Every year, Vietnamese people go absolutely crazy over Tet. It's our major holiday -- the only time when the country shuts down and people take it easy. They visit their families, clean their homes, decorate, cook, and square away their debts. It's a time to prepare for renewal and rebirth. I usually become a clean freak.
After the house is in order, I reward myself by driving to the nearby Vietnamese enclave in San
Jose, California, to buy flowering branches of blossoms to decorate the house. (If you're curious, I go to the entrance of the Grand Century mall at the corner of McLaughlin and Story, to be specific.) The blossoms are beautiful symbols of life and resilience. Shopping for the delicate branches is part of my annual ritual. In fact, Tet doesn't seem quite right without a few branches of blossoms in the house.
In Vietnam, delicate yellow apricot blossoms, called hoa mai, (above, right) are highly prized in the southern part of the country. The only ones I'm come across in the States have been on display at Tet festivals. The tree is hard to come by but you can certainly come close with Forsythia (right) branches.
Forsythia are grown in the States and usually start flowering in February. This year, with Tet falling in early February (February 7, to be specific), you may be lucky. Forsythia are native to East Asia (China, Korea and Japan) so you'd be staying within the Asian family of flowers.
Northern Vietnamese people prefer reddish-pink or pink blossoms because those hues are harbingers of good fortune. Intensely colored peach blossoms, called hoa dao, are favored by northerners. In the U.S., vibrant quince blossoms, which are flowering right now(!!), are a fabulous substitute. Their intense color always stop me in my tracks.
Around my neighborhood, there are scraggly quince bushes blooming right now. If it' s on public property, I sometimes break off a little branch or two to take home. Since it's not good to pilfer, try a floral shop.
Stone fruit trees (peach, plum and apricot) should start to bloom around Tet too, and their delicate pink flowers are drop-dead gorgeous. When I shop for Tet blossoms, most of what's sold are the light-pink ones. The branches are long and unwieldy so make sure to gently wrap them in newspaper and then transport them home with care. (Bring newspaper with you because the vendor is not likely to have any.) Because the blossoms are mostly in full bloom (or about to open), they can drop flowers and petals in your car, which can be a pain to clean up.
If you don't have yellow, reddish-pink or pink blossoms, white ones will be just fine too!
How to treat the branches: Regardless of how you obtain your branches and which one you get, when you get home, use a hammer to break apart a bit of each branch at the cut end. Crushing the fibrous end ensures that the branch will absorb water well. They'll last longer. Put them in a heavy vase, lest they tip over a small one, and enjoy them for a couple of weeks. The branches have a life of their own (they may not stand upright and beautiful on their own) so bunch them together with a rubber band before putting them in the vase. Don't forget to change the water every few days.
Growing these trees: If you're inspired to grow these trees, source them in the next few weeks. Check at Viet markets or shopping areas about a week before Tet. There's usually an itinerant vendor who shows up to offer potted trees and/or cut branches; these vendors have a way with forcing the blooms to give a dramatic showing around Tet every year. Bring cash.
Or, check with specialty nurseries. Every year, you'll have a supply of branches to bring cheer to your home inside and out.
And if the blossoms are unavailable or if you just want to add to the merriment, get a pot or two of fluffy, golden chrysanthemums.
Got any Tet floral tips? Please share them with the rest of us!
For more information:
- Locations of 2008 Tet Flower markets in Saigon (HCM City's People's Committee)
- Photos of Tet festivities in Saigon (Check out the flowers, parades and throngs of people. You know the year by the animal in the pictures. 2007 was the Year of the Pig.)
- 2008 Schedule of Tet activities in Saigon (Fireworks, flower markets, banh tet festivals, music concerts, it's all happening in Saigon)