietnam is colder than the south, the Vietnamese consider the flowers to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that peach flowers 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)
In addition to these key New Years flowers, the kumquat tree plays an important 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 also bring good health and good luck to family businesses.
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. In accordance with Vietnamese Tet traditions, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday.
Most businesses place the shrubs at their entrance where they are in clear view of the street.
Kumquat tree fruits
The various parts of the kumquat tree also represent many 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), 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 embellish homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.
The Vietnamese typically purchase these special plants from mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s Ho Thi Ky. They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.