The Birdmen of Saigon

I’ve always had pets, as far back as I can remember. My parents lovingly put up with a menagerie of animals, starting with me bringing home a guinea pig from 2nd grade (I didn’t like it) and various reincarnations of birds and fish. There was even the smelly rabbit I kept rather unhygienically in my room which ended up on the porch before it got stolen. But my soft spot has always been for birds. Lovebirds, parakeets, canaries, finches, lorakeets and even a wild cardinal I once trapped with an A.C.M.E. style box and twig set up, with a string that led all the way from the front yard to inside the house where I waited for unsuspecting birds to peck at the bird seed I left out.

So when I started seeing guys driving around with covered bird cages on their motorbikes, I was intrigued. Where were they taking their prized birds?

One day, while driving through a non-descript neighborhood, I suddenly heard a cacophony of bird songs. I quickly turned around and followed my nose (or I guess, my ears…) to an even more non-descript cafe with no signage whatsoever. Tentatively peeking my head inside, I saw dozens upon dozens of cages strung up around this tiny oasis of bonsai and koi ponds. It was a bird cafe.

Sitting down with the motley crue of men in their 30’s to 50’s, I learned that this was a bird cafe, one where song bird enthusiasts could bring their birds for a play date, avian style. Keeping songbirds is very popular among the Vietnamese and once I became clued into it, I started noticing bird cages, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, strung up in doorways both of houses and of shops. I suppose it’s a visceral way of bringing nature to the city.

These birds come in all shapes and sizes, from raucously lime green to glimmeringly iridescent to dull oranges and browns. From long-tailed shamas to tiny mealworm eating chirpy things. The appearance belies the abilities, though as often the dullest looking birds have the most exquisite songs.

There’s definitely a social aspect to this unique past time. Enthusiasts gather in some of the city’s parks early in the morning before work, showing off their latest feathered acquisitions. Some people only bring a cage or two. Others almost more than they can carry. But the goal is the same – to have the birds learn songs from other birds while the owners read newspapers, have a coffee or pass jealous glances at the most accomplished singers. The odd family strolls by, the kids fascinated with all the noise.

These birds are brought in from the wild and while nature gives them their own songs, having them around other birds of other species speeds up the learning process. Owners hang the cages up on specially made stands. Birds start singing after 1-3 months. The second step is having them be able to sing in front of people. To that end, tables are littered with cages. Others are placed in the middle courtyard, and the early morning atmosphere is not unlike what I’d imagine a Roman theater of old – (almost exclusively) men sitting around in a semi-circle, taking in nature’s brilliant performance.

Back home, the care of these birds borders on the obsessive. Daily baths, alternating sun and shade and meticulously plucking legs off of hapless grasshoppers is all part of the ritual. It must be nice to be a songbird in Saigon. Actually, the price of these birds can range from just a few dollars for untried singers straight from the forest to reportedly more than a hundred thousand dollars (!) for a rare albino bird with great pipes.

Soon enough, it’s time to pack up and head home, bringing a little bit of nature into the concrete jungle. These are the Birdmen of Saigon.

For more on this fascinating sub-culture, see my latest article, “A Bird Song” in the July issue of Word HCMC.

What about you? What’s your favorite pet memory?

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13 thoughts on “The Birdmen of Saigon

  1. [email protected]

    Most interesting. Now that I’m poised for a little travel followed likely by a resettle in other parts of Vietnam/SEA (Dalat, or possibly Chiang Mai, Thailand) I regret that there’s soooo very much in this nutso city (Saigon) that I haven’t had (in 9 months!) a chance to see.

    Nice post, and especially fine article in Word HCMC (special kudos to the photographer, love that selective focus pic of the man w/ the newspaper behind the bird cage) – can’t wait to read about our little geocaching adventure (I’ll likely be in Mongolia when it comes out next month – you’ll have to send me the pdf?)
    [email protected] recently posted..Packing for MongoliaMy Profile

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  2. John

    It sounds like a mocking jay conference. My daughter will love this. Thanks for the post, this will be a must do when I am in vietnam with kids soon.
    Cheers
    John Ahern
    Author. On The Road…With kids

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Never quite thought of it that way, but however you can sell it to the kids, I guess! May the odds be forever in your traveling favor!

      Reply
    1. James Post author

      So looking forward to reading that, Jura! Wonder if there are any small differences between the birding culture up there vs. here in Saigon! I’ve been meaning to go back and spend a leisurely morning in the park with a book. Must do it soon!

      Reply
  3. My

    Sorry! But am I the only one here that see the horrible animal cruelty regarding the caged songbirds in Vietnam and Asia? Those wild birds are kept in horrible environments and goes mentally nuts in those small cages. With no space to use their wings, and no chance to be real birds with their own kind in freedom, it’s not a big surprise that they can easily die from the anxiety IF they are kept like this. If you want to hear birdsong, take a bird watching tour out in the djungle instead and don’t support this.

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hi My:
      Thanks for your comment. As someone who’s had domesticated birds all my life (mainly parakeets and now cockatiels), I don’t have a problem with having caged birds, per se. I do see your point, however, in that most of the songbirds are wild caught. I’ve only rarely seen people keep canaries. And yes, the cages are pretty small. I think Asia in general has a very different viewpoint on keeping pets. While there is a small but growing (more affluent) segment of the population that is starting to lavish pets with the love and attention often seen in the West, the majority still view pets as useful animals (eg. to guard the house, to catch mice / cockroaches, to provide enjoyment as in the songbirds). I think there’s a cultural bias as well. I’d rather be a songbird in a small cage but well looked after than a chicken in the US. But that’s not to say the majority of caged birds have a good life in Asia. People tend to hang them up outside their homes, often subject to traffic noise and pollution…

      Reply
  4. Noel

    Hey James thanks for posting this, I am a keen photographer and currently living in HCMC. Do you know where I can find this bird cage cafe? I’ve done a lot of walking in the past month and seen many things including birds being sold but not this cafe or anything close to that. Cheers

    Noel

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hi. I don’t know the exact address, but it’s on Chu Van An street, in Binh Thanh District. I’ve pinned its relative location here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1bKkK-5H6njA_wREWq1QFfw4ITnk&usp=sharing

      It’s only open in the morning. Right on the corner, but hard to see because there’s no signage and the sliding metal door isn’t usually open. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, so I can’t guarantee that it’s still there. Next time I’m in the area, I’ll take a peek and update here.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: The caged songbirds of Vietnam – Golden Love Nuggets

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