Hanoi flower village withers in Covid-19 season

By Phuong Lam   April 15, 2020 | 06:05 am PT
Cuc was about to harvest flowers from her garden before someone called to cancel the order.

Since April 1, Quang Ba, Hanoi's largest wholesale flower market, has been closed due to the 15-day social distancing campaign.

"The day finally came," Cuc said with a sigh, looking at her blooming lily flowers. Since the middle of the first lunar month of the year (in February), Covid-19 has cancelled many festivals and weddings, giving Cuc and her flowers a hard time.

Having earned VND300,000 ($13) for a bunch of 50 yellow daisies after the Tet break (from January 23-29), Cuc now earns VND30,000 ($1.3), considered "dirt cheap."

Last month, her last lilies were sold for VND80,000 ($3.4) each instead of the usual VND150,000 ($6.4).

Growing flowers has never been an easy job as it depends on the weather. This year, Hanoi's flower growers face more challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the flower market has been shut down, Cuc has to cut the flowers and sell them herself. Photo bu VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

With the market shut, Cuc has to harvest and sell her own flowers. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

At 3 a.m., Cuc delivered her flowers to a market in Hanoi's Ha Dong District, deserted following the social distancing campaign, sales having hit rock bottom. 

"I would rather lose money than not sell. I cannot take the flowers home and cook them," Cuc said, adding with each flower she sold, she lost VND5,000 ($0.2).

On an April afternoon, Cuc, wearing her boots and hat, covered each lily bud to stop the flowers from blooming, to hopefully shift at least 5,000 that week.

Living in Tay Tuu Ward, or Tay Tuu Village to locals, in Bac Tu Liem District, Cuc, 30, has grown flowers most of her life. She got married several years ago and has never given up on the livelihood passed down from her parents.

In 2008, Hanoi was flooded for one week, leaving Cuc's flowers rotten in the garden. To avoid floods, Cuc and many other farmers hire land plots at a higher area in Dan Phuong District, around 10 kilometers from Tay Tuu.

Apart from yellow daisies, she also plants white lilies as Hanoians love these flowers.

Cuc feels lucky as she has never had to take out a bank loan. However, last August, she was forced to borrowed nearly VND100 million ($4,270) to prepare for a new season. After eight months, she had earned back half the money, but had to ask for an extension on payments.

Planted among weeds, two-thirds of her lilies failed to sprout. Now, Cuc wonders if she should plant more as the pandemic rages. 

Ngoc takes care of his flower farm. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Nguyen Tu Ngoc at work on his farm. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

There are no official statistics on the effects of Covid-19 on flower farms in Tay Tuu. However, Nguyen Tu Ngoc, 35, estimates he has lost VND7,000 ($0.3) per branch for lilies.

Three days after the social distancing campaign started, Ngoc and his wife harvested their last flowers, selling them as quickly as possible at VND80,000 ($25) for ten branches. Last year, the price had reached VND270,000 ($12).

Of all types of flowers in Tay Tuu, lilies are the most expensive as the seeds are pricey and it typically takes growers up to 90 days to plant, depending on the weather. Ngoc knows he has lost millions of dong (VND1 million=$43).

The plot Ngoc pay VND8 million ($343) per year to hire retains many of his memories, both ups and downs. 

In November 2016, they grew red lilies and yellow daisies, calculated 90 days in advance of the Lunar New Year break. Unfortunately, it was not cold enough that winter. With the holiday approaching, all the flowers bloomed too early. The VND100 million ($4,270) flower storage cold room could save only half of the batch they had grown.

"The children are happy since they had candy to chew on, only us adults were sad," Ngoc remembered.

When Vietnam recorded several Covid-19 infections in the northern province of Vinh Phuc in February, farmers knew the virus was still far away.

However, one month later, Hanoi reported its first Covid-19 patient. All events, including weddings, were halted. People stopped going to pagodas. Prices of flowers grown by Cuc, Ngoc and others started to drop.
When the nationwide social distancing campaign was deployed, knowing they were losing money with every flower they sold, they had no choice but to persist.

"Each year, we lose money in different ways," Ngoc said while his wife was busy covering all flowers to stop them from blooming. In their 16 years as flower farmers, this is the first time they have felt such uncertainty.

Quang Ba flower market has been closed since April 1. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Quang Ba Flower Market has been closed since April 1. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.

Quang Ba, the biggest flower market in the north, has been shut since April 1. Flowers from local growers are not delivered to many other provinces. Sellers now try to bring their flowers to other local markets, hoping to earn a little amid the raging pandemic.

"VND30,000 ($1.3) for a bunch of 17 flowers, no bargaining," a woman said while selling her white lilies by West Lake.

Mai Thi Van, growing flowers for half her life, has never faced such upheaval. Knowing flowers are not in the list of essential supplies, she is worried since April is white lily season, but with the semi-lockdown to remain in place.

Ha Loi Village, with nearly 11,000 residents, was put under lockdown since April 7 after three villagers contracted Covid-19, with "Patient 243" having done business with many flower growers in Tay Tuu Village. 

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