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A passion for bonsais

A special place 100km south of Hanoi, Nam Dinh Province has long been famous for growing flowers and bonsai.

Past Do Quan Bridge from Nam Dinh City, and traveling along a dike bordering the Red River for about 7 km, rests La Dien and Vi Khe villages in Dien Xa Commune, Nam Truc District, the place known as the heaven of bonsais in Vietnam.

At first sight, we understood why this place earned such a reputation. The alluvial from the Red River, the temperate climate, the diligent and skilled labourers have brought enough advantages for the “art gardens” here to remain forever-green.

A friend in La Dien Village welcomed us to his garden. It was really amazing. Each plant was a work of art. There were pine, fig, banyan, and many other bonsais here. He introduced two “xanh” trees with "thế long" (dragon form), which are the most valuable in his garden. “They are nearly twenty years old and now must be worth a hundred million dong ($5,400),” Thien, the gardener, revealed.

There was also a small nursery in the corner of his garden. “Nowadays we usually buy nurslings from our neighbouring districts like Hai Hau, Giao Thuy, and Y Yen, which are the well-known suppliers of nurslings for many regions throughout the country, but some people still like to have their own nurseries,” he explained.

“It is very important to choose a good nursling,” he continued. “A skilled artist can see a good form in a nursling very early on and know what he would do with it right from the start."

While we were visiting the garden, Thien’s mother, grandmother and wife were busy weeding. “Growing bonsais can be called a family trade because every member in my family can do this work,” his mother said, “but Thien does the most difficult work, making the form for the bonsais."

When we made a tour around his village, we noticed that besides the quiet work of the artists in the garden, there was also a bustling atmosphere in the trading and transporting of plants here.

“We usually receive a lot of guests to our gardens everyday,” Tran Van Thinh, who was guiding some guests to his large garden said, “they come to buy some pot plants, bonsais or sometimes just to look at them”.

Thinh has some 1,000 square metres of land growing bonsais. “Besides this garden I have another which was previously a rice plantation. Almost all families in my village have turned some low-productivity rice fields into gardens and many of them have earned big money from bonsais,” he said.

And at this time, the small village is becoming busier than ever with visitors coming to look for some bonsais to decorate their houses for the coming Tet festival. Many of them come from provinces as far as Hanoi, Bac Ninh, Thanh Hoa, etc.

Following my friend’s instructions, we came to Ha’s garden where we were introduced to the three most valuable bonsais in the village. They are three “xanh” trees which are approximately 40 years-old.

“Last month a man from Thanh Hoa Province tried to persuade us to sell them to him at VND 800 million ($43,000) but we did not agree. They must be worth at least VND 1.5 billion ($83,000),” the young gardener said. He told us that these trees have been grown and cared for by his father who has since passed away and now he’s continuing with the work. Ha is one of the most successful bonsai artists here. Last year his family earned some VND 300 million ($16,000) from bonsai.

“It may take a life-time to have such a valuable bonsai,” Ha smiled. “So here we mostly earn money by growing and trading some short-term decorative plants”.

Being in these gardens made us feel that spring is coming very near. The skillful farmers have made all the gardens very lush with colour, even in the cold winter. All the roads in the village seem smaller because the plants stick out everywhere. The hedges separating one garden from the other is also formed by bonsais. The village is like a green and peaceful oasis that promises a good life.

Bonsais have gone from only a few villages doing this work ten years ago, to a widespread activity in many districts of Nam Dinh Province. It is also a driving force for the local economy.