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.