Over the past few years, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam has become my winter getaway. I probably would have never ventured to this tropical city on my own, but after my son moved there, got married and produced 3 adorable children, hopping on an airplane to go halfway around the world became part of my routine.
When I'm not playing with kids, I explore gardens - and let me tell you, this makes winter much more bearable. I'm fascinated by what grows on the other side of the world and how the land is used. If you're tired of winter too, and want to see bodacious greenery and flowers, keep reading.
Just about anything you put in the ground grows like crazy here. There are only 2 seasons, wet and dry. It's always lush and tropical,at least in the south. Ho Chi Minh City (the locals call it Saigon) is a huge city of around 8 million people that has an enormous spread,encompassing 796 miles that includes 24 districts. Historically, Vietnam was an agrarian society - most of the land around the cities was and still is used to grow food. When you walk through the city, you can see the French influence where long grids of formally designed parks and public gardens provide sanctuary from the overwhelming traffic and blazing sun.
In my view, the parks are a godsend. When I refer to escaping traffic, I'm talking about dodging motorbikes that travel like a school of fish. The first time I crossed the street, I was frozen with fear. This act defies all western logic, you have to walk out into traffic and they go around you. The trick is to keep moving - slowly.
Fabulous foliage plants and trees dominate the parks, so you can count on some shade when you get there. Even though I can only aspire to growing tropicals in containers, I was blown away by the crazy variety of bamboos, palms, pathos, bougainvillea and other vining plants I couldn't identify. I thought the annuals used were uninspired though - marigolds, celosia, cosmos and red salvias were everywhere.
I've explored many of the parks on my morning walks, but so far I've come up dry in my search for any private gardens. This year I made it point to get off the beaten path and try to meet some local gardeners. When I came across an article in AsiaLife Magazine about Gagaco, a small horticultural concern, I decided to check it out.
I hopped on the back of my son's motorbike and we headed off to District 2 to meet the owner, Alexander Schlee, an expat from Germany. We zoomed down a sleepy street, past clucking chickens into a winding dirt driveway where I found him building a raised bed in his vegetable garden.
Inspired by the community and balcony gardens he grew up with in his small hometown in Germany, he founded his company with the aim of "bringing agriculture back to the city one balcony, terrace or rooftop at a time."
Alex does custom installations and provides maintenance. He grows everything organically - plants are grown in a soil mix he concocts from red soil, rice ash, husks and straw, coconut coir, peanut shells, neem cake, vermicompost, trichoderma and myorrhiza fungi. Regular doses of vermicompost to keep them healthy. Heavy feeders get a dose of an organic pellet fertilizer made from chicken manure. As you might expect, combatting fungus is an ongoing challenge. Regular spraying with Neem oil keeps it under control.
He propagates a supply of herbs - basil, rosemary, cilantro and thyme here on his rooftop. Clients can choose herbs, vegetables or ornamentals.
Alex buys locally for most of his jobs, but has an interesting stash of his own foliage plants.
Here, Bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) is protected from blazing afternoon sun by growing them between these two buildings.
Alex says it's impossible to locate high quality containers or compost bins. He constructs his own from Canadian and New Zealand pine, customizing them for each job. Customers can request that their products originate from forests that have adopted Sustainable Forest Management Principles and Objectives.The wood he uses is sourced from mills certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) 2015-2019 Standards and Rules as well as the SFI Chain-of-Custody Standard.
I was impressed with his dedication to keeping the business organic and sustainable. When we finally got around to bidding Alex and his dogs goodbye, I asked if there were any other gardens I could visit. He turned me onto the Family Garden,a community garden also in District 2.
This tranquil spot is owned by Nguyen Quynh Tran, and modeled after the family's farm in Dalat, Vietnam. The idea was to provide a place for city dwellers to connect with nature. It's a peaceful place to meander around in. At every turn there are inviting spots to sit, a couple of small cafes and play areas for children. A variety of tropical trees,vines, flowers and bamboos dominate paths that lead to the large vegetable plot out back were you can rent a plot to grow vegetables or attend a gardening program.
It covers a pretty large area, maybe 2 acres or so. A lot of it is shaded by vine-covered arbors that lead you through it.
Those buildings in the distance seem surreal - hard to believe you're in the city when you're sitting in this spot. Lots of bamboo, grasses and palms grow in this marshy area.
Finding places to let the kids run around in the city is challenging, but this is a perfect spot. My grandaughters couldn't get enough of the zipline.
In the vegetable garden, families can tend their own plots. I didn't see much variation of crops here. Lettuces, herbs and an abundance of amaranth dominated the growing space. Vietnamese love their greens, you'll find them mixed into every dish.
Mangos, papayas and some other fruits I couldn't identify popped up here and there throughout the gardens. The place was technically closed when we visited so I couldn't ask any questions about how and what was planted. I definitely want to go back to find out more and hopefully meet the owner.
The Flower Market:
Even though the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market isn't a garden, it's worth the hike to District 10 to see it. Long narrow mazes of streets are crammed with every kind of flower you can imagine. It's mainly a wholesale market, but individuals can purchase flowers too. It's incredibly cheap. I bought two bunches of Lisianthus for about three bucks.
Flowers are transported by motorbike. How they arrive intact is beyond me. They don't have any refrigeration either.
The only protection I could see were these lightweight tarps. By 10:30am it is so hot you have to walk on the shady side of the street or hide under a tree (if you can find one).
Orchids are a dime a dozen here, almost boring.
Roses are very popular. Most of them (and the other flowers) are grown in Dalat,which is in the central part of Vietnam where it's mountainous and much cooler. I thought this was an interesting way to store them.
The buds are wrapped in paper to keep them from opening in the heat.
These are Lotus in bud.
Their leaves are wrapped around the buds to protect them.
And then there were the murals painted to celebrate flowers. This must be Dalat.
By far my favorite. Lambs and lavender, what better combination could you ask for?
Later in my trip, we went south of the city to Vung Tau for a family beach vacation. On the way, we took a detour down a country road to visit my son's friend James Wolf and his wife Lam on their bamboo farm. James is a designer who studied at Rhode Island School of Design. He went to build furniture in Japan and got hooked on working with bamboo. He began growing his own after he moved to Vietnam in 1991. His business, Boohugger, makes and sells bamboo furniture and other garden related items.
The bamboo James grows is a clumping variety, commonly known as iron bamboo (Dendrocalumus strictus). Rather than being hollow in the middle, it has a strong, solid stem that is excellent for construction.
It is kept under control by harvesting the largest canes regularly.You can see from the above photo that it does not grow straight. After it is cut into lengths, James straightens it over this woodburning kiln.
After that process, it's bundled into teepees and put at the edge of the garden to cure. When it's fully dried, the bamboo goes to the small factory where James and his crew construct their bamboo creations.
His wife Lam, is a native Vietnamese gardener with a passion for flowers,herbs and vegetables. The lovely garden behind their house is her creation. She grows many of the same annuals as you find in the states - celosia, tithonia, marigolds and cosmos. They get a lot bigger here though. Hers were the nicest I saw on my trip. So were her vegetables!
This is the idyllic view from their outdoor kitchen - a welcome sight for my winter starved eyes.
On this side of the world, plant life is unfamiliar, but gardeners are just the same - as welcoming and generous as any I've met at back home. I can't wait to go back next year and hopefully meet a few more of them and explore more gardens. Meanwhile, if any of you out there have ventured to Vietnam and have any suggestions, please let me know!