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Saigon's Only Bonsai School Grooms Budding Artisans on a Century-Old Craft

Bonsai has often been regarded as an activity for the elderly, but the local bonsai community is experiencing an unprecedented renewal thanks to the participation of an unexpected demographic: young people.

Early sprouts

Hồng Mai has a pretty unique job: she runs the very first, and only, bonsai vocational training school in Vietnam. With both her parents being bonsai masters, she was exposed to the art form before she even learnt how to walk.

Yet as a child, Mai barely paid any notice to the craft. Bonsai was to her just a foreign-sounding word that her mom and dad would sometimes talk incessantly about with their friends. It wasn’t until 2019, when she had “become an adult and developed a more thoughtful perspective on their lifelong pursuit,” that she took an interest in her family’s distinguished tradition and began to grow it into something more.

In my head, I’d always envisioned the stereotypical bonsai creator as a man in his 60s, who every day would tediously tend to his plants from root to tip to create an eye-pleasing botanic figure. And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I met Mai, a girl whose youthful presence would defy most people’s expectations. She told me that she's fully aware that the majority of bonsai practitioners in Vietnam are, you’ve guessed it, men. Even at Thanh Tam Bonsai, the vocational school that she operates, the gender makeup is overwhelmingly male. Female learners prefer other disciplines, like flower arrangements or growing mai trees (yellow apricot blossom). But Mai has a steadfast belief: “Whatever men can do, women can too. It’s not a big deal to see a woman with a saw and a pair of pruners in hand, shaping her bonsai masterpiece.”

With an impressive wealth of knowledge, Mai passionately taught me about the art of bonsai and how the Vietnamese bonsai community is branching out to include more young people.

Deep roots

According to researchers, bonsai as a practice originated from China and has a well-established history in the country. Many paintings from the Tang dynasty show depictions of miniaturized plants and gardens. Centuries later, thanks to the increasing cultural and commercial exchange between the two kingdoms, bonsai was introduced to Japan and became a popular pastime that transcended social classes, enjoyed by commoners, monks and even nobles and samurai. Bonsai’s golden age was during the Meiji era, where the reigning emperor himself praised and promoted bonsai at his palace. The techniques and styles developed in this era helped to solidify the foundation of modern bonsai art.

In his book Bonsai Techniques, master Thái Văn Thiện briefly discusses the origin of the term, which at first was referred to by the Chinese as penzai. As the practice migrated to a new country, it took on new roots and began to diverge aesthetically and philosophically from its initial form. Penzai then became the Japanese word bonsai, in which bon means 'tub' and sai means 'tree.' When put together, they translate to “a tree planted in a pot” — a simple premise to a highly sophisticated art.

In Vietnam, bonsai has only been around since the 1970s, but there have been major growth spurts in local horticultural knowledge and expertise, said Mai. In the beginning, there was not a clear distinction between bonsai and regular gardening. The structure of the canopy and the styling of parts such as foliage, stems and roots remained rudimentary, which give the tree an unnatural appearance. Gradually, people began to take a more serious interest in elevating their creations, and communities of bonsai artists were formed to standardize tree-keeping and shaping techniques.

Recent social developments offer opportunities for bonsai enthusiasts to engage professionally through trading and discussion forums. And Vietnam’s tropical biodiversity is host to many diverse species, which gives artists more variety to work with. The addition of native plants and tradition-influenced elements to the local bonsai scene is putting Vietnam on the world bonsai map. This is the future that Thanh Tam Bonsai has in mind when it fosters the next generation of bonsai artists.

Young seedlings

Bonsai is often regarded as an activity not reserved for the young. “It’s an art that is underpinned by patience. One must spend years, and even decades of effort to cultivate a satisfactory bonsai creation,” Mai explained. Indeed, there are bonsai in her garden whose lifespan has far surpassed hers.

She said that in recent years, the attendees at her family’s academy have gotten progressively younger. People between the ages of 20 and 30, and some even as young as 16, have shown up for classes. Mai believes that due to the shrinking of urban green space, more and more people are seeing bonsai as a way to be close to nature and relieve daily pressures. "Not only does it have a calming and relaxing effect, bonsai also stimulates the practitioner's perseverance and creativity," she said.

“Cultivating bonsai has made me a more meticulous and observant person. When I bend or prune a young plant’s trunk, root or branch, I already have to know what shape they might take when the plant gets older. To ensure desirable results, I have to check and tend to my plant daily, almost like I’m taking care of a partner," a 25-year-old learner at Thanh Tam told Saigoneer about their personal gains.

The local bonsai scene is also attracting more female practitioners. Perhaps it’s because bonsai trees aren’t just aesthetically pleasing; they’re also financially rewarding. Depending on the complexity of the design, the price of a bonsai tree can be anything between a few hundred thousand to a few billion dong. “The earlier you start, the more time you have to create sophisticated and valuable works,” Mai asserted.

On the weekend afternoon that Saigoneer visited, before this current COVID-19 wave, learners were having their weekly practice. One particularly rowdy group was deep in discussion about styling; another was quieter, focusing on honing their techniques. There were young, elderly, Vietnamese and foreigners — all mingling together in lively fashion, characteristically unrecognizable from what most imagine bonsai to be. And we hope that with the growing success of Thanh Tam academy, more seeds will be sowed for the next generation of bonsai lovers in Vietnam.

Parks & Rec is a series on the eclectic range of pastimes and recreational activities in Vietnam. From novel sports to old board games, these communities help connect members and enrich local urban life. If you have a cool hobby to wish to share, let us know at contribute@saigoneer.com.