What comes to mind when you think of summer?
Surf, sun and fun at the beaches? Hiking and camping in the mountains? Lazy days and balmy nights—and spontaneous road trips to unknown destinations?
For me, though, summer evokes a particular image imprinted on my mind since my early childhood in Saigon, Vietnam. But isn’t it always summer weather over there, you might ask. Well, you are partially correct in that it’s hot all year around in Saigon, but believe it or not, there is a distinct summer season there, too: From April to October, the southwest monsoon sweeps in from the Indian Ocean, bringing warm rain and higher temperatures that are so propitious to the native vegetation. Bathed in that soggy, steamy climate, every living plant naturally blooms its head off.
But one tree in particular stands out among that explosion of growth and colors: the royal poinciana tree. It’s called Phượng Vỹ in Vietnamese, which means “phoenix tail,” I’m not sure because of its fern-like leaves that weave a dense foliage or because of its clusters of glorious red flowers. This beautiful, stately tree grows effortlessly on all the streets of Saigon and everywhere else in South Vietnam, so much so that it has often been suggested that it be named the official tree of the country.
Such popularity springs not only from the tree’s physical attractiveness, as evidenced in the picture above, but also from the deep affection that schoolchildren of all ages feel toward it. For you see, every year in May or June when the royal poinciana flowers start to bloom profusely and the cicadas begin their wailing concert, it is the official sign that summer has arrived and school is letting out. Much earnest poetry has flowed at such time from innocent young hearts agonizing over the impending separation from their schoolmates and friends. Especially if those friends are leaving school for good, as some of mine were during the war years to be drafted into the armed forces.
It is why, after all those years, the image of flaming poinciana trees still remains the symbol of summer for me. While writing my book Once Upon a Mulberry Field, that image came back to me more vivid and brilliant than ever. It even inspired a scene at the Saigon Botanical Garden where Liên and her American friend Roger strolled together to the lotus pond along stands of century-old poinciana trees raining down red flowers all over them . . . I just wished I could have included a picture like the one above in that passage. But short of that, I thought I would share with you that little insight about the book, and my memory of summers back home. It was the least I could do.