SAMBAL ON THE SIDE
One of the most enduring images of Hanoi is that of its ubiquitous flower vendors peddling bushels of fresh blooms.
Whether sold from the back of a bicycle or baskets balanced on bamboo shoulder poles, fresh flowers are very much part of Hanoi's identity. As North Vietnam experiences the four seasons, flower lovers (like yours truly) are guaranteed regular turnovers of spectacular blooms all year round.
My luck doesn't just end there. I happen to live in an area famed for its traditional flower villages. Situated in the north-eastern part of the West Lake area, the Dom, Ngoc Ha, Nghi Tam, Quang Ba and Nhat Tan villages were once renowned for their cultivation of peach blossoms, kumquats, roses, sunflowers and chrysanthemums.
Flower lovers will go crazy at the sight and prices of flowers sold in Vietnam. (Photo: Oliver Haas)
Sadly with urbanisation, many of the villagers often find it more profitable to sell off their plots to housing developers. As such, many flower fields have had to make way for big bungalows. Nevertheless, some still engage in some form of horticulture. Some of our neighbours cultivate and sell orchids, palm trees, hydrangeas and even poinsettias, the latter aptly around the Yuletide.
And although the large scale commercial flower plantations have relocated further out of town, flower fans can still find pleasure in the mecca of fresh flowers otherwise known as the 'Quang Ba Nocturnal Flower Market'.
The name probably caught your attention. But you read right.
The reason for the unusual name lies in the fact that the Quang Ba market stirs to life in the wee hours of the morning.
This wholesale flower market located near the Au Co Road is actually just a sandy patch of land reportedly around 300m long. The villagers, who rise even earlier, set up shop here at around 2am daily.
Large bundles of flowers wrapped in newspaper - be they roses, carnations, baby's breath or sunflowers - are heaped one on top of the other.
Florists, wholesalers and what I call the 'bloom brigade' (or bicycle vendors) then peruse the items on sale. They usually hail from Hanoi or from provinces and cities nearby, such as Quang Ninh, Haiphong, Ha Tay and Vinh Phuc.
It is indeed a sight - ladies in conical hats loading their bicycles with roses in various hues; the babble of the bargaining akin to the New York Stock Exchange!
Apparently, there are even tour packages that include an early morning foray into the market for the benefit of ardent photographers. Trust me - your pictures will be blooming brilliant! (I could not resist the pun).
Late-risers, however, need not fret. After the mad rush of the early morning, many wholesalers stay on to sell their remaining flowers. In fact, in my opinion, the market does not quite grind to a halt. Flowers are sometimes available till sunset, although you have to be prepared to accept some wilted blooms.
There aren't enough adjectives to describe just how varied the market's produce can be. My mother-in-law, who recently visited, was gobsmacked at the sight of Stargazer lilies in several colours stuffed into pails of cold water. In Germany, you've got to pay through your teeth for just a couple of stems.
Bright white lillies. (Photo: Reuters)
Or would you prefer the heady perfume of Casablanca lilies or the pristine white Calla lilies?
Lilies not up your alley? Then try roses. Take your pick of dark red blossoms, the sweet-smelling cinnamon or champagne roses, the delicate tea roses, the vibrant yellow and orange or the usual pink and white varieties. Once, when a girlfriend was visiting, we chanced upon lilac roses. Suffice to say, we returned with a couple of bundles!
The range of flowers available depends on the season. In spring, roses, orchids, tuber roses and dahlias abound, while in early summer the market bursts with lilies, lotuses and vivid red banana flowers. By the way, the lotuses come packaged in gigantic lily pads and you can opt to even buy lotus pods as decorative add-ons!
Sometimes you might see the most unexpected flowers on sale. In the height of summer last year, magenta and orange Bachelor Buttons or cornflowers were sold. It brought back such pleasant memories of my late mother who used to plant these as a hedge filler in our garden.
But perhaps the most attractive feature of the cho hoa (flower market) is the incredible prices.
I read one report which said that roses cost between 100 dong and 200 dong per stem at the pre-dawn market. They usually retail for 5,000 dong to 10,000 dong per stalk at urban florists.
I usually get my flower fix at the stall of a friendly lady who sells blooms outside the neighbourhood sundry shop. I recently got a bundle of orange roses and a dozen stems of violet orchids for 30,000 dong each. The price even beats what I previously thought was a steal at some of the pasar malams in Petaling Jaya!
But with current inflation, prices have generally risen and it's just a matter of time before flowers are bought only for special occasions. Till then, I shall continue to revel in the beauty and scents of Hanoi's myriad blooms.
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Hanoi. She enjoys people-watching as it gives her fodder for this fortnightly column. She sometimes runs out of vases for all the flowers she buys.