Above video: Hanoi’s peaceful flower villages provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Download the full transcript of the video here.
In the gloomy days of the northern Vietnamese winter, it comes as no surprise that only flower peddlers — rural women who pedal the streets with baskets of flowers tightly strapped to the back of their bicycles — can easily lift the gloom in Hanoi. Bundles of blooms in every colour of the rainbow light up the city and lend it more vibrancy. Most of the flowers available here are sourced from a number of flower villages in and around Hanoi, and a trip to any of these floral centres makes for a welcome respite from the noise and bustle of the city.
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On the west side of Hanoi sits Dam village, a sleepy spot dotted with a small handful of flower farms that are draped in long patches of white plastic. Winter is the time of the daisy, and peeking from beneath the plastic covers are patches of yellow. Dam was renowned for growing cucumbers and tomatoes before it shifted to flower growing in 1994. Many villagers rent extra land — covering an area eight times the size of Dam — in neighbouring areas such as Goi, Ke and Dien to grow more flowers. Most flowers from Dam are shipped to small northern provinces as well as several provinces in South Vietnam. During the rainy season, the farms enter a phase of rest and Dam villagers turn to growing vegetables, which they say is more profitable.
Recent years saw record numbers of families involved in growing lilies in the run-up to Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Lilies are sold at extortionate prices as the seeds are imported from Chile, the Netherlands and China. This is before you add the cost of refrigeration and transportation. Hoa, a Dam resident with 19 years’ experience of growing flowers, concedes: “Many families took out bank loans from their mortgages, of up to 500 billion dong (PHP1.03bn), to grow lilies.”
However, there seem to be clear signs of these financial risks paying off. Multi-story houses of various shapes loom far across the fields. But what goes up must come down. “This year many people are growing lilies, so fewer profits are generated than in the previous year.” Hoa pauses. “Growing flowers comes with many risks, as the market and weather rule the life of the flower grower.”
Go further up the road and you will reach Tay Tuu village, which is thronged with wholesale flower sellers haggling with retail buyers and honking motorbikes packed with vast bunches of freshly picked flowers. While conical-hatted women crouch over fields hand-picking the late bloomers, men in military hats pump water into the flowers. The quietness is constantly broken by the drone of bulldozers.
Once home to a vast carpet of rice paddies and vegetables, since 1995 Tay Tuu has miraculously morphed into what could possibly be Hanoi’s largest single-source flower supplier. The shift away from rice cultivation and towards flower growing has been viewed as a path out of poverty. “During the subsidy economy era (1976-86), people in Tay Tuu earned a living out of raising pigs and growing water spinach,” recalls Chu Van Hoa, a Tay Tuu native who now has 17 years’ experience of growing flowers. “A patch of rented rice paddy was traded for a certain amount of rice. As soon as those days ended, Tay Tuu got a facelift.”
Each February, the majority of daisies available in Tay Tuu are dispatched to China to gear up for Qingming Festival, the annual “tomb-sweeping” of ancestors’ graves, which accompanies the onset of spring. “The amount of flowers consumed during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is less than [the number used for] Qingming,” says Hoa. “However, they are sold at lower prices as the daisies chosen for shipping to China are smaller breeds.”
The area for growing flowers — according to Hoa — has shrunk as local authorities used to hoard farming land to build flower greenhouses, but the land is now left unused. As a result, flower growers are forced to rent land in other areas and travel further away from home. “For an area 360sqm wide, it will cost a flower grower two million dong per month and up to 20 million dong per year to rent,” she says.
Squirreled away from the long stretch of Au Co is Nhat Tan village, which specialises in peach flowers. The peach blossom — believed to bring luck to families — is used to decorate homes during the Tet festival. Nhat Tan was originally built on the foundations of a peach garden at Thong Nhat Park, which was then later reclaimed to make way for a waterpark project. Many families ended up relocating to Dong Xu, near the rocky plateau on the Red River, which had previously been home to cornfields.
“In the early days, some growers found ways to ship peach blossom trees to Hong Kong and France. Until 1971, their focus was on the market in South Vietnam,” recalls Nguyen Thai Long, a native resident who owns an area of 1,440sqm for growing peach blossom. In 1982, at a time when the state only allowed farmers to grow rice, many farmers made a bold move to ditch land for rice cultivation and switch to growing peach blossom. “Just imagine, in those days you would have to ask for permission to slaughter a pig. If you didn’t, you would get less food in the monthly ration food coupon,” reminisces Long.
Thanks to growing peach blossom, Long and his family have experienced a considerable change of fortune. Where once they inhabited a shabby, leaf-roofed hut, they’re now the proud owners of a two-story house with a garden. The shift from growing rice to growing blossom is, according to Long, down to two main reasons: firstly, the decline in available land, and secondly, the large profits that can be made from the blossom.
In 2009, a substantial amount of land at Nhat Tan was lost after a bitter struggle to an Indonesian company’s high-rise housing project and a Korean construction scheme. As a result, the land area available to the village is now reduced to only 28 hectares. Yet today Nhat Tan, one of the last remaining ower villages in Hanoi, is becoming a favorite spot for wedding photography. Buggies carrying young couples in wedding costume weave in and out of the village, and with a vintage Vespa,a fake grand piano, a replica windmill, imitation autumn leaves and vast fields of peach blooms stretching as far as the eye can see, young couples are only too eager to pose.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Smile magazine.