James Pham

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.

This thousand-year-old poem by Zen master Man Giac speaks of the importance Vietnamese people place on spring flowers, saying that while people grow old, the cycle of life is never-ending. The Vietnamese obsession with flowers comes to a head around Tet, the Lunar New Year. Ho Chi Minh city is literally carpeted with flowers, signalling the start of spring. Mobile vendors set up roadside nurseries. Parks are turned into raucous displays of shrubs and plants, each branch impossibly loaded with flowers and fruit. Nguyen hue Street in downtown Saigon is shut down for its annual onekilometre- long Street of Flowers festival, where upwards of 100,000 potted plants create a magical, floral corridor.

Two colours dominate the Tet landscape: red, symbolising luck and warmth, found in the little red money envelopes given to children, dried red watermelon seeds eaten as snacks and red roses and poinsettias (along with dark pink peach blossoms found in Vietnam’s cold North); and yellow, the colour of gold, embodied in chrysanthemums, marigolds, sunflowers, kumquats and particularly in southern Vietnam, the bright yellow apricot blossoms.

In the weeks leading up to Tet, every family in North Vietnam, no matter how humble, will try to display a few branches of pink peach blossoms, if not an entire tree, in a prominent place in their house. In central or South Vietnam, yellow apricot (ochna) flowers are equally essential. it’s believed that these 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.

“Just like the Japanese have their cherry blossoms, we have our apricot blossoms,” says Mr. Vuong, owner of Bao anh apricot Blossoms (www.maitetbaoanh.com). “There’s something spiritual about it. 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,” he remembers forlornly. “ 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.”

For many who would rather be safe than sorry, a blooming apricot tree augurs well for the future.

Smaller trees can go for as little as VND 1 million, and the sky’s the limit as to how expensive they can get. Out of Mr. 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. “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 two to four weeks, many Tet flower specialists also offer apricot trees as rentals. For about 30 percent 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 to 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 tree and simply pay to have someone else maintain it.

“It’s pretty hard work,” says Mr. Vuong. “We try and take care of the trees very well, watering, pruning and fertilising 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. 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. Overall, there’s no profit in being an apricot tree gardener,” he says of his business which is quiet for eleven months of the year. So why does he do it? “It’stradition. It’s what our ancestors have left behind for us. Even if your house is small and crowded, seeing a few branches of yellow apricot blossoms at Tet brightens up the whole house. It simply wouldn’t be Tet without them.”