Cong, better known as Nam Cong, works out of his garden in Ben Tre Province’s Cho Lach District, where lately he’s been busy trimming weeping fig plants to resemble buffalo in honor this year’s zodiac animal.
While Tet – the Vietnamese Lunar New Year – is typically Nam Cong’s busiest time of year, business has been slow over the past few months due to the COID-19 pandemic.
“This year we made 14 buffaloes,” Nam Cong explained, adding that his age has also contributed to the work slowdown.
“I’m retired now,” he told Tuoi Tre News. “Most of the work is done by my staff but sometimes I still step in to take care of some details.”
|Nguyen Van Cong, better known as Nam Cong, works on an ornamental buffalo made from weeping fig plants in his garden on January 30, 2021, in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News
Topiary – the art of trimming shrubs into ornate designs – has been a recognized art from for centuries, but it was only in the late 20th century that gardeners in the Mekong Delta began creating masterpieces from ordinary plants.
Nam Cong, now 74-years-old, is known as one of the region’s topiary pioneers, having gotten his start shortly after the war ended in 1975.
“First, I started growing ornamental yellow apricot blossoms,” he shared, explaining that the business did well several years until he grew exhausted with the upkeep that apricot blossoms require.
It was around that time that Ben Tre’s Cho Lach District began earning a reputation as Vietnam’s top producer of ornamental plants.
Seeing an opportunity for diversification, Nam Cong decided to try his hand at topiary, starting by crafting zodiac animals from weeping fig trees, a plant that is perfectly suited for topiary thanks to its strong vitality, thick leaves, dark green color, and heat tolerance.
“It took me months to prepare my first works, and when I finally released my first works, people were stunned,” he shared. “I’ve been busy creating new pieces ever since!”
According to Nam Cong, his topiary works can be done in a relatively short amount of time.
A pair of dragons currently on display in his garden, for example, which measure 50m in length and 4m in height each, took the artisan and his crew less than ten days to finish.
|Nguyen Van Cong, better known as Nam Cong, with a pair of ornamental dragons made from weeping fig plants in his garden on January 30, 2021, in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News
Not too far from the dragons sits a 5m-high gorilla Nam Cong said only took two days to finish.
The first step to creating the perfectly sculpted plant lies in crafting a metal frame shaped to depict what a customer desires.
Afterwards, the plants are placed into the frame.
“We’re used to the work so it does not take us much time,” Nam Cong said.
However, there was a time when things weren’t always so easy.
Nam Cong shared that it took him several hours of observing a real buffalo and measuring its proportions in order to create the perfect his first topiary buffalo.
He also had to create the metal frame entirely by hand.
Now, after years of experience, his pieces sell for between VND3 million (US$129) and VND100 million ($4,332) depending their size and detail.
|Nguyen Van Cong, better known as Nam Cong, works on weeping fig plants in his garden on January 30, 2021, in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre News
To foreign markets
Known as “The King of Topiary” in the Mekong Delta, Nam Cong has every confidence in his topiary abilities.
His garden is not only famous for producing the twelve Vietnamese Zodiac animals but also other designs, including elephants, gorillas, airplanes, and yachts.
His customers come from both Vietnam and from around the world, including Singapore and Australia.
“People from the U.S. and Australia really like my plants but I’m not licensed to export to those markets due to phytosanitary regulations,” he said, “though once I exported a metal frame to a client in Australian and instructed him on how to fill it,” he added.
Nam Cong’s work has also been displayed in Singapore at an ornamental plant fair where he drew attention from the local media.
By the end of the event, Nam Cong’s Zodiac animal collection was sold out, with some being shipped as far as Malaysia and Thailand.
Since Nam Cong’s retirement, his son, Nguyen Van Vu has been running the business and managing its 20-member staff.
According to Nam Cong, a talented worker only needs six months to learn how to create ornamental animals.
Throughout his career, Nam Cong has trained many local workers, with some of them gaining their own success by opening their topiary gardens in the region.
|Nguyen Van Cong, better known as Nam Cong, works on weeping fig plants in his garden on January 30, 2021, in Cho Lach District, Ben Tre Province. Photo: Son Lam / Tuoi Tre