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 return home to their families. Like most holidays, it’s a time of year 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 important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it marks 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 little variation between the seasons. Since Vietnam is located near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates year-round. So typically, people 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 for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees appear in business doorways, peach blossoms adorn store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit decorate many a living room and hotel lobby.
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 jar of these brilliant yellow flowers. Commonly known as yellow mai flower, the apricot blossom is considered the quintessential symbol of spring.
In southern Vietnam, apricots are one of the first trees to flower during Tet. As a result, they are seen as the embodiment of the holiday spirit. In Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find many artificial renditions as well.
But that’s only half the story. Each aspect of the apricot blossom also carries meaning. The individual petals, for instance, stand for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And the color yellow 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 flower early in northern Vietnam. For this reason, the Vietnamese consider peach blossoms to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that the 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)
It may not be a flower, but the kumquat tree nonetheless plays a key role in Vietnamese Tet traditions as well. 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, the Vietnamese believe 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 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 where they are 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 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. (Click on the link to read about our morning visit to this incredible market.) They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.