Lotuses provide the perfect backdrop for good times
A girl poses with a bunch of lotuses on the banks of Hanoi's West Lake
The young girls and women are wearing the graceful traditional áo yếm (Vietnamese bodice worn by rural women until the early 20th century).
In their hands are bouquets of lotus flowers.
They smile shyly, then coyly as they strike different poses, directed by a clutch of photographers.
Happy laughter breaks out when a good shot is taken, and gaiety ripples across the quiet lake.
It is not a professional shoot for a glossy fashion magazine and the girls are not models.
These are young women from the city and surrounding area, drawn to the West Lake because the lotuses are in bloom and it is a photo opportunity not to be missed.
Come May, come the lotus flowers. Parts of the West Lake undergo a magical, fragrant and picturesque transformation. Even shy, giggling girls tend to wax lyrical when talking about the flowers.
"The lotus has always been considered one of the most precious flowers in Vietnam," says Thuy Linh, one of the girls in the group described above. "And it is not just its beauty. We see the flower as a symbol of purity, loyalty and optimism for the future."
Linh's friend Phuong Hao chips in: "The lotus has for long been cherished in many poems, paintings and other art works in Vietnam and we have just voted it as the country's national flower.
"That's why we also want to record the most beautiful period in our lives with these flowers."
The West Lake area is always full of visitors these days, especially at weekends.
Joining Linh and Hoa are young couples taking outdoor wedding photos as well as many families with children.
Dinh Nguyen has come with his wife and their small daughter. Nostalgic for the old days, they are dressed in the traditional attires of farmers as they have their pictures taken.
Meanwhile, on a wicker basket boat, a young couple are playing the roles of fisherfolk for the camera.
Coming to the lake for their wedding photo album, Minh Khang, the future groom, says although their wedding day is five months away, the lotuses only bloom once a year and they do not want to miss making them a part of one of the most important days of their life.
There are a few lotus ponds around the banks of the West Lake and the one near the Ho Tay Water Park attracts the highest number of visitors, thanks to a beautiful road surrounded with the flowers.
And the owners of these ponds are doing well, making money not only from selling the flowers, but also from providing several services. They have made more boats, put up bridges jutting out into the ponds and decorated their huts, and charge customers fees for the privilege of taking photos here.
Besides, they also rent out traditional clothes, farming tools and lotus bouquets for those who want to have some "real-life" photos.
The entrance fee for taking photographs ranges between VND30,000-50,000 depending on the time. It costs some VND50,000-70,000 to hire a traditional woman's dress and about VND50,000 to have a banquet of 10 lotus flowers.
Tran Quang Trung, the owner of a lotus pond, says they push off in their boats very early in the morning to cut the flowers and get them ready for selling later in the day.
Then he prepares some lotus tea and other accessories and is ready to serve his customers, who arrive as early as 6 a.m.
His 10 sq.m. tent put up over the pond has all the necessary props including bamboo boats, old lamps, and flower vases needed for a photo shoot.
Trung says this time of the year (May to July) is the busiest for him, and he earns good money.
"Before we could only earn money from selling the flowers and seeds, but in recent years, we get added income from serving people who come here to take photographs."
Dinh Nguyen adds a touch of sobriety to the festive atmosphere.
"While many lakes in Hanoi have been filled up for construction projects, this area has become the last place for us to enjoy the beauty and fragrance of lotus.
"And even here, the flowers are under threat as more development projects are being planned around the lake."
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