Flowers for Tết

For several days already residents of the big cities like Hanoi have been swarming the markets, buying the food, drinks, gifts and decorations customary to the celebration of Tết—the Lunar New Year. Some streets, like Hàng Mã and Hàng Lược in the Old Quarter, are blocked off to vehicular traffic to enable people to set up stalls to sell holiday items like plants and flowers, toys and dolls, lanterns and wall hangings, pendants and wind chimes, bowls and vases, antiques and ritual gear.

Red lanterns and banners with Happy New Year messages will embellish the streets. Booths around Hoàn Kiếm Lake will offer children’s rides and photo-ops with live monkeys or youths dressed like the character Monkey from the well-known story Journey to the West. Stages by the lake at night feature singers, dancers, jugglers and circus acts. But Tết is basically a domestic festival, a time family members renew their ties to one another and to their ancestors and their gods. And most of the important rites, feasts and social calls take place within the homes.

Therefore, most of the decorations purchased in the markets at this time are for use at home. Among these, flowers and ornamental plants are essential to a proper domestic atmosphere during Tết. They add color, freshness and fragrance to the indoor environment. Any attractive flower will do this, but Vietnamese in particular favor the narcissus (called thủy tiên—water fairy—in Vietnamese) for its elegant shape and its scent, and the chrysanthemum for its hardihood in cold weather, its strong petals and vibrant colors.

In the north, peach blossoms are also part of household decorations at Tết. Besides the appeal of their vivid pink to bright red colors, people associate peach blossoms with both happiness and loyalty: the former because of an ancient story of two scholars who wandered along a river lined with peach blossoms and ended up in a fairy land; the latter because three heroes in the first chapter of The Three Kingdoms swore an oath of mutual loyalty in a peach garden. Traditionally, people also believed peach blossoms could expel evil, important to provide the right circumstances for the family to receive and honor both t heir ancestors and their holiday guests and relatives. A room bedecked with color and filled with fragrance is the perfect venue to welcome guests and wish them a Happy New Year. At Tết, they say it with flowers.

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