“In 1971, after heavy rains, the Red River burst its embankments and flooded our village. In some places, the water was three metres high. Everything was destroyed. We had terrible floods each year thereafter until they rebuilt the bunds along the river.”
Nguyen Van Phuong is a trim, square-jawed 78-year-old. Having served with the military in both Laos and the south of Vietnam, he’s now retired and living with his wife, Tran Thi Doan, in a buttercup-yellow three-storey residence.
His father was also a soldier, fighting for the French in the first world war before returning to his village to be a farmer.
I ask him if he could ever have imagined himself living so comfortably? He shakes his head.
“During the war, there was nothing on my mind except life or death. One day, I’d be talking to my best friend and the next day he’d be dead. It was just about survival.”
“I’m just thankful that back in the 1980’s [after the war] the government changed [its] policies. We were all so poor. They stopped the collectivisation and all the subsidies.
“Instead, they allowed us to own property, to trade and have free markets – allowing us to live the life we have today.”
Phù Long is the largest flower-growing village in the provincial capital of Nam Dinh – one of the largest centres for Vietnam’s many millions of Catholics. Cultivating daisies, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses has proven to be much more profitable than the more mundane agricultural crops of rice, vegetables or soya beans.
Forty-three-year-old An is one of Phuong’s six children. Living next door to his father, his more modest home is in the midst of being renovated.
The contractor’s paraphernalia is strewn across the entrance – there are half-empty buckets, brushes and cardboard boxes. Two young men are working on a hand-painted mural: an idealised pastoral scene. The entire house is pulsating with music.
An smiles and nods when I ask him if he likes music. We endeavour to talk over the schmaltzy tunes.
“I earn about VN$7 million (US$308) a month. It’s decent money but hard work. You can’t be tending the fields if you aren’t fit and healthy. Most people nowadays don’t want to get their hands dirty. Certainly not my daughter. She works in the Song Hong textile factory.”
“In the old days, people only bought flowers for the Tet festivities or birthdays. Nowadays, there is demand throughout the year. People buy for temple offerings, as gifts, many things. We’re just selling to the nearby provinces, Ninh Binh and Ha Nam but we can’t really compete with the quality of the flowers sold by the producers from Dalat. They dominate the Hanoi market.”
“I used to buy my seeds from the Hanoi University of Agriculture but now I grow my own and even sell them to other farmers. Of course, in winter we often have to cover the flowers with plastic to keep them warm and moist. The lilies are very delicate but they sell for a good price in the Tet.”
I ask him about his siblings. “Two of my brothers live in Poland. They’ve been there for over twenty years. One married a Polish woman and the other a Vietnamese girl. They make money from trading and small business.”
Despite his love of music and painting, An is by no means a romantic: “My life is now quite comfortable. Twenty years ago, it was really tough. But most importantly, I don’t have a boss. Still, I have a lot of dreams for my children. I would want them to live their lives independently. I’m quite happy for them to work abroad. It’s better money and (gardening) is harmful to the health because of all the pesticides.”
With an economy growing at over 6.5 per cent, even Vietnam’s farmers are feeling the boost to their incomes.
Having lived through so much poverty – in the mid-1980’s GDP per capita hovered under US$100 per annum – the current prosperity is uniformly welcomed.
Moreover, its people’s determination to work harder than most other Southeast Asians and for less pay is an indication of the extent to which Vietnam remains a powerful regional competitor both in terms of industry and agriculture. One needs only look at the extraordinary increases in production of staples such as rice, coffee and pepper.
However, there are warning signs. The ubiquitous smog cloaking the Red River valley day-in, day-out and a pollution scandal in Central Vietnam have made ordinary people much more aware of the costs both to the environment and their health.
But there’s no way anyone in Phu Long would agree to turning back the clock. As one friend said to me whilst sitting in Hanoi’s clogged streets: “We may have problems but at least we’re not like Cuba.” ■