Gone are the days when flowers were to be admired for a few days then end up in the trash bin. From the experience she gained during years of working as a domestic help in Thailand, Le Thi Viet has put her entire heart into her flower embalming business in Vietnam and elevated it to the greatest height.
At 63, Viet is determined flower embalming is the work she will do for the rest of her life in north-central Thanh Hoa Province.
With her dexterity, the woman has meticulously embalmed blossoms so they can stay fresh for a long time to be used as art.
Viet has spent the past ten years or so perfecting her craft, learning from nothing but her own trial and error.
In her home nestled in Trung Thanh Commune, Nong Cong District, the woman now runs a workshop where she and her staff craft and sell their ‘eternal’ flowers.
To embalm flowers, the leaves, stems, and petals are soaked separately for many hours in chemicals before being heated. After being processed, the blossoms can retain their brilliant colors for 15-20 years.
Artistically arranged in crystal-clear boxes or vases, the ‘eternal’ flowers make great gifts and are gaining in popularity.
Though flower embalming has been in vogue in other countries for years, the craft was an uncharted territory that beckoned to Viet when she first learned of it back in the early 2000s.
Dream blossoms to reality
In 2001, Viet left her poor neighborhood for Thailand, where she found day labor to relieve her family debts after their farming business failed.
She started out as a factory worker before working as domestic help and babysitter for Thai couples in Phuket.
Viet’s decision to make a foray into the flower embalming industry came during the time she provided services for a young businesswoman and her husband.
It was a chance encounter, she recalled.
Finding herself with little to do when the toddlers she nursed started kindergarten, she suggested the young Thai woman who employed her to find some alternative work so they could work on it together to kill time.
The Thai, who also ran a business of her own, came across the art of flower embalming in the media.
As Viet and her employer were both newbies to the trade, which originates in Japan and had yet to gain a foothold in Thailand back then, it took her a while to get good at preserving blossoms.
She first experimented with roses, but kept failing as the petals got rotten or did not turn the correct hue.
It took them countless attempts to preserve the flowers before the duo were finally successful.
The next challenge was arranging the processed flowers in glass vases, Viet recalled, adding each time she had to figure out what made her fail so that she would not make the same mistake again.
“We put our heads together over how to keep petals fresh for years and turn the items into something clients could not keep their eyes off,” she said.
With the flowers properly preserved and arranged, Viet was ready to craft them into artworks that would wow Thai enthusiasts.
The Vietnamese woman added that as an entrepreneur herself, her employer could easily find outlets for the novel products across Thailand.
As the business began to grow, Viet’s employer hired around 10 female workers, all of whom are Vietnamese, as Viet insisted, to meet surging demand.
Despite her employer’s insistence that she stay to take care of her children and the thriving flower embalming workshop, Viet decided to return to her home country as her five-year stay in Thailand came to an end.
Before she did so, she made sure the craft was passed on to the right person who was willing to make it an even greater success.
Viet has made several visits to her former employer afterward to consult her whenever trouble arises.
Being her own boss
In 2005, Viet returned to her hometown in Thanh Hoa Province, ready to put the ins and outs of the newly-acquired craft into full blossom.
|Le Thi Viet (center) has passed on her flower embalming skills and provided jobs for local residents in Thanh Hoa Province, Vietnam. Photo: Tam Le / Tuoi Tre|
After paying off her family’s debts, the woman staked a substantial part of her savings launching a start-up in flower embalming with support from her husband, a chance not many are willing to take at the age of 50.
Viet used thousands of petals from her own garden for her first embalmment efforts.
The hardest part though is not preserving the flowers. It is much more difficult to procure the needed preserving ingredients and crystal-clear vases to store the flowers, so she had to import them from Thailand and elsewhere.
As roses from her hometown have small-sized petals, she had to source supplies from Hanoi and later Da Lat City in the Central Highlands, known as the country’s ‘flower city.’
Embalming flowers is also a time- and energy-consuming process.
The meticulous steps range from choosing high-quality flowers, putting them into a box which contains a special kind of sand and covering the box for seven days, to artistically placing the flowers in glass vases, Viet explained.
According to this seasoned craftswoman, the lid to the glass vases, which are tailored for a perfect fit, must be put on immediately and sealed off tightly with clean glue to keep the inside vacuum.
She felt the pressure with the price of her products, however.
All the efforts she and her husband put in and imported materials pushed the prices beyond the reach of most average residents in her hometown.
Her workshop, with five staff members, primarily procures items priced at several hundred dong to a few million dong (VND1 million = US$43) apiece.
All the customers noticed was the price tag and dismissed her finest products as overpriced.
The senior woman persevered in her chosen path, as “only by hard work can we overcome the obstacles.”
Her first batch of products finally made it to customers in 2008 and sales have been steadily on the rise on Women’s Days and Lunar New Year holidays.
Viet’s workshop has now achieved enough success that she is able to support herself and provides jobs for some locals.
“I’ve been with Viet for five years now. The workload is much lighter and the job earns me more compared to that of a footwear factory worker,” said Le Thi Hue, one of Viet’s fellow villagers, who added she earns VND150,000 ($6.5) for an eight-hour working day at the workshop.
Through years of diligence and creativity, the enterprising woman has extended her reach to outlets in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other provinces.
Orders come in from across the nation, with some willing to go for any price for their order of 100 embalmed roses crafted into a heart shape.
Some even asked Viet to embalm lotuses, a task which poses a new challenge.
Though she has tried her hands at roses, orchids and daisies only, Viet is confident she will succeed in preserving lotuses.
For the future, Viet, who previously worked as a grassroots agriculture officer in her youth, plans to expand production and pass on the baton to young people.