Hanoians have always been in love with flowers. Since the 1950s – wartime, middle-class families in the capital have had vases of fresh flowers in their living rooms every Sunday or on special occasions.

A flower vendor in the streets of Hanoi. Photo: Giang Trinh

The flowers are pruned by the ladies before being put in the vase. Locals considered floral design art, which is usually undertaken by the eldest daughter in the family.

Colors of the old Hanoi

As the streets got bustling with the jingle of passing trams and vendors hawking their breakfast choices, it was also the time when young Hanoian girls carried their handbaskets to the markets.

They would first head for flower stalls, to which gladioli, dahlias, garden mums, Gerbera daisies, violets, roses, and tuberoses had been shipped at the crack of dawn.

The land of Ngoc Ha, Huu Tiep, and Dai Yen villages in Ba Dinh District was used to grow many rare and precious flowers. As most of the people there made their living by planting flowers, their typical house was modest, having a large tiled front yard, surrounding gardens, and fences filled with colorful vines and mistletoe.

Visitors to those villages would get to feast their eyes on all types of flowers and their noses on the mixed fragrance in the wind.

Hanoian flower vendors in the old days. Illustration photo

When roosters crowded in the early morning, families in the three villages would wake up to prepare their tools and shoulder poles. Fresh flowers cut off the gardens while still wet with dew would be tied into bunches and cleverly arranged in bamboo baskets.

The buds and stems lying in between green leaves created a brilliant painting of nature that would mesmerize any viewer and inspire a folk song:

“The Ngoc Ha Well is both cool and clear

The Ngoc Ha Garden is fragrant far and near

Asking the one who waters the flowers:

Is anyone allowed to get in here?”

Wearing ao tu than or four-part dresses, dark pants, and khan mo qua or raven beak-shaped kerchief on their heads, the vendor women shoulder the pole and walked from the village roads through the streets.

They would head for familiar houses to offer bouquets of tuberoses or worship flowers like orchids, mock lemons, or cowslip creeper, wrapped in banana leaves and tied with river-leaf creeper strings. The customers having a habit of burning incense every morning also waited for the flower hawkers to pass by their doors.

 The flowers of gladioli, dahlias, and violets are on display at the home of Hanoi’s culinary expert Nguyen Phuong Hai

Meanwhile, the young vendor girls embarked on their journeys later. With their rosy cheeks and slender figures in brown blouses, the teenage girls roamed around Co Ngu and Phan Dinh Phung streets, then reached Dong Xuan and Bac Qua markets, sometimes even the more distant Hom and Mo markets…

Many of them also worked as groups on the streets in the Old Quarter, such as Hang Dao, Hang Ngang, Hang Buom, or Hang Gai, as well as around Sword Lake.

The image of a gorgeous flower-vending girl on a spring morning, when the sunbeams were streaming down the road lined with dragon plum trees, caught the eye of a male student at Buoi High School or today’s Chu Van An High School and motivated a classic song.

The inward sigh

Musician Hoang Giac recalled the inspiration for his song: “On my way to Buoi High School in the morning, I often came across a pretty young girl with light skin, dove eyes, and shoulder-length hair. In a thin brown blouse, she would be carrying two rattan baskets full of dahlias, gladioli, violets, daisies, and roses, and strolling along Phan Dinh Phung Street.

During those encounters, when the girl looked at me, she suddenly blushed and looked shy, which accentuated her innocence and charm. I was captivated by her beauty. A few days later, on a beautiful summer night, I completed the song titled ‘Dreaming of Flowers’.

The song later became widely popular on music programs and was loved by young people at that time.

Now in the 21st century, the flower villages in the past have given way to concrete houses and luxury villas, while hibiscus hedges have been replaced by solid walls.

A dish of flowers arranged by Vinh Quyen

Village roads and alleys have been widened and paved for motorized vehicles. Ngoc Ha Flower Village is now only the memories of those who have lived in Hanoi for decades.

Every time spring comes, the girls selling flowers cross their minds, making them whisper the verses:

“The girl who picks fresh flowers, please cease your steps

On this long journey, I have a few words for you.”

These days, dahlias, garden mums, and Gerbera daisies are hardly seen in Hanoi for poor yield or falling out of favor, among many other reasons. Instead, luxurious types like lilies or French roses are preferred. Floral shops now even have someone to design fancy baskets of exotic flowers, each of which costs up to millions of dongs.

Some people even make a ‘money flower’ bunch, with each petal being a 500,000-dong bill ingeniously rolled, then post its photos on social networks. The girls who receive such bouquets on Valentine’s Days often smile broadly. This way, how could Hanoians have ‘dreams of flowers’ like before?

Vivid flowers are on sale in Buoi Market or today’s Hoang Hoa Tham Street in Ba Dinh District, Hanoi. Photo: Tu Ngoc Lang