Vietnam is recovering this week from another Lunar New Year – nine blissful days where the country practically comes to a standstill to ring in the Year of the Goat.
The city slowly empties as work-obsessed urbanites head back to their countryside hometowns, shops are shuttered and you can practically feel the country taking a collective deep breath.
Growing up, my parents raised us without the superstitions and rituals that went along with Tet (the name for Vietnamese New Year, celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year).
We didn’t make little offerings of betel nuts and shot glasses of alcohol to the kitchen god who is supposed to ride his carp back to Heaven and report on all the goings-on in the house. We didn’t worry about who in the family should be the first to set their foot down on the floor on the first day of the year. We didn’t ask a particularly wealthy or successful family member to be the first to visit our house, ostensibly bringing a year’s worth of good fortune with him. We didn’t refrain from sweeping the house with the belief that we’d sweep away all our good luck. We didn’t feel the need to empty out our fridge and freezer, clearing out the old (which explained all the weird mishmash meals we’d have at my grandparents’ house in the weeks leading up to Tet).
Instead, I remember Tet as being a time when family would fly in from all over the US and abroad. It was a time to renew friendships with distant cousins over beautifully presented dishes that my grandmother would only make once a year. I remember reaching out our greedy little hands to accept the “lucky” red lì xì envelopes the adults would give us, much to my parents’ chagrin. One year, as we got into the car, I gleefully pulled out a crisp new $20 bill while my sister, 6 years my elder, only got $10. My poor grandmother had mixed up the identical envelopes and only a Solomonic resolution prevented all-out fratricide.
While Tet isn’t the best time of year to travel to Vietnam – attractions are closed, hotels and transport double in price and people are stressed over having to spend lots of money (not unlike Western Christmas) – it is a great time to live in Vietnam.
The weeks leading up to Tet have a palpable buzz to them. Factory workers buy up blankets and gift baskets filled with food for loved ones back home, tangible evidence that their decision to leave their families and work in the big city has been worth it.
In the nights leading up to Tet, families gather together to make bánh chưng, square, sticky rice cakes stuffed with pork belly and mung beans and wrapped up in a pretty banana leaf package.
The cakes even have a legend behind them, showcasing the staples of Vietnam in one raffia-tied meal (along with a similar round cake called bánh tét, together representing Heaven and Earth).
After assembling the cakes, they’re boiled overnight in a huge pot, filling the neighborhood with the comforting smell of wood smoke. Whole families will stay up together to tend the fire, laughing and talking the night away.
But for me, the most palpable sign of Tet is the flowers. Impromptu nurseries pop up on every corner, literally carpeting Saigon in red and yellow fruits and flowers, bursting on the branch in an age-old concept of fertility and bounty.
Red symbolizes luck and warmth, found in the little red money envelopes given to children, dried red watermelon seeds eaten as snacks, and red daisies, roses and poinsettias (along with pink peach blossoms found in the dry, cold weather in Vietnam’s North).
And yellow is the color of gold, embodied in chrysanthemums, marigolds, sunflowers, kumquats and particularly in southern Vietnam, the bright yellow apricot blossoms.
Spring comes, flowers blossom.
Spring ends, they fade and fall.
Before our eyes, life passes by.
On our head, grey hair appears.
Yet, don’t say that when spring ends, there’s nothing left.
Last night, in the front yard, an apricot branch bloomed.
Whereas Western New Year comes in the dead of winter, Vietnamese New Year heralds the start of spring. I think this thousand-year-old poem by Zen master Man Giac embodies the never-ending cycle of life, a sense of new beginnings.
So it is that in the weeks leading up to Tet, every family, no matter how humble, will try to have a few branches of apricot blossoms in a prominent place in the house, if not an entire tree. It’s believed that the yellowish gold flowers signify wealth, prosperity and happiness for the coming year, especially if they reach their peak right around the first day of the year.
The spiritual significance of apricot blossoms finds its origin in Vietnamese folktale. An ancient story tells of a thoughtful, obedient daughter who grew up hunting with her father. When a half-man, half-python threatened the land, the courageous pair went out to slay the beast. Before the two set out, the girl’s mother made her a bright yellow tunic so they would be able to see her return from afar. In the ensuing battle, the monster was killed, but not before constricting the life from the brave daughter. Witnessing the tragic scene of the courageous, pious daughter, the God of Heaven took pity on her and gave her life, but only for nine days every year. In those nine days right around Tet, the family learned to live an entire year before the girl faded and disappeared. Though saddened by grief and loss, they found comfort in the thought of her returning every year at Tet. When the family grew old and passed away themselves, the girl no longer returned. Instead, she was turned into an apricot tree by the family altar. All throughout the year, the tree is covered in leaves. But during those precious few days at Tet, the tree blossoms, a shining yellow spectacle as bright as the tunic she wore in life.
While the story is most definitely fanciful, the superstitions surrounding the dainty blossoms are very real.
“When they blossom fully at Tet, it means your family will be joyous, prosperous and lucky in business. I remember as a kid, my mother put a few apricot branches in a vase. Somehow, on New Year’s Eve, the fan blew all the blossoms onto the floor. That year, our house got robbed so many times! I remember not even having clothes to wear to school,” says Vuong. “Then there was the time three years ago, when our apricot tree was stolen from right in front of our house. I got into an accident that year. Last year’s tree, though, bloomed from top to bottom. I never saw so many flowers! Last year was my best year for business ever.”
I tracked down Vuong, a Tet flower seller, near my home in Saigon to find out about the business behind these flowers whose sole purpose is to bloom for two weeks out of the year.
“We spend the year taking care of the trees very well: watering, pruning and fertilizing at the right times. Sometimes, though, trees die. It’s nature. But because customers only pay when they get the tree, that means all our efforts during the year will have gone down the drain if something happens to it. And we can’t switch them out because people have pictures of their tree from the year before, so they’ll know if it’s not theirs. Or sometimes, when they party, someone will pour beer or even discarded tea grounds into the pot and the trees will die. They’re quite sensitive, you know.”
Smaller trees can go for as little as VND 1 million (USD 50), and the sky’s the limit as to how expensive they can get. Out of Vuong’s 1,000 or so trees spread across six gardens in Thu Duc, just north of the city, he says his most prized tree is worth VND 1 billion (USD 50,000).
“A few years ago, someone offered me VND 700 million for it, but I wouldn’t sell it. It’s now over 80 years old and it comes from strong stock. The roots are solid.”
For those who can’t afford to buy their own tree outright or who aren’t prepared to take care of it year-round simply to enjoy its beauty for 2-4 weeks, many Tet flower specialists also offer apricot trees as rentals where for about 30% of its value, you can select your own tree and have it delivered to your home, guaranteed to be in full bloom just in time for the holidays. Anywhere from 20-30 days later, it’s picked up and goes back to the gardens, ready to be nurtured until the next Tet. Some people own their own trees and simply pay to have someone else maintain it, wedding dress-style.
I asked Vuong about selecting the perfect tree. Is it anything like Xmas trees in the West where sometimes people take pity on a bad-looking tree?
“I hear that in the West, some people might buy an ugly Christmas tree because they feel sorry for it. Not here. You can take pity on almost anything, but not a Tet tree. Because it represents someone’s fortune for the whole year, you have to pick a good one. People see a reflection of themselves in it – prosperous, vibrant, happy. Of course, you can’t always tell. Sometimes a tree looks great on the lot, but when someone takes it home, it may not blossom very much or the flowers aren’t pretty. Then there are the others that surprise you. Sometimes my workers will ask if they can have one of the trees that doesn’t sell, an ugly one or a weak-looking one. But for some reason, on Tet, it takes on a new life and becomes breathtakingly beautiful. What can you do?”
Vuong’s business is an incredibly niche and seasonal one. Not much happens for 11 months out of the year, but for those two weeks before and after Tet, his business literally blossoms.
There’s not much profit in this business. I only do it because it reminds me of my childhood. It brings joy to both the buyer and the seller. It’s also tradition. It’s what our ancestors have left behind for us. The Japanese have their cherry blossoms. We have apricot blossoms. Even if your house is small and crowded, seeing a few branches of yellow blossoms at Tet brightens up the whole house. It simply wouldn’t be Tet without them.
This post was based on an article I wrote for Heritage, the in-flight magazine of Vietnam Airlines. If you happen to be taking a flight this month, check out my article in the February 2015 issue. Or read it by clicking on the image below.