HANOI – The naked, spiky-looking tree is not just Le Ham’s pride and joy. It is his meal ticket.
While it might not look like much now, Ham expects it to burst into delicate dark-pink peach blossoms just before the Lunar New Year, known in Vietnam as Tet.
Among the more than 200 peach blossom trees at his Hanoi commercial garden, this old specimen is his most precious, and will command the highest price from customers seeking to decorate their homes and offices for the Year of the Tiger, which begins on February 14.
“It will become very beautiful,” he says of the tree, which rises, as tall as a man, from an oblong ceramic pot.
Ham’s garden is one of many in Tu Lien village, which for most of the year is a tranquil contrast to the congested city around it.
In the weeks before Tet the city comes to Tu Lien, and to other villages known for the quality of their plants.
Wealthy residents of Hanoi and even neighbouring provinces arrive in search of the peach blossoms which, Ham says, Vietnamese believe will keep bad spirits away.
Kumquat trees, with bright orange fruit the size of golf balls, are another Tet favourite grown in the village near the banks of the Red River.
“I come to Hanoi because peach blossoms and kumquat trees here are the best,” said a man in a white shirt walking among Ham’s creations.
The resident of Vinh Phuc province, just outside Hanoi, said he would spend tens of millions of dong (thousands of dollars) on trees for his relatives and business contacts.
While kumquats are also popular in China, Ham, 47, says peach blossoms have links to Vietnamese kings and roots reaching far back in the nation’s history.
“It’s a tradition for us,” says Ham, a 21-year grower who followed the trade of his grandparents.
“I have a great passion for growing peach blossoms. It’s like artwork.”
With only a sprinkling of pink blossoms now, Ham’s trees lack the beauty of those in neighbouring gardens whose fuller blooms provide a pleasant contrast to the grey sky.
Ham, though, projects the quiet air of an expert who has timed his trees just right; he aims for them to flower between four days ahead of the New Year and one day after.
Much depends on the weather and when to trim the leaves, Ham explains, squatting on a low plastic stool beside small cups recently drained of tea.
Too much rain makes the leaves grow back, which is undesirable, he says.
“If it is too cold, the flowers will not come out, and if it’s too hot, you will see all the flowers now and it’s a failure,” he says. “The weather this year is quite good.”
The growing technique is on display at a neighbouring garden, where three workers crouch around a tree whose thin limbs have been snipped off and left naked at the ends. Chips from another tree are attached to the severed limbs, secured with ribbon, and wrapped in plastic.
“This is a very good year for peach blossoms,” says Nguyen Chien, another grower.
A red banner says his garden is “bringing luck and happiness to everyone.”
One of Chien’s workers rushes back and forth tending to customers standing among a forest of pink. Someone has just offered 4.5 million dong (238 dollars) to rent one of the trees.
Growers say they prefer not to sell their peach blossoms but to rent them out. “Because a tree like this takes several years for us to develop,” Chien says.
After Tet, growers pick up their trees and take them back to the gardens. Some customers even rent the same trees year after year, Ham says.
In contrast, kumquat trees are sold and then discarded when the fruit drops off.
“I’m very busy. Sorry,” the owner of one kumquat orchard tells a reporter while a customer eyes a two-million-dong tree.
Like peach blossoms, kumquats depend very much on the weather, says another grower, Hoang Hai Yen. Some of her plants bear a vague resemblance to Christmas trees, laden with orange decorations.
“The rain last week destroyed many fruits,” she said.
Ham, the peach blossom gardener, seems unconcerned. About 30 percent of his trees have already been rented and he expects that most of the others will be taken soon — “except the very ugly ones.”
The father of three says he and one other gardener spend the whole year doing nothing but taking care of their trees, all of which are at least several years old.
“I eat with the peach blossoms. I sleep with the peach blossoms,” which only provide him with an income around Tet. “We can’t use the soil to grow any other kind of tree because it will ruin the peach blossoms.”
Ham needs to earn about 100 million dong to make a profit but says he might earn double that, which is why his one precious tree is so important.
Almost 30 years old, it resembles the pictures of peach blossoms drawn on ancient artifacts, and rents for 70 million dong. Right on cue, it has bloomed three times exactly at Tet, Ham says.