Alley 200 is hardly distinguishable from the countless others on Le Thanh Ton. 10 metres of asphalt away from the busy hustle of Ben Thanh Market, a grumpy parking attendant lounges on his motorbike at its entrance, half-heartedly guarding a narrow stairwell with flaking yellow walls. A simple wooden sign hangs above the doorway — in dark green letters it reads Padma de Fleur. When I point to it, the grumpy parking attendant glances up and grunts, “Flower?”
Quynh Anh sits in her workshop at the top of the stairs, Florence and the Machine playing low over a makeshift sound system built into a shelved wall dense with her livelihood: beaded vases, figurines, sequins and stacks of books. The Ho Chi Minh City florist’s workshop is part antique shop, part greenhouse — every inch of space around her is occupied by some colour or texture.
“‘Padma’ means ‘lotus flower’ in Sanskrit,” she says.
Her fingers are looped around the stems of six dormant lotus pods. She works a handful of green stem wrap around each of them while cosy masses of leaves and petals graze her busy hands.
The lotus is her favourite, and a regular in her designs for Padma de Fleur. Its symbolism for purity and resilience comes from its unique proclivity to flourish in muddy ponds, a characteristic that has earned it a special veneration among Vietnamese people, and with Quynh Anh herself. Perhaps it is because of this, much like the flower after which she named her shop, that Quynh Anh has a certain, rare fortitude.
Planting the Seed
Dressed to match the effervescence of her workspace in mismatched earrings and vivid red lipstick, Quynh Anh is surprisingly frank about her initial motivations in starting her floral design business. She insists that it was more to do with circumstance. “I mean, I like flowers,” she says, “[…] but it’s not something I was dying [to do].”
A victim of the economic downturn, the former advertising executive was forced into a frustrating carousel of short-term jobs after a layoff in 2007, none lasting more than a few months. “After a certain point I thought maybe it was time to do something that was under my control,” she says with a smile.
She eventually abandoned the notion of finding a job and took up the task of creating one for herself. Her inspiration was something of a surprise, since instead of moving in the predictable direction of something close to her advertising roots, Quynh Anh chose something that she had learned to do in a French class alongside a VJ and a Japanese toilet designer.
“One girl in the class asked if [her classmates] were interested in learning how to make a bouquet,” she recalls. “There were three of us [learning]. Each of us had the same amount of flowers. Everything we had was the same, but the outcome was very different — they actually portrayed our personality.”
Quynh Anh continued making bouquets for friends and improving with the help of YouTube and floral design books, stacks of which now occupy half a wall of her workshop. Her originally prim and proper bouquets (“we can’t be the black sheep in Vietnam”) transformed into illustrations of the recipients’ personalities.
But the hobby only became a serious venture with the frustration of an unsteady career. In a burst of confidence, Quynh Anh threw caution to the wind and first opened Padma de Fleur in 2007.
The bold move had less than stellar results, and the fledgling company only lasted a year before dwindling funds forced her to close up shop. “I didn’t sell much back then,” she admits. “I don’t think the market was ready, [and] I didn’t really have a plan.”
Undeterred, Quynh Anh opened again in 2010, this time with a strategy and a new group of clientele. “Now that Vietnamese people are not worried about affording food, they’re transitioning into caring about quality of life,” she says, speaking of her majority Vietnamese clientele. Padma de Fleur creates original design concepts for weddings, product launches, formal dinners and store openings, among her collections for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
Blooming with Life
Quynh Anh holds an empty vase in her hands, turning it over to show me the detail of the red lace and blue denim fabric wrapped around its exterior. “His colour was blue and hers was red. The flowers were purple — if you mix blue and red together, it becomes purple,” she explains, telling me about her design inspiration for a recent wedding. “We used red flowers and blue water in the reception area, [but] when you came into the dining area it was all purple.”
The careful contemplation of the couples’ story is no different from the thoughtfulness behind each of her designs. Each flower and flourish is chosen carefully to convey the story and characteristics of each client, and no detail is left untouched. A dinner for only male guests with deliberately muted colours and simple blooms; a bar opening with vegetables, crates and a tree to mimic an outdoor market; an evening wedding with candles and lights to illuminate the flora — each concept is as rich and vibrant as the story behind it.
Quynh Anh seems less like a florist and more like a storyteller — her own story being one of pioneering, mindfulness and ambition. The same creativity and perseverance that emerged from amateur arrangements for her friends remains a constant in her work today. Every creation is a work in progress.
“I’m never satisfied with anything that I make,” she says while adding another lotus pod to an incomplete bouquet in her hand. Regardless, she shows no signs of slowing down. Like her favourite flower, Quynh Anh is a testament to resilience, and how beauty can bloom from the most unlikely of sources.
Padma de Fleur is at Floor 2, 200 Le Thanh Ton, Q1. For more information go to padmadefleur.vn. Quynh Anh also runs flower arranging courses. Call 0835 079279 for details
Flowers and Their Meanings
Vietnamese name: Hoa sen
Where it grows: In murky ponds in warm climates — specifically tropical Asian ones
Symbolism: Spiritual growth
Quynh Anh’s perspective: It’s my favourite flower. I use both the pod and bloom for many of my designs.
Vietnamese name: Hoa hong
Where it grows: Most species are native to Asia, with smaller numbers native to Europe, North America and northwestern Africa
Symbolism: Deep and enduring love
Quynh Anh’s perspective: A classic! Consequently, when a man offers a woman a rose, he isn’t that creative and adventurous.
Vietnamese name: Dong tien
Where it grows: Native to South Africa
Quynh Anh’s perspective: I used to think that the gerbera was charmless due to overuse. Yet, I have found the opposite the more I work with it. Black eye gerbera gives the feeling of modernity and the variety of colours are great.
Vietnamese name: Hoa cuc
Where it grows: Asia and northeastern Europe
Quynh Anh’s perspective: The Vietnamese perception is that these are flowers for the altar or an offering. I’m working hard to shift this perception.
Vietnamese name: Cat tuong
Where it grows: Warm regions of the southern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and northern areas of South America
Symbolism: Congeniality and charisma
Quynh Anh’s perspective: They were once thought to symbolise a person who is particularly showy or impressive back in the Victorian era. Yet, today the significance is rich and varied and the lisianthus is a great alternative to the rose.
Vietnamese name: Lily
Where it grows: Different kinds are found around the world
Quynh Anh’s perspective: The majority of people believe that the lily is luxurious and elegant, probably because it’s one of the most expensive flowers and has a great fragrance. When using it for weddings, it’s better to double check with the parents, as ‘li’ means separation in Vietnamese.
Vietnamese name: Hoa lan
Where it grows: The world’s richest concentration of orchid varieties is found in the tropics — mostly Asia, South America and Central America
Symbolism: Femininity and exotic beauty
Quynh Anh’s perspective: Everybody likes orchids. They’re a safe choice, but you need a thick wallet.
Vietnamese name: Cam tu cau
Where it grows: Southern and eastern Asia — China, Japan, Korea, the Himalayas and Indonesia — and the Americas
Quynh Anh’s perspective: I love this flower’s fluffiness, and I use it for large-scale arrangements. Big help.