22 February 2007

Flower Street

Nguyen Hue Street, in central Ho Chi Minh City, runs from the Saigon River up to the People’s Committee building; about half a mile in length. Both the building and street date back to French occupation and construction. It is an immensely wide boulevard, three lanes in each direction. During the week of Tet, it is cordoned off and becomes a landscaped garden. Last year I didn’t go, hearing tales of millions of visitors making it impossible to enjoy the spectacle, or even be able to see it. My Vietnamese teacher told me that one has to arrive very early in the morning in order to stroll along in serenity.

So last Sunday, I grabbed a taxi at 6am, and was at the People’s Committee building by 6:15. I had seen them setting up the display, but it still didn’t prepare me for the grandeur of what lay before me.

The beginning of the garden street was full of pigs and flowers. Unfortunately, the pig is not an elegant animal. With a horse year you can really get artistic; and a ram isn’t too bad for creative exploration. But a pig? The worst was all the Porky Pig type caricatures on New Years decorations. However, they actually came up with elegant piggies, that looked cute, if not exactly chic.

Potted flowers were tightly grouped together giving the impression of giant flowerbeds. Some had sculptures or pottery in the middle of the beds. There were sections where art work hung above the gardens. Orchids were displayed beneath undulating canopies. There was even a rice paddy and a little lake.

The kite section was at the bottom of the street, right across from the river. Massive, geometric kites lined the sides, while giant birds flew overhead, suspended from a latticework of wires.

We spent well over an hour walking in the pleasant weather, with few people around. My teacher then asked if I wanted to visit a plant exhibition in a nearby park. This was the first I had heard about the event and of course was eager to go.

As we walked there, I asked my teacher about the history of Flower Street. It turns out that this was only about the forth year of its existence. Prior to that, the street was blocked off for a week, but as a flower market prior to Tet. The flower market has now been moved to another central location which I had passed coming back from Chinatown the week before. I couldn’t believe it as the taxi drove past blocks and blocks of trees and plants and flowers for sale, but was too tired of crowds to stop and wander around.

The plant exhibition was set in one of them many, large city parks, again of French construction and design, and after all these years, filled with very tall trees. Immediately upon entering, it smelled like we were in a rural area, not in the middle of Saigon. I have walked through these parks before, which are always pleasant, but what with the abundance of temporary plants, the entire venue was transformed into the countryside, complete with the sounds of birds and the aroma of plants and trees and flowers.

The first area we saw was that of the ornamental sculptures made entirely of fruit, vegetables and some plants. Dragons with teeth of garlic and scales of chili peppers. Fish with scales made from the bark of a coconut tree. A phoenix with flowers for his body and wings of pineapple leaves. I had once seen a fruit and vegetable dragon at a wedding, but it was much smaller. These were all about three feet high and some, as wide.

We walked through rows of ornamental, potted trees of varying shapes, mostly with the yellow Tet flowers, others with pick or red flowers. Orchids, as I have never seen, hung suspended in containers, or planted in pots. It was absolutely glorious.

My teacher, who does not live that far away, said that during the week of Tet, she often comes over at 6am every morning to walk through the places we had just visited. If I lived al little closer, I would be inclined to do the same.