Bonsai in Vietnam - a Photographic Journal

by Louise Nyquist

Recently I had the good fortune of touring Southeast Asia for two months. It was great. I started with a week in Myanmar (Burma) which recently became more open to tourism. And, being a member of the Minnesota Bonsai Society and excited to be in Asia, I had to ask if there were any bonsai collections around. Well my guide glanced at me a little bemused and puzzled. She replied "No, I've never seen them here." Looking around I saw a third-world country barely making food quotas. I understood immediately that the Myanmarese grew purposeful plants to feed or cure the population. Also, in Buddhist culture, everyone is considered artistic, a creative hobby should produce useful items. At least in Myanmar. My search continued.

Next stop, Thailand. Many potted plants, some tree-like, but not quite bonsai. Wistfully I spotted some topiary at the temples and on the royal grounds of the king that were kinda bonsai... but not. I was becoming discouraged. Bonsai trees were in-country somewhere, but not where I was on this tour.
Vietnam was next. As a war-torn country heavily bombed and starved in the past, I was resigned that I would not find styled trees here. But when my guide asked what I would like to see in Vietnam, I optimistically replied "Bonsai trees!" He stared, didn't reply and went on to the next person. Huh. Then we started our tour at the tomb of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. I noticed how well manicured Hanoi was and the huge potted hindu pan style trees in front of the mausoleum were encouragingly bonsai-like. We went on to the Hanoi Temple of Literature built in 1070 and the first university for academic arts of literature and poetry. Wow. Pay dirt. The bonsai were big, old... magnificent. Many were root over rock style, an island in water. All lined up, they were the Murderer's Row of bonsai. Good stuff. Then, I began to see bonsai trees everywhere, on balconies, in temples and shops, even on the backs of motorbikes! Everyone was sporting bonsai trees... even remote floating fish farms in Ha Long Bay! The best ones were done by monks at the Pagodas. I flew down to Hue and visited the Dieu Thanh Pagoda. This was the monastery the most auspicious Monk Thich Quang Duc came from. As you may remember, he was the monk who immolated himself in 1963 at a busy Saigon intersection after driving down from Hue. He was protesting the violent treatment towards Buddhist under South Vietnam President Diem. And working there in the garden was the very monk who worked his bonsai magic in the courtyard. He had hundreds of trained, wired old and juvenile trees and not a word of English. I said my Xin Choa greeting and I think he understood my appreciation of his work. Then I got down to business happily snapping photos.
If you would like to see and read more, I have a photo trip blog called Siam to Saigon at nyqui.tumblr.com/page/12.
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