Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
It’s official: The imported maple trees along Hà Nội’s Nguyễn Chí Thanh Boulevard are to be removed. Five years after they were planted in the hope of providing local people with some red and yellow hues during the capital’s beautiful autumn, which has long inspired musicians and poets, the trees simply could not survive the weather.
Picturesque autumnal scenes from Europe, North America, and even South Korea have become popular among people content to see them online or keen to take in the sight with their own eyes. The maple trees were supposed to offer a little of the same at home.
But their biological needs were never really taken into account. On the one hand, it’s sad that movie-like autumn scenery won’t colour Hà Nội, while on the other it’s a wake-up call for those who spend too much time and effort looking elsewhere for beauty.
There was a time, back in the early 2000s, when Nguyễn Chí Thanh won the Ministry of Transport’s “Best Street” competition more than once. Now, though, all you’ll see are near-dying trees.
It was built in the mid-1990s and was bare for quite some time. Acacia trees were initially planted, a low-cost, low-maintenance leafy tree that provided shade during Hà Nội’s blistering summer, where temperatures can nudge 40 degrees Celsius.
Though not a precious hardwood, of which Việt Nam’s forests boast many, the acacias grew healthily and provided what was wanted: greenery, shade, and osmosis.
Photos of the green boulevard won many contests, and even though the trees are on the way out it still remains a beautiful thoroughfare in the memories of many.
A popular Vietnamese saying has it: “giàu đổi bạn, sang đổi vợ”, or one changes friends when rich, and one changes wives after moving up the social ladder. So, the wealthier Hà Nội of 2015, under the then mayor Nguyễn Thế Thảo, decided that the acacias needed to be replaced by expensive hardwoods.
Within a couple of months, around this time of year, when everyone was checking the gas in their air-conditioners, picking up new fans or fridges, trying out new clothes for the season, and buying new furniture to ready themselves for the onset of the summer heat, all the so-called “cheap” acacias were cut down, turning the “Best Street” into an environmental mess.
Nearly six years later, the hardwoods are yet to provide the promised green foliage, much to the dismay of a lot of Hanoians.
The next mayor Nguyễn Đức Chung introduced an ambitious plan to plant a million trees in the capital, which was applauded by many but met with suspicion by even more.
The imported maple trees were planted during his tenure, which ended abruptly last year due to some “shady” behaviour and he’s now awaiting trial.
Trees were planted in a number of areas during the one-million-tree campaign and have provided better scenery, but in some places Hà Nội looks more like a seaside resort.
Adding to the hardwoods along certain boulevards are mid-range rosace trees, which bloom in the spring and at street level. The city has also planted bougainvillea climbers, and in between them placed popular rainforest crown nest ferns.
These have never been done in public parks: Planting climbing bougainvillea to grow on bigger trees and putting crow's nest ferns on big branches (these things are time-consuming and costly).
A few years on, the bougainvillea have survived in their new environment as they await their first blooms. The climate in Việt Nam’s major cities is great for trees and flowers to grow, even in the south where the tropical heat can at times be unbearable.
If these efforts can be kept going while the guy who got it all started faces the darkest days of his life, then sometime in the not-too-distant future, polluted Hà Nội will become a city of green.
And the lush acacia trees will not have died in vain.
“For the benefit of 10 years, plant a tree, for benefit of 100 years, raise some good people!” VNS