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Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Birdmen of Saigon

They weave through the traffic, bird cages balanced precariously atop motorbikes, winding their way to Tao Dan/ Cultural Park .  You will find them there most mornings but when my friend Elizabeth and I visited on Sunday, the birdsong was deafening and the stools all occupied.  Sunday might just be the big one!
If you enter the park from Truong Dinh, pass the throngs of scouts doing their thing and make you way to the coffee shop at the back.  It's an early start as they start to trickle away by 11 as the heat of the day kicks in.  As Elizabeth and I sat there with a cool drink we discussed the way we thought it all worked.  Was there bird man etiquette?  A pecking order if you will pardon the pun. 

The infrastructure was all there.  Poles for hanging and tables for placing your prized bird.  We tried to figure out how you chose where to put your cage.  Did you put it next to a bird that you think yours might like?  Did you place it on the ground because it does not like heights?  We mused over all this and more as the menfolk glance over and wondered what the hell we are doing here. We also picked our favourite cage.  I have been busting to buy a cage (minus the bird) to use as decoration and put a big candle in.  I could not let this opportunity pass to find out where to buy one.  Especially when we spied this one....definitely our favourite.

My Vietnamese vocabulary does not extend to the word "bird cage" so the trusty iPhone comes out and we look it up on my translating App.  Good news...there it is!  Bad news, as we found out amongst gales of laughter a bit is VERY similar to the Vietnamese word for Vulva if you pronounce it wrong.

As it turns out, these lovely guys were just as curious to talk to us as we were to them.  As we approached them and asked them where they buy their vulvas, chairs are whipped out and we are beckoned to join them.  Thus begins our lesson in the art of bird keeping in Vietnam.

Firstly, the cages.  May I just say, there is no accounting for good taste.  The cage we chose as our favourite belongs to the master cage maker and this particular  one cost about $2,000.  At first we thought they were having a lend of us but no, $2000 it was.  He makes them by hand and they contain these amazing pieces carved from elephants teeth.  There is a waiting list of months and months for one.
We are then shown a video on someones phone of a cage worth $12,000!  By this stage we well and truly knew that this bird caper was serious business.
So what did we learn?  Well, a bit might be lost in translation but basically this:  This particular species of bird is their favourite.  He did tell me the name and it was something to do with the circle around the eye but I have forgotten it.  These birds are SPOILT!  It is all about the birdsong.  A happy bird sings much more sweetly than a sad one so these little guys are pampered.

Now I am SURE I must have misunderstood what they were telling us here but it was something like "green beans" are ground up and mixed with something else to make this powder that they eat.  They also enjoy drinking some sort of honey concoction to help their "voice"
Their favorite snack are these little grasshoppers or crickets.
THIS is how spoilt they are.  They patiently sit there with a pair of pliers and rip the legs off because the birds don't like the legs! (nice t shirt!)

The birds are very well cared for at home as well and can come out of the cage if they are tame enough.  After a few years when their song is not as sweet they are taken to the woods and let go. 

Back to the pecking order.  It seems Elizabeth and I just marched up and integrated ourselves with the "Top Guns" of bird men.  The elite...the best of the best!  Oh no, no cheap seats for us!  These guys were relegated to a square of lawn until they had paid their dues.  Apprentice bird men if you will.

The same love and care seems to be provided as they sit ripping the legs off small green insects for their beloved birds.

What an awesome morning!  Those men were just so friendly and I'm so glad we broke the ice and went over for a chat.  I hope they enjoyed teaching us about their amazing hobby.  It is one of those wonderful experiences that I know I will always remember when I look back on our time here.  I really enjoy it when I get a chance to catch a glimpse of what life is like for the people of Saigon.  Some of the best experiences here won't be found by reading a guide book.  I think you will find the memory a lot of people will take away from a visit to Vietnam is the time they interacted with the local people.  That's what it's all about.


  1. Beautiful beautiful beautiful and so fascinating. I love it. I remember this same obsession in China, but a $12,000 cage - THIS I have never heard of!

  2. LOL.. very funny Dee! U thought of a bad Vnmese word there. Ha ha.


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