Ho Thi Ky Flower Market: A Taste Of Old Saigon In Ho Chi Minh City

Fresh lotuses at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

When I travel, I like to go where the tourists are not. So on Thursday I was thrilled to visit Ho Thi Ky, the largest flower market in Ho Chi Minh City. Still relatively unknown to the traveling public, it bustles with the colors and aromas of a bygone era. We arrived in the early morning, right after the all-night deliveries had been completed and  were rewarded with an insider’s look at the vibrant hub that supplies the bulk of the city’s flowers.

Buyer loading cart at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Morning buyer stocking up his bike for delivery to the city

About Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

Located about 2 and a half miles from the city center, Ho Thi Ky is the largest wholesale flower market in Ho Chi Minh. Established in the 1980’s, it supplies all of the hotels, pagodas, office buildings and flower sellers in the city. Buyers buy in bulk, arriving in the wee hours of the morning to choose from among thousands of flowers harvested from the surrounding countryside the previous day.

A peek at the official Ho Thi Ky website reveals the curious statement:

“We receive a lot of calls from customers also, opponents”

Wall mural pointing to Ho Thi Ky flower market

Mural on a wall leading to the Ho Thi Ky flower market

Our guide for the morning was Mai Truong, who set the tone for the day by informing us she was named after a flower; in her case, the cherry blossom, a symbol of spring. Truong explained that Vietnamese names for girls are often combinations of beautiful images like a blossom or river and positive attributes like gentleness or faith. Often two names are combined to designate a specific flower.

“Vietnamese women are like flowers. We hope for men to pass by and say ‘Oh that’s beautiful,’” she said. With that, we jumped into her car and sped off to the market.

Roses at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Roses newly arrived from the countryside

Ho Thi Ky flowers pull all-nighters

The action begins at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market around the time the city’s bars get busy; that is, from 10 pm to midnight. This is when the first trucks loaded with fresh flowers begin arriving from the country. Most of the flowers come from Dalat, also known as The City of Flowers. Located in the southern part of the Central Highlands region, the town sits on a plateau about 4,900 feet above sea level. The area’s year-round cool weather, in direct contrast to Vietnam’s tropical climate, is the perfect environment for growing flowers.

Among the flowers Dalat is most famous for are hydrangeas, mimosas, orchids, Japanese sunflowers and all colors and varieties of roses.

Fresh flowers at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Vendor opening deliveries at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Vendor unpacking fresh flowers at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Still other flowers make their nighttime arrival from the maze of rivers and rice patties of the Mekong Delta. These flowers, Mai observed, are often larger and brighter than the same species coming from Dalat due to the difference in climate, soil and temperature. They include daisies, marigolds, lilies, dahlias, roses, lisianthus, cockscomb and chrysanthemums. Fresh flowers at Ho Thi Ky flower market

A small proportion of flowers arrive by air from Thailand, Japan and China.

Orchid blossoms for sale at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Single orchid blossoms for sale at the market

Truong explained that with only one road leading from Dalat, the late-night traffic can be downright scary. ‘It all depends on how crazy the driver is,” she said. Normally the trip down from the mountains takes 5-6 hours. But time is of the essence when it comes to fresh flowers, so drivers often throw caution to the wind.

As the flowers arrive, vendors work all night long to cut, trim and package the flowers for early morning buyers. Flower sales start at Ho Thi Ky market, but can sometimes go through five or more middle men before ending up in a vase in the city. We found the woman below busily pulling flowers from boxes, inspecting them for quality and tossing many in the trash. Mai explained that since the flowers cost less than the labor to cut them, vendors don’t hesitate to discard all but the finest specimens.

Vendor cutting flowers at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Vendor preparing flowers for sale

Still, much of the flower business remains steeped in superstition. Although it would make sales more direct, vendors seldom provide phone numbers to clients unless they are well known. Otherwise, Mai explained, they ‘May be playing a joke.’

As for ordering on-line, well that’s still a thing of the future.

Market etiquette: Don’t block the stand

Flower selling is serious business and curious tourists aren’t the most welcome of guests. It helped to have Mai, not only for her language skills, but for her ability to chat up the vendors so they would talk about themselves and their product. Rule Number One: never stand in front of a stand unless you plan to buy. Not only is it annoying, it’s bad luck for the vendor.

One of many shops at Ho Thi Ky flower market

This dog showed us who’s boss at his owner’s shop

We shuffled off to the sides of those shops that most interested us while Mai engaged the families in conversation. Weary from the early-morning sales, some were wrapped in hammock cocoons, strung from the rafters in the back of the shop. Others were cutting and adding to their displays of flowers.

Vendor at Ho Thi Ky flower market

To break the monotony, a couple merchants brought out their fighting cocks. Although illegal, cock fighting remains an interest of the vendors. Many kept one or more bright-feathered cocks sitting in domed cages at the back of their shops.

Fighting cock at Ho Thi Ky flower market

One of many fighting cocks at the market

The flowers

From what we observed, the main flowers for sale in the market included hydrangeas, roses, lilies, carnations, orchids, heliconias, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and lotuses. There were also many unusual plants sold as ‘fillers’ including dyed grasses, berries, eucalyptus and tropical foliage.

Dyed grasses for sale at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Orchids for sale at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Among the plants sold by the woman pictured below were cypress sprigs. Mai explained that the feathery-leaved evergreens are sold as complements to the florals but also to encourage smart study. Tradition goes that if you place a cypress sprig in the book you are studying it will help commit the subject to memory.

Vendor at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Displayed in bright colored plastic pails, the many different colored lotuses were a story all to themselves. While they arrive wrapped in paper and tight in the bud, it is up to the vendor to ‘arrange’ them by folding back the petals. Depending on his or her personal artistry, some lotuses will have more layers than others and therefore appeal to different buyers.

‘Everybody is an artist here’ Mai said.

Lotuses at Ho Thi Ky flower market

Vendors use artistry to ‘unfold’ the lotuses

All told, there are about 100 trading households with 5 to 7 workers each at the Ho Thi Ky market. Many are families who have passed on their skills to their children. On a normal day, the market receives about 1000 flower boxes with the number jumping to 2000 to 3000 before the Lunar New Year. Prices range from VND 30,000 (approximately $1.30) for 10 roses, to VND 90,000 (a little under $4) for a bouquet of lilies.

Ho Thi Ky flower market

Streets are empty at Ho Thi Ky by the end of the morning

The Ho Thi Ky market is located in District 10 at 57 Alley Ho Thi Ky Market or 374 Alley Le Hong Phong, about a 20 minute cab ride from the city center.

 

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New York City's flower district

New York City’s historic flower district

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Orchid Tree/A Longwood Christmas

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