Gold rush distorts mutant orchids market

By Long Nguyen   May 11, 2021 | 09:19 pm PT
Many people investing a fortune to make an easy killing from ‘mutant orchids’ are seeing their dreams wither over scams and other troubles.

Four months after spending VND300 million ($13,108) on a branch of a wild orchid, Nguyen Dinh Toan, 45, is proud of his achievement: a five-petal white flower with a pink stigma.

"Some people wanted to pay me VND470 million for this, but I did not agree," said the businessman residing in Hanoi’s Long Bien District.

Toan said he had visited many orchid gardens in Hanoi and the northern province of Hoa Binh before splurging on a so-called mutant orchid.

"Last year one of my friends paid VND220 million for some seedlings and later learned that they were not mutant orchids. But he could not contact the sellers again," Toan recalled, adding he spent months traveling from garden to garden in his hunt for new mutant orchids, worrying all that while that he might be scammed.

"That is why I only bought one pot."

Toan and his friend are participants in a frenzy to buy and cultivate the so-called mutant orchids, with many stories going around about the plants being sold for billions of dong.

A pot of mutant orchid in nonorthher

The mutant orchid plant in the foreground, cultivated in north Hoa Binh Province, has a price tag of VND400 million ($17,477). Photo by VnExprres/Tat Dinh.

Of course, this kind of talk is fertile ground not only for horticulturists and wannabe horticulturists, but also for scammers looking to relieve people of handsome sums.

Over the last few years, the news of dozens of mutant orchid transactions worth billions of dong have emerged so social media, replete with photographs of bundles of banknotes paid for a sprout of orchids just several centimeters long.

Recently, in the northern province of Hung Yen, six Ngoc Son Cuoc mutant orchid plants were sold for VND34 billion, it was reported. In February 2021, the Pho Hien Orchid Association in Hung Yen Town confirmed a deal in which a single Ngoc Son Cuoc orchid sold for VND40 billion.

The incongruence of people paying millions of dollars for a flowering plant in a country whose per capita income was estimated at $2,750 last year seems to have been lost in the gold rush.

In the northern province of Quang Ninh, a man is said to have paid VND250 billion ($10.9 million) to buy 5,000 mutant orchid seedlings. Stories of transactions worth billions of dong for mutant orchids have bloomed in many localities including Hanoi, Ha Nam, Phu Tho and Tuyen Quang.

Hundreds of thousands of netizens have flocked to Facebook pages of groups of people trading in mutant orchids, displaying many videos and photographs.

The frenzy has also spread to many rural areas, where local farmers are investing a lot of money to try and cultivate these flowers, hoping to make a fortune.

In Hang Tram Town, Yen Thuy District, Hoa Binh Province, there are reports that many people have given up on traditional farming and switched to cultivating the mutant orchids.

Bui Van Dung, a leader in the town's Pho Ca neighborhood, said there has been a surge in the number of residents borrowing money for this business.

Local authorities have confirmed the situation, saying "many households have mortgaged land, house and other property to borrow money for their orchid business."

Horticulture industry insiders say that mutant orchids are expensive because they are beautiful, rare and require very careful cultivation.

"If you put a mutant orchid next to an ordinary one, you will see the difference, and realize the beauty of mutant flowers," said Nguyen Thanh Xuan, a mutant orchid lover in the southern province of Binh Phuoc.

Xuan said growers must pay a lot of attention to many factors like light, humidity and soil quality to make sure their orchids grow well.

"Effort, time, and the passion of those growing the flowers – these give mutant orchids a high price tag."

In Hanoi, Toan agreed, saying owners of orchid gardens must ensure 24/24 surveillance by installing thermographic cameras to prevent theft and sabotage.

"I know it is not an easy job as many people think. Even a buyer like me, paying hundreds of millions of dongs for one pot, has to invest a lot of effort in taking care of it."

Dubious exaggerations

However, higher prices notwithstanding, the record prices that keep getting mentioned are the result of exaggerations by many sellers looking to boost both their reputation and profits, industry insiders say.

There has been a lot of speculation about videos of people standing with piles of banknotes and buying mutant orchids. Some people have alleged that these are fakes, with people acting in videos just to inflate prices and gather more attention.

In March, police in Ha Nam province confirmed that a VND19 billion transaction for a mutant orchid was fake news.

"These are online or fake transactions among groups, without bills and documents," a representative of the General Department of Taxation told VOV.

Customers paying billions of dong for the mutant orchids remain mystery, says Pham Anh Dung, Chairman of Saigon’s Cu Chi Association of Ornamental Creatures.

He said he did not believe there would be many people paying so much money for mutant orchids in Vietnam.

"The prices are definitely exaggerated."

Many industry insiders say that the mutant orchids do deserve high prices as many rich people love them. But paying billions of dong for a pot is "suspicious," they add.

This skepticism is matched by stories of both sellers and buyers losing big sums of money.

Tran Van Tai and his orchid garden in northern Hoa Binh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Tran Van Tai and his orchid garden in northern Hoa Binh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Amidst the ongoing frenzy, there are people realizing that making a fortune with these flowers is easier said than done.

"I cannot get rich with this plant, I have given it up completely and will never grow it again," said Tran Van Tien, 50, residing in Hoa Binh Province. He had invested VND200 million in buying mutant orchid seedlings and struggled to take care of them, having had no previous experience.

The farmer ended up losing more than VND50 million.

Many others have said they have been cheated into spending a lot of money on buying the so-called mutant orchids and later realizing they were fake.

Hoac Cong Tuong of the northern province of Ha Giang said he bought a mutant orchid for VND96 million from a man in Phu Tho Province in August 2020.

He found out later that the orchid wasn’t the one that had been advertised, and soon after, he learned the seller was also a victim who’d been cheated by a group of fraudsters to the tune of VND7 billion.

In April, police in Hanoi’s Hoai Duc District said they have received six reports related to mutant orchid scams.

According to the police, between August 2010 to April this year, six people bought mutant orchids in Hoai Duc for a total of VND6.3 billion. When they found out that the flowers were not genuine, they returned to the gardens to find that the owners had fled.

In the northern province of Vinh Phuc, Nguyen Van Su spent billions of dong buying mutant orchids from gardens in Hanoi and Hoa Binh. But after taking care of the flowers and selling them, buyers accused him of deceiving them and demanded compensation.

"Now I’m in debt of nearly VND10 billion," he told local media, adding that the garden owners had shown him real mutant orchids but given him normal varieties.

Local police have said that they have learned about the problems and have launched urgent investigations.

Don’t go crazy

Other experts advise that there is no reason to get crazy about mutant orchids. According to Tran Duy Quy, former head of the Agricultural Genetics Institute, paying billions of dongs for pots of mutant orchid "is not normal."

Meanwhile, the Vietnam Seed Association affirmed that the mutant orchids have not been recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development as an orchid species for official circulation in the market.

"The orchid is a plant, and variations of this plant is completely normal," said Pham Van Dong, deputy head of Fruit and Vegetable Research Institute.

Commenting on the high market value for these flowers, Dong told local media that there was no scientific evidence of these plants having any medicinal or other uses that would make them so precious.

Whatever the authenticity of the photos, videos and stories of people making a fortune in a short period of time by growing mutant orchids, many farmers have bought into them, and have shown they are willing to borrow big sums to invest in the venture.

In Hoa Binh, many locals have decided to invest their money in mutant orchids, allegedly influenced by neighbors building new houses and buying cars after successfully cultivating mutant orchids.

"Most of the people here are poor, earning VND20-30 million a year after working hard on farms. Recently, some households that have grown mutant orchids have bought nice cars and big houses, but how do they make those assets, we cannot know for sure," said Dung of Hang Tram Town.

Toan, his friend and many orchid lovers still think it is not impossible to make a fortune on the mutant orchids.

"I am still tiptoeing into this industry and avoiding spending too much," Toan said, adding however, that he would only sell his orchid for "at least VND600 million."

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