Field Notes: The magic of the twirling Chò Nâu

Honi explores having a sense of place.

As I walk down the old Bạch Đằng Boulevard in Saigon, a twirling bi-winged seed spins its way down towards the concrete pavement. I would kneel down to pick up the plant and gaze towards the sky, knowing that a spectacular performance was about to unfold once again.  

These are the humble seeds of the hollong or Chò Nâu tree.

Strolling down the breezes of Saigon’s Alexandre de Rhodes, hundreds of helicopter seeds would gently descend and blanket the boulevards, blessing pedestrians on the pavements with an unforgettable green dance. Every year, Chò Nâu’s grand performance would remind busy Saigoneers that they still stand amongst us, guarding everyone from the Sun’s punishment. As a child, I would often ask the moped driver (“Uncle Hoang”, to me) on the scooter ride home why they fall down all at once, and he would compare the hollongs’ performance to a traditional Vietnamese poem about the dragonfly: 

Chuồn Chuồn bay thấp thì mưa 
Bay cao thì nắng 
Bay vừa thì râm.”

“When the dragonfly fly low, there will be rain
Flying high above, the sun shines
Flying in the middle, the clouds gather.”  

In other words, Chò Nâu’s descent heralds the turning point of seasons as we transit from scorching heat to the gentleness of the monsoon. 

Providing an evergreen canopy over Saigon’s major arteries, Chò Nâu boasts a vast leaf-filled crown that towers over the sea of mopeds and busy humans below. This is complemented by a sturdy, timeworn greyish-brown coating of bark. Unbeknownst to the vast majority, perched in between this majestic crown are the homes of hundreds of house sparrows (or, passer domesticus), pigeons and a variety of urban insects. Their existence is evident only through the evening song created by the hundreds of birds chirping above.

Beyond their beauty, they also provide shade — a crucial element of Saigoneer life. Whether it’s for the sidewalk barbers on the streets, dessert kiosks or the ordinary pedestrian, Chò Nâu occupies a special place in our fragile, ever-changing ecosystem.

In a city dominated by the hustle of commerce, Chò Nâu’s seasonal rustle delivers a dose of much-needed respite. Of course, they are not immune to man-made threats, being constantly on the chopping block in favour of modern developments. If they could speak, these green giants would bear witness to the full spectrum of nearly a century’s worth of human history. Yet, they are seldomly afforded protection. 

We, whether Saigoneers or here in Australia, must always strive to preserve and protect the ecological treasures that we are blessed with for future generations to appreciate and benefit from.

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