I don’t care what country you go to, and how long you live, this is one of those special places,” said my friend Chris, dipping a piece of pho ran into his soy sauce and stuffing his face. The delicious deep-fried pho in the shape of a pizza had become a late-night delicacy for us, and we could only find it here. Other delicacies abound; one table over, I spied another friend, Andrew, gnawing on boiled chicken feet, kicking back shots of ruou with Nga and her husband, our favourite food stand vendors.
They work here for 12 hours every night, cooking in shifts and taking naps on a small cot next to their stove. Nga, 25, studied cooking in school, and moved to Hanoi from central Vietnam to take advantage of the city’s business. She likes serving the drunk Westerners, she says, because they’re fun, and they like to sing instead of fight. (It’s true, I’ve found myself caught up in a few sloppy sing-a-longs around her tables in the past.)
Between drinks with Andrew, Nga would write Vietnamese words on her hand and teach him how to pronounce them. Then, she produced a notebook, where Andrew would write English words for her in return. They did this every week, a sort of midnight language exchange. We’d developed a sense of loyalty to Nga and her pho ran. When all the bars closed, we knew there was always the flower market, shining like a fluorescent oasis in the small hours.
A Brisk Trade
It was months before I even set foot on the flower side of the market. For expats, the place is synonymous with midnight munchies and Bia Hanoi nightcaps. But if you step past the row of food stands that line the dike road, you will find something rare for a street market — peace and fragrance. At night, it’s meant for wholesalers, so no one is likely hassle you for purchases. You can wander in and out of the blossoms, surrounded on all sides by red, yellow, purple and green.
There are roses from Vinh Tuy and chrysanthemums from Tay Tuu; flower villages on the outskirts of Hanoi that have since been absorbed into the city due to Hanoi’s rapid urbanisation. Tay Ho was also known for its flower-growing in the past, and the market here began as a makeshift meeting point for growers from neighbouring districts to sell their products.
When light begins to creep over the horizon, the flower ladies will take the stock they’ve bought before dawn and fan out into the city to sell throughout the day. Sometimes housewives will come in the early morning to buy bouquets, but usually the market packs up before the sun gets too high. Before holidays like Tet, though, the women must work overtime. They stay open until noon to meet demand, as fresh flowers are necessary to adorn altars and brighten the home for visiting family.
It can be a stressful time for vendors, though. Mai, a 60-year-old woman who has been working here for the last 20 years, seemed especially concerned. The abnormally cold temperatures this winter have threatened her flower supply and driven prices up. She worries that she won’t sell enough, so she keeps her stand open as much as her health allows. Her fears echo in other vendors’ cries: “Buy from me! Buy from me!”
It’s a hectic scene, and the stark morning light on a sidewalk I’ve only known in the dark feels uncanny. They’re all selling the same peach blossom trees, lined up along the dike road where Nga would set up shop later that night. But today, there was no sign of her, not even one plastic chair or banh my sign in her usual spot. It’s a place that holds so much meaning for me, where I see memories of times I felt truly happy, with friends like Chris, who have since moved away. This was the last place I saw him. But for these women, it’s business as usual, no sentimentality in sight.
I returned to Chi for more pho ran a couple months after I saw her and Andrew eating chicken feet. This time, when I ordered food in my broken Vietnamese, she smiled and answered in English. I immediately remembered their casual language lessons; Andrew has since moved away, too, but he’s left an imprint behind. Like its beginnings as a meeting point for flower peddlers, the market has become an intersection for cultural exchange, too. We may be driven by different motivations, like early morning hunger or a late night’s work. But whatever draws us here, the flower market is a site where we can trade more than just money. And that’s the mark of a special place.
Photos by Jesse Meadows