Bloom, Saigon, Bloom
The last yellow petals have fallen, the final oversized watermelons have been discarded and dried out potted mums litter the sidewalk like yesterday’s newspapers. The last vestige of Tet, Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is actually Abba’s sickly sweet Happy New Year playing an endless loop in my head, quite possibly because I’ve heard it absolutely everywhere for the last two months.
But it was quite a ride. My first Tet in Vietnam, these will be my lasting memories…
The city was literally carpeted in flowers. Everywhere you looked, a field of red (luck) and gold (wealth) brought a softness to the ordinarily drab urban landscape. Potted chrysanthemums were popular, as were marigolds, whose Vietnamese name vạn thọ literally means “live 10,000 years”.
I loved that in addition to seeing the regular cargo of live ducks or a massive pile of boxes, you’d be just as likely to see entire flowering trees or potted plants strapped on the back of someone’s motorbike.
The city was awash in color. Bright red flags with either a yellow star or hammer and sickle lined the roads. Colorful Buddhist flags fluttered atop pagodas. Lanterns adorned street lamps.
For the 10th year in a row, Nguyen Hue street in the heart of the financial district was totally closed down, turned into a pedestrian-only free flower show.
It was delightfully kitschy, recreating scenes of countryside goodness – fishing, planting, harvesting – all with flowers. People broke out their cheesiest poses and didn’t care that everyone was looking.
Dragons danced with wild abandon, leaping from pedestal to pedestal and parents bought silly trinkets for their children with full knowledge that they’d likely be jettisoned by day’s end.
Ringing in the new year is always about abundance. Or at least the outwardly show of abundance. Sticky rice cakes, both savory and sweet, are piled high, filled with things like red bananas and yellow mung beans. The normal-sized, oval watermelons look absolutely anemic when compared to gigantic, perfectly round ones – not particularly sweet, but impressive-looking on the altar.
Produce comes in only two sizes: huge and gargantuan, a harbinger of hoped-for plenty for the year ahead. Wacky fruits make their cameo, surfacing only during Tet, such as the ornamental red pineapples cleverly draped over a fire hydrant or the creepy Buddha’s Hand fruit, guaranteed to give off a fragrant scent for six months.
Farmers meticulously groom their plants to be in full bloom for this narrow 10-day window. Kumquat trees are impossibly laden with fruit. Flowering shrubs are coaxed to be in full bloom exactly on the first day of the new year. A small tree like the one pictured typically goes for USD 100, whereas larger ones fetch many times that price. You can even pay a “nurturing fee” for a gardener to take the tree back and take care of it for the next 50 weeks, just in time for next year’s fleeting display of flowers, fruits and frivolity.