As Hanoi becomes increasingly urbanised, patches of green land can still be found in the mosaic of developed and undeveloped land, providing locals with the opportunity to grow organic food.
The western trend of eating organically grown food — free from the chemicals that have been shown to be harmful to health and to cause cancer — is motivating Vietnamese and expats alike to seek alternative sources of clean produce and take control of what they eat.
This theme is the common bond that underpins the motivation of all inner-city farmers; eating food that is clean, as well as enjoying an outdoor activity that is both communal and rewarding.
While the definition of organic may be a little different here compared with the west, it seems that anywhere there is space, there is a garden.
Sandwiched between the smallish Ho Sen Tay Ho Lakes 1 and 2, on either side of Sen Ho Tay Road, is the unlikeliest of inner-city gardens. Framed by the ghosts of a housing boom that never quite came to fruition, with the main road corridors of Vo Chi Cong and Au Co within walking distance, crops of lettuce, tomatoes and herbs are grown in neatly tended plots in a 50m strip along the banks of the lake. Produce wrestles for position with the weeds that threaten to encroach, while cars, motorcycles and buses that whizz past in a never-ending stream of traffic are a reminder that this piece of land is anything but rural.
While the owner of the land is unknown, the ladies who tend the roadside garden are not. Every morning and evening at around the same time, Ms Vuong, 69 and Ms Nang, 72, park their bicycles in the exercise park across the road, amble across the tarmac, and work in the garden. Friends since they were young girls, they are now in their second year of farming the spot, which would otherwise be a tangle of weeds and rubbish. Their produce is not for sale.
“The lake belongs to someone else,” said Vuong. “But our garden makes the area more beautiful. We look at the plants and we are proud and happy.”
Zucchini hangs from trellises, pumpkins sprawl down towards the lake. Plants thrive under the friends’ care; however, beautification is not the only purpose. “We want our families to eat food that is clean. No chemicals or pesticides.”
Despite the encroaching development, many Hanoi residents continue to grow their own food
Eating Clean: Supply and Demand
On the other side of Tay Ho in Dang That Mai, with the noise of never-ending construction in the background, another farm occupies a large corner plot; lettuce, tomatoes and herbs thriving in neat, raised beds. A high fence surrounds the farm, and a hand-painted wooden sign declares that it belongs to May Taste, a small restaurant located some 300 metres down the road.
A favourite with expats, the restaurant uses only organic produce, some of which is grown at the farm, some of which — fish and eggs, for example — is sourced from carefully selected providers.
“We started the garden three years ago to provide vegetables for our family,” said Ms Giang, the owner of May Taste. “We can’t trust vegetables from the market. Growers use chemicals and pesticides, which are not good for our health.”
When Giang opened May Taste two years ago, the farm supplied herbs, lettuce and morning glory to the restaurant. Leafy greens thrive in the garden, but some vegetables, like tomatoes, cannot be grown because they are not suited to Hanoi’s climate. “We had to look for certified organic providers for the vegetables that can’t be provided by the garden. We choose our providers carefully, and we won’t touch anything that has been genetically modified.”
Giang employs a number of people to tend the farm, raise seedlings and harvest the produce. Even seeds for planting come from organic sources.
Giang’s grandmother had a restaurant on Hang Ma some 50 years ago, and as she comes from the village of Uoc Le — the home of famous chef Gio Cha — Giang said she wanted a family restaurant since she was young. Having always enjoyed cooking for her family, when May Taste first opened, Giang was the chef. Now boasting four chefs, six front-of-house staff who are mainly family members, and an extensive menu, the restaurant is thriving, with Giang planning to expand.
“Our reputation is important. We cater to western tastes, and expats have different expectations.”
Farming with hydroponics. A system can cost around VND800,000
Water, Water Everywhere
In a city like Hanoi where buildings, motor vehicles and people compete in a never-ending quest for space, it makes sense that rooftops and terraces are utilised in practical ways. Usually the domain of drying laundry, rooftops are slowly being taken over by gardens, particularly those of expats who are determined to eat clean food. Balconies, too, are being turned into thriving gardens, providing a ready source of clean and healthy produce that hasn’t been treated with pesticides and other chemicals.
Geert Vansintjan, an agricultural engineer who works for the Belgian embassy, has been growing produce on the balcony of his apartment with the help of aquaponics, a system that uses water, nutrients and fish as the growing medium. Initially drawn to aquaponics as a way to simultaneously grow lotus and control mosquitoes, Geert said he has always tinkered around trying to solve problems through bioengineering, and in this case, water and living things.
One of the movers and shakers behind Fablab, a community that includes aquaponics workshops among its activities, Geert says there are at least five working aquaponics installations here in Hanoi. One of them is at the United Nations International School in Tay Ho — Geert provided advice — and while still in its infancy, it’s engaging students in new ways of thinking about gardening and farming.
While a sustainable balcony garden that produces vegetables for consumption is one of the goals of aquaponics, Geert says it’s also about making life more rewarding. Indeed, gardeners choose aquaponics as their preferred gardening system for many reasons, including how cost effective it is to set up at around VND800,000 for a fully automated system. “There are diverse options. You learn the rules — what works and what doesn’t.”
The variety of vegetables that can be grown aquaponically is almost endless — sweet potatoes, cucumbers, salad leaves, tomatoes and rice — although the species of fish that can be used in the system are carefully chosen. Geert is about to embark on a second project that involves Hanoi shrimp, the second most cultivated type of shrimp in the world.
“Aquaponics is about abundance, sharing and community,” said Geert. “Not everyone can be Bill Gates, but everyone can be a good farmer.”
Photos by Julie Vola