Nov 04, 2021 / 10:04

Memory-evoking flowers of an old female vendor in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Braving upheavals in time, an old lady in Hanoi patiently strives to preserve a long-standing nice custom of the capital.

Offering ao`ncestors with packed flowers has been an elegant  Hanoi’s custom. Right in the busiest place of Old Town Dong Xuan market, there is a Hanoian old lady who cherishes the nostalgic beauty.

The last seller of packed flower of the capital

Mrs. Thu has been sitting on a Hanoi street corner for decades offering flower packs. Photo: Q. Vinh (Helino)

Over the past six decades, people in Hanoi's 36 streets have become accustomed to the simple flower stall of Pham Thi Thu (83). Unlike the glamorous flower shops around the city, her flower stall on the sidewalk of Hang Khoai Street is really modest: a few plastic baskets containing flowers, bunches of leaves, strings and a bucket of water.

She sells different types of flowers depending on the seasons: white jasmines and pomelo flowers in spring; yellow ylang-ylangs and tail grape flowers, white jasmines and michelia albas, and red peonies from April to July, and so on.

Everyone who has ever bought a worship flower pack wrapped by her hands can feel something warm, gentle and peaceful amid today’s bustle and hustle of Hanoi.

With a soft voice, a calm and gentle conversation style, Thu recalled: “I've been selling worship flowers since I was 13. At that time, Ngoc Ha was still a huge flower field with wonderful sights and fragrances all year round.”

Depending on the season and occasion, various types of flowers are wrapped by Mrs. Thu, selling to Hanoians for their ancestor worshipping. Photo: Thuong Dung

“Each season, there are many different types of flowers, and I know up to a hundred of flower varieties. I was born in a flower village, and about 10 generations of my family has been selling worship flowers. I love flowers very much, so I followed my mother and learned how to arrange flower bouquet  from a young age,” she told The Hanoi Times.

Thu still remembers her mother’s lessons on watching the weather to predict whether the flower harvests will be rich or poor, as well as how to choose different flowers, spread the leave, arrange the flowers well on it, and roll the leave up just tightly enough without spoiling the flowers.

Flower wrapping does not require too much craftsmanship, yet is enough to show the femininity and gentleness of Hanoi’s girls. Ngoc Ha villagers those days are very proud of the plate of worship flowers - a unique specialty of the flower village that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Therefore, the villagers, from children to the elderly, used to carry baskets of flowers and go selling  from street to street.

Mrs.Thu has been selling worship flowers since she was 13, when Ngoc Ha was still a huge flower field with wonderful sights and fragrances all year round. Photo: Q.Vinh (Helino)

Struggling to preserve a custom

Thu said, every Tet (Lunar New Year) and spring in the past, her flower stall used to be crowded with buyers. Her regular customers sometimes bought dozens of packs at once, both as gifts and for their own use. In the first morning of the year, Hanoians would respectfully open a pack, put the separate flowers inside on a plate, and place it on the altar to express their sincere gratitude to their ancestors.

In the vivid cold of early spring, the unique scent of the flower plate mingled with the pleasant fragrance of burning incense would waft throughout the house, making the family’s space cozy, as well as heralding a peaceful and happy new year.

“Now I still sell flower packs, not only because of my passion, but also because I’m trying to preserve a typical cultural tradition of Hanoi people,” she told The Hanoi Times.

The plate of worship flowers is an old ritual of Hanoian. Photo: Q.Vinh (Helino)  

The danger of fading away

Currently, Ngoc Ha village has been urbanized, where there is no land left to grow flowers. As a result, Thu has to go to such Hanoi’s suburb districts as Tay Tuu, Dien, Dong Anh, or even Son Tay to find flowers.

Despite the difficulties, she still sits on that street corner, next to those flower baskets from early morning until the city lights are on. Some of her children are florists too, but they don’t sell worship flowers like her, since the trade requires meticulousness while the income is small.

Thu fears that, after she passes away, there would be no other flower packer in Hanoi, and no one would even remember the packs of worship flowers for Tet.

The unique scent of the flower plate mingled with the pleasant fragrance of burning incense would waft throughout the house. Photo: Thuong Dung

When being asked if she ever got bored with sitting for more than 60 years, under the rain or shine, on the same noisy narrow street, she smiled and said: “I love this street corner and this trade, which have been attached to my whole life. Sitting here, I can meet so many people, listen to the sounds of life, watch the four seasons go by, and witness so many things change”.

Since Ngoc Ha village disappeared with the memories of the worship flower plates, just only Thu sits on a Hanoi street corner with the faint scent of ylang-ylangs, reminiscing the vibes of Hanoi some decades ago.  

Nostalgic people may feel moved every time they think about those old days, so no matter how the society has changed and how the flowers are crossbred and transformed, some families still keep the ritual of displaying packed flower in the altar of their ancestors as their own way to preserve a chic and unique cultural feature of Hanoi in the old days.