From community gardens to rooftop farms, hydroponic greenhouses to homemade ecosystems, Dana Filek-Gibson gets the dirt on Saigon’s newest crop of gardeners. Photos by Vinh Dao.

Down back alleys and winding suburban roads, each a dizzying combination of letters and numbers, my beat-up Nouvo snakes further away from the main thoroughfare. Somewhere out here, amid the neverending rows of tap hoa shops and narrow houses, lies District 12, but I’m hard-pressed to find it.

For the millionth time that day, I show a stranger the address where I’m going and, mercifully, he knows the way.

“Ah,” he says, pointing down the alley, “Khuyen’s.” Apparently Nguyen Ngoc Khuyen, Vietnam’s self-proclaimed master of aquaponic farming, is on a first-name basis with most of the neighbourhood.

This isn’t entirely surprising. On the day I visit, no less than four other local journalists turn up to get a look at his crop of organic vegetables, everything from lettuce to mangoes, papayas to mint, not to mention the fish tanks hiding below.

Thanks to his low-tech aquaponic systems – a few blue plastic bins, clay filters and aquarium pumps – the Saigon native has earned a steady following in the local gardening community. In addition to fielding interviews and gifting his ample supply of produce to friends and neighbours, Khuyen educates farmers and gardening enthusiasts on a variety of growing techniques, though mainly aquaponic systems.

This particular garden’s appeal comes from its unusual methods: the aquaponic system utilises both water and oxygen pumps to filter waste from a fish tank by routing it through gardening soil, where the fish waste acts as a fertiliser, before returning clean water back to the tank.

While this method is relatively unique in Vietnam, there’s nothing original about gardening in Saigon. Tending plants has long been part of Vietnamese life but recently the practice is beginning to come into fashion not just with casual gardeners but business developers, landscapers and a younger section of the urban population.

Guerrilla gardeners

For Duong Pham, originally from Nam Dinh province, the move to Saigon was a difficult one. Amid the city’s concrete and chaos, Pham struggled to find green spaces in her new home.

“I grew up with a garden in my house,” she explains, “so when I came to the city I just missed it.” Pham tended a few plants on the small balcony off her rented room but this was still a far cry from the countryside. When the 29-year-old, then enrolled in a culinary school, realised that the building had an empty rooftop, she saw an opportunity to recreate what she’d been missing.

A year later, what began as a sweltering, shadeless terrace is now a green retreat, shaded by hanging plants, not to mention a steady supply of fresh produce for the school’s cooking students. As part of the rooftop garden’s evolution, Pham enlisted friends and other gardeners to join in the creation of the space. The group, Sunday Gardening, is now active both on Facebook and around the city, meeting every Sunday to tend one of the five community gardens that Pham has since initiated.

“We started by gardening in the city and especially gathering the young ones to do gardening so it becomes something very cool,” she explains. “From that, we also connected with the farmers in the countryside. When you do gardening, it’s not just to grow vegetables to sell. We make each garden like a community space. I think, in the city, we need more spaces like that.”

Over the past year, Pham has left her full-time job to devote herself to various agricultural projects but the community gardens remain her passion. The response to the Sunday Gardening program has been overwhelmingly positive: though she owns none of the land on which these gardens are located, Pham has found willing partners through which to set up community gardens, creating new outlets for local residents and producing fresh vegetables at the same time. In Vietnam’s most developed and dynamic urban centre, Pham is a bona fide farmer.

While Sunday Gardening’s primary focus is connecting with nature, there are dozens of similar groups and gardening opportunities across the city. For Pham, the benefits of these programs are three-fold: each garden builds community and creates green space in Saigon, turns on young people to environmentally-conscious projects and provides safe produce for members of that community.

“The most important thing is your connection to the garden,” says Pham. “Somehow, if you feel connected to the garden, then when you want to take care of the garden you will find a way.”

Positive Impact
While backyard gardens and community plots are both beautifying the city and providing small sources of food for urban residents, the business of sustainable urban farming still has room to grow. In an effort to monitor the origins of their produce, a handful of local restaurants and cafés are planting their own ingredients. Even so, these small efforts make an equally small impact on the larger produce industry.

By the time its hydroponic greenhouse is complete later this year, CitiFarm will be able to change that, says Caroline Le, co-founder of the produce distribution company, which has paired with a Japanese organisation specialising in hydroponic agriculture. Together, the team will bring hydroponic produce to Vietnam for the first time, growing lettuce in a highly controlled, dirt-free environment. The resulting product, according to Le, will be clean enough to eat as soon as the package is opened, no washing required.

“You see it and you believe it,” Le explains. “For a lot of farms, they’re located far from the city and you don’t know what they are doing over there.”

Once its greenhouse is complete in August, CitiFarm will begin organising tours for the public in order to showcase this new technology and offer their customers peace of mind.

Elsewhere, on rooftops and balconies across town, Andrew Miller hopes that more companies will start to treat urban gardening as less of a hobby and more of a business. A product designer by trade, Miller now creates planter boxes and green rooftop spaces which he describes as a marriage of landscape design and sustainable farming. Rather than convince companies to use their green space as a full-on farming production, Miller has set about slowly turning businesses on to the notion of a green space can be both aesthetically appealing and functional.

“I think carbon neutrality sucks,” Miller explains. “The idea of being neutral, that sounds like a terrible life, right? ‘I want to be neutral, I want to be carbon zero.’ Why are we looking at it like that? Why don’t we look at it like: ‘How can we make our lives really good?”

With this as his inspiration, Miller draws upon the concept of green roofing – rooftop gardens which are embedded into the actual roof of the building – for his customised garden boxes, which combine sturdy wooden frames with lightweight woven bamboo, minimising the weight of the planters without compromising their benefits.

While business isn’t booming yet, Miller is optimistic that things will grow in the future, and he sees the potential for his hobby-turned-business to make a real impact in the city. He is currently trying to secure a project which, if successful, could turn the concept of rooftop farming into a viable business model for many Saigon companies.

Miller adds: “There seems to be [interest] in terms of talking about [landscape design]. Going from talking about it to the next step and actually paying for it are two different things. But I mean I’m not just working for this moment now, I’m working for how people are going to view it in a few years, like five years, 10 years.”

In the meantime, urban farming will continue to sow its roots on rooftops and in community gardens around the city, clearing the way for future innovations.

Bombs Away!
Sometimes it’s the little things that make a big difference. For Leandro Marcelino, bringing a bit of green to the city doesn’t have to mean cultivating a garden.

“Imagine that you’re walking on a dirty street…and then you find this little spot with flowers and [it’s] really green and full of life,” the Spanish expat explains. “It will make you smile or, I don’t know, it will make people think about it and try to make a green[er] world.”

The hands behind local pottery outfit Hey Camel Bazaar, which produces a range of ceramics such as teapots and planters, Marcelino aims to introduce seed bombs to Saigon’s urban landscapes over the coming months. Originally from Japan, seed bombs are a small, spherical combination of nutrient-rich soil, clay and seeds which first came into use as a means of repopulating barren lands. Later, however, the method was adopted by urban gardeners and artists as a way to beautify abandoned lots and other empty spaces.

“Right now it’s perfect because it’s the rainy season so it will get wet and it will start to grow,” Marcelino says. Though he’s made seed bombs before, this will be his first effort in Saigon. According to Marcelino, the spheres don’t take long to make and can easily be scattered anywhere, though it’s best to pick a spot where you might be able to pass by and monitor the growth of your seed bombs. In addition, Marcelino also has plans to begin a few of what he terms ‘guerrilla gardens’ by taking smaller spaces like an empty mailbox or broken tile and planting something inside.

“It’s like art in the street,” he says.

To learn more about seed bombs or Marcelino’s pottery, visit Facebook.com/HeyCamelBazaar.