After first arriving in the popular consciousness last year, the terrarium — a way of growing small plants and creating an ecosystem in a glass container — has quickly become popular and attracted a wide range of practioners. One of the pioneers of this movement in Vietnam is Hanoi-born Nguyen Tien Dung, a 25-year-old architect.
On a Sunday morning in April, we visited Green Oasis, a coffee and terrarium shop owned by Dung, located in a quiet alley near the Opera House. This cute little green space is decorated with various kinds of ferns, sphagnum moss and succulents grown in “pots” ranging from used bathtub fragments to pretty glass containers — all were planted by Dung.
This morning he holds a class for 12 participants, who are about to make their own terrariums for the first time. “Please come up and pick your plants, and glass vessels if you don’t have one,” says Dung, holding up a pretty terrarium that he made recently. He has a small tattoo of a tree on his right wrist.
Every Sunday morning, participants in the weekly class are encouraged to bring their own re-used glass containers and be as creative as they want with their plant arrangements. They are provided with tools such as spoons, long tweezers and other materials — including several kinds of gravel, soil and even little pieces of wood for decoration.
Under Dung’s instruction, everyone starts the process in excitement.
From Eco-Architecture to Terrariums
Growing up in the southernmost reaches of Hanoi, Hoang Mai District — where there were once many trees, lakes and other natural features — Dung has always been comfortable living in green space. When he was an architecture student at the National University of Civil Engineering, he became interested in eco-architecture, participating in some design competitions, with most of his work focused on green buildings. One of his works gained him third prize in a competition — a tube house filled with trees in the city’s centre. His dream after graduation was to work for a Vietnamese eco-architecture firm such as Vo Trong Nghia Architects.
But life happened, and he ended up working for an interior design company that didn’t let him do what he had longed for. “There were many reasons that I couldn’t do green building as much there; the contractors didn’t want to do that because of the [high] expenses,” says Dung.
But that didn’t stop him from following his passion, and he finally decided to quit the job and set up his own green project.
A Green World in a Bottle
The story of an amateur gardener named David Latimer, who kept his plants healthy inside a giant sealed glass jug for over 50 years made headlines in 2013. As the plant absorbs light, it can photosynthesise, recycling nutrients and converting sunlight into all the energy needed for growth. Planted in 1960, and only watered once in 1972, the plant managed to stay healthy for 53 years. This was a perfect example of a self-sustaining ecosystem.
While the terrarium was created a long time ago — back in 1842 by English botanist Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward — Latimer’s story generated great curiosity and inspiration for many people, including Dung.
“When I read about his story, I became very excited,” says Dung. “I thought it would be amazing to be able to create a wonderful eco-system that doesn’t get affected by Hanoi’s pollution or weather.”
In January last year, he made his first terrarium with different kinds of moss. After that, he made more to give to friends as presents, uploading the photos to Facebook. His terrariums started to gain a reputation, and became so popular that people started ordering his products online.
“As Vietnam is a tropical country,” says Dung, “we have so many kinds of moss and plants that do well in medium-moisture environments, which are suitable for a terrarium.” His travels around the country at this time were motivated by his search for new kinds of plants. He mostly chose to ship native species from the areas around Dalat and Sapa.
In September of last year, Dung decided that he needed a space to display his ‘artworks’, so he opened the Green Oasis coffee/terrarium shop, which has quickly become popular, and now has nearly 20,000 followers on its Facebook page. He says the business brings him revenue of several thousands of dollars a month, and he’s aiming to expand it.
“Many people have come to me to learn about terrariums and have gone on to open their own businesses,” he tells me. “But I don’t take it as a pressure. In fact, I’m happy to see that terrariums have become the favourite hobby of so many young people.”
As he fills up a spray bottle for one of the class’s participants, he adds with a smile, “I’ll always try to create new designs to diversify my products and meet the taste of my customers.”
Green Oasis is at Ngo 6 Le Thanh Tong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, and on facebook.com/CayViet. Terrarium workshops take place every Sunday at 9:30am and are free of charge. You will need to pay for the plants and the glass containers. Call or send a text to 0948 588819 to register in advance