a bonsai enthusiast
You see this tree here? I bought it for VND8 million. If I sell it now I can get VND600 million. If I wait another three years, I should get at least VND7 trillion. See that other tree? It’s almost 50 years old. I brought it home and transferred it onto that rock. It’ll take three years until it’s finished.
Basically, I find a beautiful old tree and hire someone to bring it back to my place. I go all over the country looking for trees I can work with – Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, Phu Thọ – all over the north and the center. Once I get it home, I take time to really understand the aesthetics of it. Friends and colleagues come around and look at it, the more perspectives I can get, the better. There’s a saying, “If you’ve got nine people you’ll have 10 opinions.” We’re really open around here. We’re not afraid of competition and everyone wants each other to do a good job. That’s why I’m happy to talk to anyone who’s interested in my trees. I can literally sit here and talk about trees for hours.
When you’re growing bonsai, there are different seasons for doing different things. From January to August is when you shape the tree by pruning and bending. From September to November, you promote growth by covering the tree with fabric or wrapping it in plastic. And in December, it’s too cold to do anything.
This bonsai industry started to develop in this village about five years ago. Nowadays, many families are in the business. I don’t know exactly how it happened. I guess the younger people got together and decided it was a good job to have, not too dirty or physically demanding. At 47 years old, I’m actually the oldest person growing bonsai in the village. My master, Ngo Xuan Giang, is only 37. He’s really skilled, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
So anyway, I grew up in the village, and after I got out of high school I went to work on the Red River for 16 or 17 years. It was hard work and I had to be away from the house a lot. Six or seven years ago, I started growing bonsai trees as a hobby, and gradually it turned into my profession.
I love this job. It’s an art form and a kind of meditation at the same time. It teaches you patience and understanding and helps you become a more complete, civilized person. Sometimes I’m out here all night with one tree, trying to understand how I should work with it. Then other days when I’m not feeling inspired, I just sit here, drink some tea, smoke some thuoc lao (Vietnamese tobacco smoked through a water pipe) and let my mind wander. Sometimes in my previous job I’d get frustrated or angry when something went wrong or I had to deal with jerks. But this job brings a clarity and lightness to my life. It’s wonderful.
I don’t need to advertise. Some people in the village have started advertising their trees online, and I’ll probably do it too some day. But for now, people just hear about my trees by word of mouth. Pretty much anyone who’s into bonsai will know about my trees and come for a visit. Sometimes they compliment and sometimes they criticize, but this job has taught me to be patient and accepting. Life is like that, I think. You have to be able to let things roll off your back and be at peace with yourself.
I’m old now, and I have to admit I’ve been very lucky in my life. If you added up the value of all these trees here it would be somewhere around VND100 billion. So I’m more than happy to make this my career. Not only do I get to work surrounded by all these beautiful trees, but also I can develop the business so my kids can take over when they grow up. As the country develops and people become more cultured, demand for bonsai will only increase.
These trees are like my children. I love them all. You see that little bonsai over there? I raised it from a seedling and now it’s eight years old. It’s almost perfect now. If someone appreciates it, I’ll be happy to sell it to them. But if not, I’m just as happy to watch it grow for the next 30 or 40 years. The more time and attention I invest in a bonsai, the more special it is to me.
Additional editing by Gerard Sasges.
Interviewed by Nguyen Thi Thao, Nguyen Thuy Linh, Lan Ngo and Jeremy De Nieva – Image by Ngoc Tran
Excerpted from It’s a Living: Work and Life in Vietnam Today, available on Amazon and iTunes. Or look for the Vietnamese version, Việt Nam ngày nay: Chuyện mưu sinh in local bookstores.