Peddling the petals

(No.3, Vol.8,Jun-Jul Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Photos: Lai Dien Dam

Photos: Pham Ba Thinh

Photos: Lai Dien Dam

Just ask anybody what the most unique and typical features of Hanoi are, and they invariably talk not about grand, splendid things, but about the old, mundane things as natural as the breaths of life.
Ask what the most impressive features of Hanoi are, and they may opine about many different things but all will mention the flower peddlers on bicycles.
For a long time now, these bicycles loaded with flowers have become a sight one expects at every street corner. They move around from big boulevards to small alleys, no matter if it’s raining or shining, hot or cold. The lovely forms in bright colors glide along and make the streets so alive. Hanoi has always been the land of flowers and flower lovers.
I still remember as a kid, my mom used to buy flowers from peddlers to arrange on the altar. A little pack wrapped in a lotus leaf contained many kinds of flowers: peonies, magnolia, tuberoses, Chinese violets, Ylang-ylang and cockscombs. She would buy a few other flowers separately, usually some roses or daisies to put in a vase. Now, a few decades later, almost nobody puts wrapped flowers on an altar anymore, and nobody sells them either. The peddlers today carry their two baskets of flowers not on yokes, but on a bicycle. It’s a smooth and seamless continuation that preserves well the spirit of the practice. The flowers too remain the same; simple and unpolished, maybe even stained with garden mud and wet in the morning mist. The buyer feels as if they have harvested them with their own hands in a famous Hanoi flower garden of Ngoc Ha, Tu Lien, Thanh Tri, or Dien.
Peddled flowers are bought only for home consumption and enjoyment, not for gift or for use in official rituals. Unlike the shop flowers, peddled flowers are absolutely natural, untrimmed, unpolished and without beautiful packaging. Instead they are just wrapped in a newspaper and tied with a thin bamboo splint. But these are the flowers that go around the city looking for some people, some house to share their colors and fragrance. I have been in many other cities, but I am sure Hanoi has more flower-peddling bicycles than most. The tiny wandering flower shops make Hanoi streets so scenic and poetic in such a nostalgic way, a feeling that no other city can offer.

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