Dec 8, 2010

The constantainer garden

A hòn non bộ in Duy Nghia (Quang Nam)
A constant feature of the Vietnamese garden is a miniaturized landscape of trees and rockeries that fits in a tray: hòn non bộ. Derived from penjing, the Chinese tray landscape, it is gussied up with a water feature to reflect the Vietnamese obsession with the combination of earth and water. The trays can be really small, 20 cm in size, or much larger, up to 2-3 meters if positioned in a garden or a temple courtyard.
In 1997, my family had to move out of the villa Mai-Phuong, a splendid villa shaded by an enormous mango tree and a row of coconut trees at the end of an alley, Nguyên Thông street, District 3, Saigon. The five-year lease had come to an end, and the usufructuaries of the villa (a couple who had participated in the war effort on the communist side) were thriving to get legal ownership so they could tear down the villa, divide the land into small plots and sell them. Back then, nobody bought architecture. People bought land. Constructible land. Garden space was worthless.
The villa was Sleeping Beauty's Manor when we signed the lease in 1992, refurbished it and moved in.
When it was time to move out, my (ex-) husband and I made appointments with a state-owned real estate company to visit houses for rent. The housing situation had opened up throughout the years and the choice was larger. That is, if you didn't expect a garden. The first house that was shown to us was such a gardenless town house. The entrance door had metal folding repellent doors that screeched. My stomach squirmed at the sound. We walked into the empty space, following the real estate agent who soon stopped at a small courtyard at the junction of the living-room and the staircase and emphasized what she thought was persuasive : 'A hòn non bộ.' I stared at the miniature landscape, the rock-shaped cement, the dry fishless tray, the pathetic miniature trees. Tears welled up and flowed. And flowed. I walked through the house tour sobbing.
Sometimes, ceramic figurines, ponds and temples adorn the trays
Maybe I had other reasons for grief. Maybe I had sensed the end of something that had nothing to do with plant arrangement. Nevertheless, my heart would always connect the hòn non bộ with sorrow. Something about its fakeness spurs, in me, a feeling of desperation.
There would be no further tours of rental houses. I decided to rent a floodable plot of land and build wild jungle bungalows on stilts.
If you still want a hòn non bộ after reading this, you need to abide by a set of designing rules. There are only eight proper positions of rocks: the lone peak, the twin peaks, the mountain range, the low mountain range, the giant vs. dwarf peaks, the (slanted) dragon peak, the mysterious cliff, the organic shape (suggesting an animal, a person).
A 'mountain range' in Duy Nghia (Quang Nam)
Photo credit: Tropical Plants Library @

You will also need the cardinal ficus benjamina, a tree that grows to 30 m in height in the wild. Its aerial roots are impressive.

A nursery of ficus benjamina pruned to dwarf size. Only the Chinese and other Asian peoples under the influence of Chinese culture prevent their trees from growing: an engrossment with control yielding drives them. People are (self) girdled up, emotions dwarfed and plants stymied.
Rules are boring. Unless they have a structural raison d'être, such as rimes in a sonnet, rules limit scope. As tools of oppression, they lead to perversity, especially when associated with money. Another set of four rules (cổ, kỳ, mỹ, văncommands the price of a tray: the age of the tree, its bizarreness, its beauty (whatever that means), and the overall style of the arrangement. A current hòn non bộ  show at the Hanoi Museum exhibits specimens worth up to six million dollars*. In the more affordable one-million dollars range, a few smaller items are available.
In this perverse perspective, plants do not elicit consideration on their own. The blue-veined giant leaves of the curcuma zedoaria stir no aesthetic emotion. The palm-of-the-hand-sized canna lilies inspire no ecstasy. Both can be found on roadsides, growing spontaneously without being coaxed into shapes. They never get to age: each stem flowers only once. After flowering, they are trimmed down to their roots to make room for the suckers. They are bizarre enough (in my opinion), beautiful, stylish and free.

*Those who can read Vietnamese are invited to check this information at:

Dec 3, 2010

The anti-jungle syndrome

Living on stilts: a Katu house on the Annamite Range

In my former life in Saigon, I had rented a floodable plot of land in an island (connected to the city with a bridge) and commissioned the building of three bungalows on stilts. A local journalist sent by a home design magazine to write an illustrated story about the house declined to comply to his foreign editor-in-chief: who wants to live in a house on stilts? Only the Moïs—the savages—do. Civilized people live in concrete, ground-level houses.  In the Mekong Delta, where the river overflows every year, they would rather be inundated to their neck in their flood-level houses than built on stilts. 
Civilized people are plains dwellers who participate in the hydraulic civilization of rice culture. The Moïs, now properly renamed 'the ethnic minorities', live in the mountains, next to jungles where they hunt, pick wild mushrooms and vegetables. The Vietnamese ethnic majority has a name for the jungle: 'the land of poisonous water'. In the Annamite Range that rises to the west of Hôi An where I live, snakes are lethally venomous and of course black. They are called Black Cobra (rắn hổ mun) although they are not cobras but regular vipers with a flat head. I have been told that  their mandibles continued to seep out venom even after they are well dead and decomposed. If you step barefooted on the bony remains you will die. Fortunately, not many of us take a stroll in the jungle in naked feet.

A river crossing towards the Land of Poisonous Water
The people who live on the neighboring strip of the Annamite Range are the Katus and their houses are built on stilts.
The Katu house roof is made of Schefflera palmiformis (lá cọ)
Schefflera palmiformis palm. Photo credit:
In addition to living in poisonous water territory with venomous black cobras, the Katus have been the subjects of a diffamatory report in 1938 by a French colonial ranger. Le Pichon dubbed them the 'blood hunters': every now and then, he wrote, the Katus ambushed a young man from another tribe and executed him to honor the gods.
Vietnam is the only country in the world to have called their minority ethnic groups 'savages'. Language speaks for the deep, sacred feelings of a people and reveals, in this case, a yearning for domesticable land that is the nucleus of the Vietnamese soul. Flat lands, floodable lands, rice-cultivable lands. The opposite of the unkempt jungle where monsters thrive.
Land—and water. The word country,  'đất nước' is a compound of 'land' and 'water'.
I would rather be uncivilized and unflooded. 

Nov 30, 2010

What's a tropical garden?

Let me introduce my beloved companion and exciting partner in life: Jacques-Emile Lecaron (link to his homepage on the right). When I started planting the garden, he was in Clamart, France (where it now snows...)
View of the garden, and beyond, the Meudon Forest

and we exchanged a few cerebral musings about gardens. This is his view of gardens: 

"The English garden is a pastoral approach. Its lawn is but an allegory of meadows; its temples and bridges are counterpoints embedded into a natural scene. Shepherd boys and shepherdesses are its divine tenders. It is anchored in the city—a patch of exotism for city dwellers who will sit and converse in one of its atmospheric edifices.  The English garden invites to reverse time and flow back to a pre-industrial Golden Age.
The garden à la française connotes nature differently. Domesticated wheatfields, croplands, bordering trees along roads, city plazas, channeled rivers are its basic material. The garden design extols urban space and life and veers its elements towards an enchanted future. Perspective lines shape the territory and suddenly reveal new vistas; the result is a public space, organized and ordely, yet supple. Sculptures associate with myths. Water features (allegories of dreams) trap the sky that they reflect. Groves balance the master plan; they are territories of love and poetry where human life bursts in between foliage, labyrinth, danse, theater, optical ambushes. The garden à la française is a dream machine, an opera. Designing such a garden is a challenge.
In Bali, beauty lies in the confrontion between sophisticated and architectured tropical flower beds and a lush and extremely diversified jungle. 
I agree with Made Wijaya, the author of "Tropical Garden design", that the tropical garden should convey a sense of outrage; it cannot be submitted to the subtleness of light, the seasonal changing of leaves color, or fragrances: it should be a substitute to the sky. Dark shadows, colorful light and exuberant foliage sweeps are expected. Flowers, fruits and foliage all add to the awakening of senses. The tropical garden is not an itinerary but a juxtaposition of selected vistas. Shadows will be overwhelming, while light is recreated in the rivalry of colors and the contemplation of water features—rivers, ponds, swimming pools.

The french and english gardens are exhilirating paths to the sky, to Paradise. One painting epitomizes this: Jean-Antoine Watteau's "Pèlerinage à l'île de Cythère" .
In the tropics, the sky is white, bright with heat and often stormy. It shelters neither paradise nor benevolent gods. Designing a garden that leads to the sky would be a misconception.
We can only try to create a paradise on earth, full of shapes and textures and colors, hoping and waiting for the gods to come and visit us. We will have to be dress up in our most beautiful attire and cook delicious meals. Perhaps the first muse to come will be "La charmeuse de serpents",  painted by the Douanier Rousseau.

Nov 27, 2010

An edible gardener goes carnivorous

It was not the plan, today, to launch this blog. I was planning for yesterday to recur: an early morning rise, a bike ride to Hôi An bus station (about 6 km from home) then a bus ride to Danang (30km) and a visit to plant nurseries. The bus ride should be an hour including stops, but there is a mysterious rote, exacerbated by yesterday's driver: the bus pulls out of the station, then immediately stops just a few meters later. A few people show up on motorbikes, not planning to board the bus: they haul on the empty rear part of the bus firmly packed goods to be delivered in Danang or on the way. A meeting is setup using the station name, and somebody will pick up the parcel. Instant, UPS style delivery.
Meanwhile, the passengers sit and wait. This loitering outside the bus station takes up at least twenty minutes before the bus slowly moves. By slow I mean 2 km/hour. It pulls to another stop three hundred meters later, at the cemetary. After some more dragging  for another twenty minutes, the driver finally consents to cull speed. When he does, he honks all the way to Danang, making sure the road is clear. Since the sound is deafening, he raises the sound system button to LOUD so everyone on the bus can enjoy the syrupy music.
In Danang, I am only familiar with its airport and the Cham Museum which houses the world's largest Cham sculpture collection—not surprisingly, since the Chams are an ethnic group originating from Central Vietnam. The 1915 ochre yellow building is a masterpiece of West-meets-East architecture, totally French and totally Cham. Naturally ventilated and uncannily cool, a 'green' building before 'green' became the hype. They just didn't have electricity-triggered air-conditioning back then.
It took a frustrating taxi ride to a wrong location and a moto-hug ride (that's how motorbike taxis are called—xe ôm) before I arrived at the short strip where plant nurseries are aligned. I am specifically looking for coconut coir hanging baskets to create a vertical garden wall.  I have never done this before, as I have never even gardened until two months ago. In this time lapse I have undergone several species addictions before currently arriving at the fern stage.
Why ferns? Well, ferns have been known to arouse pteridomania among the Victorians (check this link: and the aesthetic reasons are many, but I am also attracted to the fact that they are undemanding in terms of light and soil: after two months of intense planting, the sunny spots in my plot of land have dramatically shrunk. Even the shady zones are beginning to be crowded. That is, horizontally. Also, an obnoxious air-conditioning compressor unit needs to be hidden (our house is 'green' and cool enough, but when it gets hot in Hôi An, it gets VERY hot).
The vertical option, made grandiosely popular by my friend Patrick Blanc, comes to my fertile mind that hours of researching on the Internet have thoroughly composted. 
Ferns! Their roots are capillarily thin and they can be grown with very little earth. The staghorn fern does not even require soil at all. It would be the perfect candidate for my wall, I thought. The centerpiece, which I would glamorize with tinier ferny items.
That was my reason to set off for Danang. In Hôi An, the horticulturists have yet to be itched by the pteridomania sting. When I inquire about the "Dragon's nest" (local name for staghorn fern—ổ rồng) they'd say, 'Oh, but dragons don't nest'.
The fern coolhouse, shielded from excess heat and sun, was easy to spot: stuff grow upside down. I walked in, hopeful, and bam, there they are, platycerium bifurcatum galore. I dashed towards the nursery owner: How much? Not identifying me as a serious buyer (ie, a buyer for the seaside resorts that abound the coastline), he reluctantly says: five million (250 USD). What? Five million dongs for a fern? No, for the whole crown.

I have this idea that my country fellows (whom I am about to offend irrevocably) are control freaks and nature haters. They are desperate to tame anything that grows—an impossible challenge in the tropics where ferns cascade and muscular sap stretches branches and leaves to unlimited extents. They recoil in presence of the tentacular and the outrageous. Lush must be trimmed down to demure. Wild must be harnessed *. Amazingly, they do find ways to win the war against barbarous nature (they have won many wars) and one of them is to assemble the staghorn ferns into a crown so they have less of a jungle look and more of an urban, polite appearance.
Annoyed but not defeated, I sauntered back to the hothouses where normal plants are sold at normal prices. I have been avoiding the nepenthes shop showing off rows of red pitchers locally called 'teapot covers' (nắp ấm). Soon, however, I realized that nepenthes alatas grown upside down and untrimmed looked very much like an epiphyte. I made up my mind to buy two of them for a paltry sum in the hundreds of thousands instead of millions dongs.
Lunch was a quick stop-over at a sandwich booth. In LA where my sister Thanh lives, the local Vietnamese sandwich booth is the Nom Nom truck. This one is the Rolls-Royce of banh mi micro-trucks serving exclusively crunchy lacquered pork suckling.

When I got home a party was going full blast at the neighbors', the Dôngs (who sold me the land). I declined the invitation to join them but accepted a plate of sticky rice cooked in momordica cochinchinensis, a vine fruit flaunting bright red flesh looking like bloody human flesh.
The occasion was giỗ, some ancestor's death anniversary. It is the sole occasion for a gourmet celebration in this country—other than weddings (weddings are not recurrent, at least not traditionally). Daughters and daughters-in-law were up since four in the morning to prepare the feast.
Today, I woke up early (not at four) and planned to go back to Danang for more nepenthes or fern shopping but the sky is gloomy and rain is threatening . Instead, I sat down and got this blog started.
My back wall has gorgeously improved and the air-conditioner piping much less conspicuous. Am I  really supposed to feed flies to the plant? Breed flies?

This a vertical garden I spotted the other day during my roamings on the bike.

* in rebellion, I took the pseudonym "Moï", which means "wild".