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 that 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 amount of rainfall and, in particular, what’s blooming.
Vietnamese Tet flowers 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 a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees appear in business doorways, pink blossoms pop up in shop windows and kumquat trees heavy with ripe fruits arrive in living rooms and hotel lobbies.
Moreover, 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 shrub blossoms profusely here during Vietnamese Tet, where it is viewed as the spirit of the holiday. The timing of its blooms, coupled with the fact that it can endure year-long heat and humidity, makes it a very special flower indeed. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are many artificial renditions as well.
Generally, the five-petal variety is the most common in the southern part of the country where each section stands for one of five blessings; longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. In addition, the deep yellow color of this Tet flower represents happiness, prosperity and good luck.
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 the 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 bloom early in the north. Due to the fact that northern Vietnam is colder than the south, these Tet flowers are believed to have ‘brave heart’ since they bloom while other plants are dormant. They are also presumed to 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 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. Consequently, the more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. Trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes 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. 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 important flowers
Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in the festivities, 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
Pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers are found all over the city embellishing homes, businesses, 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.