The colonial government forced a group of Hanoi farmers to create Da Lat's first gardens, says the last survivor
Ngo Van Ngon, 86, working in his family's flower garden in Da Lat. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre
This history of Da Lat's beautiful flower gardens is hardly a bed of roses.
All those colors did not come naturally, but were initially a product of forced labor during the French colonial period.
Flower farmer Ngo Van Ngon, 86, is the only survivor of first migrants forced by collaborators with the French to move from Hanoi to the outpost to grow European vegetables in the 1930s.
It was Ngon's father and other farmers from Ha Dong District in Hanoi that were sent to Da Lat to create it's now-famous Ha Dong flower village to provide their French oppressors with food from home.
The reclamation project had the Hanoians shivering in the sickening cold and quaking in their boots to the sounds of wild animals' screams, Ngon told Tuoi Tre newspaper.
He said the plan was prompted by the demand for vegetables by French people living in Da Lat in the 1930s. Many were French soldiers who had invaded the country and were on medical leave in the town's posh villas they had built.
Seeing the import of vegetables from Hanoi as a waste, French-backed Da Lat government leader Tran Van Ly decided to develop the cultivation of vegetables and flowers in the town because its climate and soil were similar to France's.
Ly suggested that Hoang Trong Phu, General Governor of Hanoi's Ha Dong District, send his best farmers to the mountainous jungle town because Ha Dong was known for growing the best vegetables in the land.
Ngon still recalls the morning in May 1938 -- he was 12 -- when 35 experienced farmers from six famous flower and vegetable villages in Hanoi were sent off to Da Lat, including his father Ngo Van At.
Ngon said the 35 were selected a year earlier by Ha Dong agriculture official Le Van Dinh, who examined the faces, hands and legs of all the young men from the villages.
The farmers selected were then taken to study at a local garden that followed French methods, and then spent a year planting flowers and vegetables on a barely-fertile piece of land in Hanoi.
Once their crops were deemed good enough, Dinh sent them away.
Ngon said they left in tears, as no one had even heard of Da Lat then. All they knew was that it was extremely cold there all year round.
He said he still remembers the words governor Phu spoke at the time: "If they succeed, the people leaving today will be the ones who create new values in a new land."
After much sweat and toil, he turned out to be right.
Ngon and the rest of his family reunited with his father a year later and they have been in Da Lat ever since.
He said the first migrants had a miserable time.
They worked under the constant threat of tigers and leopards during the day and no one left their homes at night.
Ngon himself once had to kill a leopard with a spear when it knocked down his makeshift wooden door.
He said people kept falling sick as the unfamiliar weather conditions broke them down, along with a bitter nostalgia for their homes in the north.
The only thing that kept them alive was the pride of being famous farmers from Hanoi, he said. In their minds, according to Ngon, that pride dictated that they had to be successful.
All their crops died during the first two years.
The seeds brought from France -- including potato, garlic, peas, strawberry, cabbage, cauliflower, rose and jasmine -- had almost ran out when they decided to try risky new cultivation methods with their last seeds.
"The whole village agreed to change the ways of planting, getting rid off all the old habits," said Ngon. "Instead of watering the plants early every morning to clear the frost, we set fires around the garden to warm the plants the whole night and only waited until the sun was shining to water them.
"Such a small change, but it worked."
Da Lat to put US$190 mil in high-tech flower farming
Lam Dong Province's vice chairman Pham S told a conference Saturday on the sidelines the biennial Da Lat Flower Festival that the province had agreed to work with banks to provide around VND4 trillion in cheap loans for flower farmers to use high technology.
S said the package was available to both individual farmers and businesses who need to use high technologies in cultivation, and to those who are switching from planting flowers in the ground to in pots.
The village's products then followed French consumers to Ho Chi Minh City, then called Saigon, and across Indochina.
The villagers also found their own customers in nearby towns like Nha Trang.
The business boomed, and the farmers saved enough money to send one person back to Hanoi every year to bring back a carriage of French seeds over.
The 16 farmers that were deemed to have made the biggest contribution to the town's agriculture development were honored by the Nguyen royal family in 1945.
Ngon's father At was one of them.
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