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.
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”
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 that she was named after the cherry blossom. Elaborating further, Truong said that in Vietnam, girls’ names are generally composed of beautiful images like blossoms or rivers coupled with 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 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, a sharp contrast to Vietnam’s tropical climate, is the perfect environment for growing flowers.
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 known as the Mekong Delta. These flowers, Truong 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.
Finally, a small proportion of flowers arrive by air from Thailand, Japan and China.
Single orchid blossoms for sale at the market
Truong explained that with only one main 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 them 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. Indeed, Truong 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 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, Truong 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 Truong, not only for her language skills, but also for her ability to chat up the vendors. Rule Number One: never stand in front of a stand unless you plan to buy. Not only is it annoying, it’s bad luck.
This dog showed us who’s boss at his owner’s shop
While we shuffled off to the sides of those shops that most interested us, Truong 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.
Meanwhile, to break the monotony, a couple merchants brought out their fighting cocks. Although illegal, cock fighting remains a an interest at Ho Chi Minh’s largest flower market. Many vendors keep one or more cocks in domed cages at the back of their shops.
One of many fighting cocks at the market
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.
Among the plants sold by the woman pictured below were cypress sprigs. Truong 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.
Displayed in bright plastic pails, the many different-colored lotuses told a story all to themselves. Although they arrive tight in the bud, many vendors choose to manipulate their looks by folding back some of their petals. Depending on his or her personal artistry, some vendors will create lotuses with more layers than others, therefore appealing to different buyers.
‘Everybody is an artist here’ Truong said.
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.
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.