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An Ode to Saigon’s Chò Nâu Trees

It’s too cold for chò nâu to grow where I’m from, but we still gave it an English name: dipterocarp.

It’s too cold for chò nâu to grow where I’m from, but we still gave it an English name: dipterocarp. Dipterocarp. Say it. Aloud. Dipterocarp. That subtle folding and fumbling of lip, tongue, teeth, precise flexing of thousands of muscles, tendons, cells? It’s far simpler than the efforts the great tree endures to gather water into its roots and coax it up to its canopy.

When walking Saigon’s streets, one only gets a good look at a chò nâu's drab trunk and a craned-neck view of their leaf-filled canopy 30 meters above. But those fragile upper limbs clutch delicate white flowers brushed with pink accents as subtle as a butterfly’s whispering wing strokes. You’ve just never seen them. It’s as if the trees are telling us: my fragile petals and soft fragrances are not meant for you; you would ruin them with your human attempts at appreciation.

But the trunk isn’t drab. Fissures, flakes, flecked scabs and multi-color scales: a complex crust akin to a river delta rich with sediment, silt, species. Can you really look at one and not recognize the beauty of an algae bloom, a shrimp spawn?

Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre was born on La Réunion off the coast of Madagascar to a family that made a fortune off sugar. But the business went bankrupt when the government emancipated the plantation’s slaves, and Louis-Pierre was forced to drop out of school, drifting from one colonial post to another before landing in Saigon, where he introduced European aesthetics by lining the streets with chò nâu he gathered in the highlands to protect pasty French skin and indulge foreign concepts of nature.

White spray paint stencil numbers grace nearly every chò nâu in the city, allowing authorities to identify which ones need to be trimmed for power line maintenance or be removed so their roots don’t undermine pavement construction or burst buried water pipes.

Tree #11: Saigon’s chò nâu are older than telephone wires, older than chainsaws, older than nylon, polyester and penicillin. Older than motorbikes, bubble tea, bánh tráng nướng and selfies, older than airplanes and the defoliants they dropped.

Tree #152: When the districts erupted in gunfire, casings clattered against the chò nâu trunks that soldiers took shelter behind. Their shade was balm to destroyed buildings, bombed roads, ruined bodies. They’re right there in the background of the grainy documentary footage. No one notices them.

Tree #78: Saigon’s chò nâu are younger than wind chimes, younger than fireworks, younger than kites, xích lô, and spit-roasting. Younger than áo dài, rice wine and cồng chiêng, younger than walking alone at midnight, feeling great pity for oneself before looking up and finding solace in the immensity of nature.

Tree #187: In regions that experience regular seasons, chò nâu flower and fruit with great precision, but in Saigon’s Mobius strip-climate, their cycle is chaotic, their branches bursting into bi-winged seeds that twirl down like surreal snowfall perhaps no more than once a decade.

Tree #45: First day of Tet, confetti strewn across exposed roots like music drifting across a peaceful cove. What is a concerto to a coral reef? What is the Lunar New Year to a chò nâu?

Tree #123: Imagine the rings inside this tree. They are nothing like the golden rings the chả cá seller on Tôn Thất Đạm wears because she trusts money on her fingers more than in a bank; not like thuốc lào smoke rings blown in the idle hours at the bus depot waiting to take the long journey back to the highlands; and not like the rings of traffic that circle the roundabout where Trần Hưng Đạo points triumphantly towards the shore his spirit guards.

Tree #7: Mostly water with organic solutes: urea, creatinine, uric acid, carbohydrates, hormones, fatty acids, pigments, mucins, inorganic ions including sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, ammonium, sulfates and phosphates — after seven beers with a long walk ahead, I am grateful for the city’s stance on public urination and honored that some element of my makeup will seep through the soil, slip into the tree’s roots, shimmy up its cellulose veins and nourish so little as the tiny tip of a leaf.

Tree #61: In the same way women no longer darken their teeth, we no longer ferry the Saigon River with poles firm as folk rhythms. Bridges cannot span shores clotted with trees. The stumps’ exposed rings on Tôn Thất Đạm resemble the whorled prints of a fingertip robbed of its ability to feel. I stand beside one and like a phantom limb, feel an ache of abandoned shade.

Tree #154: To grow a chò nâu, remove the tips of a seed’s wing and soak it in water for one–two hours; place the seed beneath a thin layer of sterilized soil; in three–four days the seed will sprout; in one year it will reach one meter tall; for its first three-four years it will prefer shade, and then sunlight for the rest of its life; during its life it can reach 40 meters tall; it will outlive you and everyone you love.

Tree #36: To get at one’s viscous resin, one must bore a hole, and let it slowly seep out, the way a child’s closed fist opens in sleep.

Tree #42: Uses for chò nâu include paint, varnish, glue, baskets, boxes, panels, kindling, printing ink, tick repellent, laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, antiseptics, charcoal, perfume fixatives, teeth-blackening agent and caulk for the waterproofing of boats.

Tree #167: Epiphytes attach themselves to trunks by tucking into nooks. These leafy air-sippers, thirsty mist-drinkers do not harm the chò nâu nor benefit it, and thus are like barnacles to a whale or the average human to society as a whole.

Tree #99: Chò nâu speak in a language consisting of photosynthesis and respiration, roots, rhizoids, sap and pollen. Our translators are horrendously overwhelmed, yet undeterred.

Tree #58: Driven by some absurd childhood desire to own a dinosaur, I recently purchased a bird. A Japanese white-eye. Its vibrant green feathers would put a chò nâu's lust for photosynthesis to shame. After six days of furiously flinging its body against wooden cage bars, it escaped. I watched with happiness. I hope it made its way to the zoo: a chò nâu roost, its only hope.

Tree #211: They did it while the city slept so as to not draw attention that would distract from what they were doing. Hugging the trees was a communion between human and plant, not a statement. The authorities looked on, waiting to intervene, and yet, what wrong was being done?

Tree #103: Hunched against its trunk in plain daylight a shirtless man dozes, a needle beside his arm. What do chò nâu know of addiction? Can we find a parallel in their thirst for groundwater, the way their leaves crave carbon dioxide, their urge to be pollinated?

Tree #121: Authorities transplant a few of the trees that are culled for the sake of infrastructure. No survival rates are reported. Is it not easier to uproot a person? To, as my friend Quế Mai says: “Eat each breeze that comes...learn to grow new buds…shudder to bloom… grow my fruit from my bleeding roots”? Surely as a man born and raised on a landmass devoid of chò nâu, I must convince myself this is possible.

Tree #6: Walking down Lê Duẩn, a summer wind releases a torrent of helicopter seeds — the nutlets twirl down and flop uselessly on the concrete. Unable to take root, their fibrous wings slump like the dorsal fins of killer whales depressed in captivity. Something inside me keels the same way.

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