Miracles in our midst: an ode to the trees of Hanoi

By Mark Ashwill   July 3, 2021 | 12:15 am PT
One of the things I like about living in Vietnam is the year-round presence of the color green in its many hues.

It is in contrast to the three main colors one sees in continental climates during much of fall, winter, and early spring e.g., white (snow), blue (sky), and gray (clouds and deciduous trees).

Every month in a tropical climate is a season for a different tree or flower to explode in vibrant color, making the world a more beautiful place.

One of my favorite trees is the giant crape myrtle, known in Vietnamese as cây bằng lăng. It is also known in English as the Pride of India, a gracious nod to its place of origin, certainly one of that country’s more notable flora exports. This flowering tree, which is native to tropical southern Asia, has been honored and celebrated in numerous Vietnamese songs and poems.

Purple means the beginning of summer

Flowering giant crape myrtle trees in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

Flowering giant crape myrtle trees in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

Even if you didn't have a calendar, you would know it's May and summer has arrived in full force not only because of the lower humidity, higher temperatures, and bluer sky but also when many Hanoi streets are splashed and showered with purple, which is said to combine "the calm stability of blue and the fierce energy of red." It is a color often associated with other states of being and qualities such as royalty, nobility, and ambition.

This natural purple splendor, which includes a yellow pistil (center), the colors associated with Easter, is one of my lasting memories of Hanoi from my second trip 25 years ago and a sight I look forward to every year.

It is my good fortune to have three giant crape myrtle trees grace the sidewalk in front of my Hanoi office. I consider myself lucky to be able to look up at them from the street and down at them from the upper floors. The biological transformation that these majestic trees undergo from early March to late April is nothing short of miraculous.

The magic begins

At first, it's autumn in spring, as these trees begin to lose their leaves until they are barren. Knowing the myriad of environmental challenges, they face and wondering if they are still alive, I had to remind myself of the value of faith, hope in the unseen.

Slowly but surely, like a runner finding her second wind, they begin their resurrection, making the transition from dead (in appearance) and dormant to alive and prospering, the process accelerating with the passing of each day. This is a well-worn path that these trees have taken since they were saplings; it’s in their DNA.

Scientists have discovered that trees move their branches up and down at night, actively pumping water upwards in stages, and that they have a slow version of a "pulse" or heartbeat. This makes perfect sense since they are living beings with their own circulatory system.

I imagine the roots deep under the urban streets drawing in water and nutrients from the soil coursing through their wooden veins and distributing these evenly through every branch and new leaf. The changes from one day to the next are visible.

First the large, dark green leaves, the new branches reaching out to the building, then the flower buds. The wasps and bees return in their never-ending search for food. The precious shade reappears just in time for the sun-drenched and sultry days of summer.

Like other trees in Hanoi and other cities, these giant crape myrtle trees are both aesthetically pleasing and tough as nails. Many grow away from the buildings towards the sun and must contend with air pollution, nails hammered into them for the purpose of hanging signs selling whatever, and occasional drought, yet they survive and prosper. They are in some respects like many of the people who live among them – resilient survivors.

In a span of less than two months, these graceful Pride of India trees came back to life, restored to their former beauty, a source of joy and inspiration to so many of us who take the time to appreciate them. Looking down one sees a canopy of green and, once May makes its entrance, a canvas of purple.

If trees could talk

A cotton tree in full bloom at the National Museum of History building in downtown Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A cotton tree in full bloom at the National Museum of History building in downtown Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Another favorite tropical tree is the red silk cotton tree (cây gạo). I remember one in particular at the Nha Khach Quan Doi (Military Guesthouse) on Pham Ngu Lao where I used to park my car before walking the rest of the way to my office. It was like greeting an old friend every morning. Standing tall and proud, this giant of a tree must be over a century old, which means it was a sapling when Hanoi was a village, not the bustling five million-strong city it is today.

It this tree could talk, its stories would document much of Hanoi's recent history from the early days of French colonialism to the First and Second Indochina War, gunfire, bombings, suffering and all, to the unification of Vietnam, the peaceful yet poor period that followed and, finally, the relative prosperity of the post-Doi Moi era.

Every spring, its oversized five-petal flowers burst forth before the foliage like blazing red lanterns against the backdrop of the azure sky. Once ripe, cotton-like white fibers are released and carried by the wind, hence the reference to red silk cotton in English.

Trees produce oxygen, which we and all other living beings need to survive. They also provide year-round beauty through their flowers, leaves, and mere presence for us to enjoy in our own way. All they ask in return is that we create conditions in which they (and we) can flourish and allow them to live unhindered. Nature will take care of the rest. Every tree that dies or falls over should be replaced. Our long-term survival is inextricably linked to theirs; they are the omnipresent canaries in the coal mine that is our world.

There are many miracles in our midst if we only take the time and have the eyes to see them. The life cycle and annual metamorphosis of the trees of Hanoi, such as the cây bằng lăng and the cây gạo, are certainly one of them.

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