• Flower Power: A Guide to Vietnam's Flowers

    The peach flower is a sign of luck by Justin Mott

Traveling through Việt Nam, you’ll see flowers and plants used or depicted in artworks, handicrafts and architecture. We look into the symbolism behind Vietnam’s favourite flora.

Lotus blooms

Flowers of Vietnam Lee Starnes

The flower most closely associated with Vietnam is the lotus, with the pink lotus serving as the national flower. These blossoms have long been linked to Buddhism, nobility and purity of thought. An old chant states:

“No other species in the lake can rival lotuses

Green leaves, white blossoms and yellow pistils

Yellow pistils, white blossoms and green leaves

Never tarnished by the dirty mud nearby.”

In Vietnam, two colours of lotus are preferred: pink and white. Lotus patterns are an ancient theme in Vietnam’s decorative arts, often used in community halls, temples and pagodas. Ceramic lotus petals from the Lý Dynasty (1009 - 1225) are displayed in the Thăng Long Citadel in Hanoi. The shape of Vietnam’s most famous pagoda, the 11th century One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, was inspired by a lotus flower. Lotus motifs adorn the 17th century Bút Tháp Pagoda in Bắc Ninh province.

Every traditional village in Vietnam boasts a bamboo hedge, a banyan tree and a lotus pond. Pink lotus blooms became symbols of romantic love, as shown in the verse:

“Yesterday I swept water by the temple

Forgetting my shirt on a lotus

May you return it to me?

Or will you keep it as a love token?


Unbreakable bamboo

Flowers of Vietnam Aaron Joel Santos

A well known Vietnamese folktale tells of a baby boy named Thánh Gióng who could neither walk nor talk until he was three years old. At that time, the nation was invaded and the king called for volunteers to fight the Yin forces. Gióng asked for massive amounts of rice, grew rapidly to become a giant, and—mounted on a metal horse and armed with a bamboo spear—set off to save his homeland.

As shown by this tale, bamboo is a symbol of the bravery and indomitability of Vietnamese people. Bamboo bends but is hard to break. Itrepresents the Vietnamese martial art Vovinam. In the past, every Vietnamese village was encircled by a thick bamboo hedge, which helped to keep out bandits and invaders.

The proverb, “When the bamboo is old/The bamboo sprouts appear,” reminds Vietnamese people that their nation can never be obliterated. When one generation dies, the next rises.

Vietnam’s best known architect, Võ Trọng Nghĩa, has found fame making incredible domed structures out of this quintessentially Vietnamese material. To see his work, treat yourself to a drink in the bamboo dining hall of the Nam A resort near Đà Nẵng or visit the community centre of Diamond Island in the east of Ho Chi Minh City.


Peach and ochna flowers

Flowers of Vietnam Justin Mott

During the Lunar New Year, every family in Vietnam’s North displays boughs of pink peach blossoms in their home, while Southern families display yellow ochna flowers. Pink and red are considered lucky, so the peach blooms are intended to bring good luck in the New Year. Thanks to their bright golden colour, ochna blooms are symbols of wealth and abundance. Furthermore, their name “mai” sounds similar to the word “may” (good luck) in the Southern dialect. Both peach and ochna blooms have five petals, said to represent the Five Good Fortunes: Happiness, Fortune, Longevity, Affluence and Peace.


Rice

Flowers in Bloom Justin Mott

No plant is more closely linked to Vietnamese culture than rice, which remains the nation’s staple crop. Vietnam is one of the world’s largest rice-exporters. Vietnamese culture arose in the northern Red River Delta based around the farming of wet rice. The long, skinny shape of Vietnam is often compared to two baskets of rice slung from a shoulder pole. In Vietnam, a meal isn’t a meal without rice. The popular greeting “ăn cơm chưa?” literally translates as “have you eaten rice yet?”

Cakes made of rice flour or sticky rice flour are key offerings during the Lunar New Year, and at many festivals and weddings. Keep an eye out for bánh chưng— traditional Vietnamese square rice cake made of sticky rice, mung beans and pork that is offered to the ancestors during the Lunar New Year and during the Festival of the Hùng Kings.  Not surprisingly, rice cultivation is celebrated in many Vietnamese arts including water puppetry, where you’ll see the puppets planting and harvesting wet rice.

Venturing out into Vietnam’s countryside it’s hard not to find rice paddies. In Central Vietnam, beautiful paddies lie just a short bike ride out of Hội An. Meanwhile, the highland region around Sapa is famous for its terraced emerald rice fields, which turn gold in August or early September.

by Elka Ray

Elka Ray is a Canadian/UK author and illustrator who lives in Central Vietnam. She’s written two novels, Hanoi Jane and Saigon Dark, and is also the creator of a series of popular kids’ books about Vietnam. Learn more about Elka’s fiction at elkaray.com and her children’s books at stickyriceworld.com.