Flowers, fruit, decor: Everything you need for Lunar New Year is at this MS Coast market

·4 min read

By Monday, Tyler Ly had become almost inured to the holiday songs that have been playing on a loop at Lee’s Supermarket for weeks.

Ly, a 24-year-old manager at the store, had heard the cheerful lyrics “Xuân đã về” (“Spring is here”) and “Tết, tết, tết, tết, đến rồi” (“Tết is coming”) so many times that now, he barely noticed them.

But the impending arrival of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Festival, Tết, which this year falls on Feb. 1, was visible in other ways: For a Monday mid-afternoon, the store was crowded, as people shopped for holiday supplies. And it was packed with flowers, decorations and foods that are an essential part of celebrating Tết.

Lunar New Year is celebrated in China, Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries. The holiday begins with the first new moon of the lunar calendar, generally sometime in January or February. Workplaces close and people travel home to start the new year with family and friends. The preparations and celebrations will last for weeks around Feb. 1; in Biloxi, the biggest community event will take place at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church on Oak Street from Feb. 11-Feb. 13.

On the Coast, most Lunar New Year celebrants are Vietnamese, and most of the holiday items at Lee’s reflect Vietnamese traditions.

As the biggest Vietnamese grocery store on the Coast, Lee’s is a pre-Tết destination for many families.

“We cover most of the basics,” said Ly, now in his fifth year working at the store.

Tyler Ly, 24, an employee at Lee’s Grocery, cashes out customers at the check out counter at Lee’s in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
Tyler Ly, 24, an employee at Lee’s Grocery, cashes out customers at the check out counter at Lee’s in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

Shopping at Lee’s

On Monday, Susan Pham was examining the pots of yellow chrysanthemums clustered wherever there was space. She chose two and placed them in her cart, along with meat she will prepare for the holiday.

“We got two already,” she said.

Pham, who has lived in Biloxi for about 20 years, said she has shopped at Lee’s almost weekly since it opened about 15 years ago. She planned to spend Tết cooking and eating with family and visiting friends.

Other shoppers came from farther away: Benjamin Tran had traveled from Montgomery, Alabama with his friend and her mother for a show at the Beau Rivage. They stopped at Lee’s for items that are harder to find in Montgomery, which Tran said has no Asian market as big as Lee’s.

The cart was full of yellow chrysanthemums, red wall hangings for the Year of the Tiger, and branches to decorate the home.

Cat Nguyen, who moved to Biloxi a little more than a year ago from Houston, said she didn’t need to buy much this year because she had saved decorations from previous years, bought from shops in Houston, Lee’s, and Wal-Mart.

Nguyen, whose family is Vietnamese and French, said she misses the variety of Asian grocery stores and restaurants in the bigger city. But at least in Biloxi there’s Lee’s.

“You make do with what you have,” she said.

Shoppers browse the shelves at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
Shoppers browse the shelves at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.

Stocking up for Tết celebrations

Ly, a 2015 graduate of Ocean Springs High School, discussed the items Lee’s sells ahead of the holiday.

  • Yellow chrysanthemums: The potted plants tucked in every corner at Lee’s symbolize life, and the color yellow represents prosperity and good luck.

  • Bánh chưng and Bánh Tết: These cakes, made of sticky rice filled with mung beans and pork, are a quintessential Tết dish. The former is square and eaten in northern Vietnam, while the latter is cylindrical and eaten in the South. Ly said Lee’s buys their bánh chưng and bánh Tết from local cooks.

  • Mứt Tết: Trays of dried and candied fruits, including coconut strips, lemon and mango, are stacked near the meat counter at Lee’s. During holiday gatherings, hosts set out these trays for guests to snack on while chatting and drinking green tea.

  • Tiger decorations: This year’s Tết marks the start of the Year of the Tiger in the Zodiac calendar. Lee’s offers red wall hangings featuring tigers to mark the year.

  • Lucky money envelopes: During Tết, older people give younger relatives and friends Li Xi, or lucky money. Lee’s sells red envelopes for this purpose. The small envelopes represent discretion and avoiding comparison, while the color represents prosperity.

  • Fruit: Trays bearing five different kinds of fruit are a staple in Vietnamese households during Tết, with each fruit having a different symbolic meaning. The types of fruits varies by region but often includes papaya, apple custard and mango. According to legend, a royal family once survived on an island by eating only watermelon, so pairs of watermelons are also a common home decoration during the holiday. Ly said Lee’s buys “fancy watermelons” for Tết.

  • Hoa Mai and hoa đào: Yellow Mai flowers are an important household decoration for families in southern Vietnam, while pink peach blossoms and trees are more common in northern Vietnam. Lee’s sells both.

Bánh chưng, a Vietnamese cake made of sticky rice, mung beans and pork normally eaten for the Lunar New Year, at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
Bánh chưng, a Vietnamese cake made of sticky rice, mung beans and pork normally eaten for the Lunar New Year, at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
A sign that reads “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
A sign that reads “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese at Lee’s Grocery in Biloxi on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
Lucky red envelopes, used to pass out money for the Lunar New Year, on sale at Lee’s Grocery, an Asian supermarket in Biloxi, on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.
Lucky red envelopes, used to pass out money for the Lunar New Year, on sale at Lee’s Grocery, an Asian supermarket in Biloxi, on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022.