As he has been doing every day for the past 40 years, Thanh Canh lovingly bathes his little ones, gives them a healthy breakfast, and takes them to the park for a play date along with dozens of equally devoted parents. Only Canh’s ‘children’ aren’t what you would expect. They’re not human. They’re birds. Songbirds to be precise. Canh is one of the city’s thousands of songbird enthusiasts, a subculture within the pet world that has been elevated to an art.
The average tourist, or for that matter, longtime resident, can be forgiven for not knowing this unusual pastime even exists as the throngs of bird connoisseurs clear the parks by a little after 9am, leaving no trace of the cacophonous symphony and dozens of cages that occupy the space in the early morning hours.
Something for Everyone
One of the most endearing features of the songbird culture is that it appeals to people of all ages and socio-economic levels. Spend a few hours in one of the city’s many parks that cater to avian lovers and you’ll find a surprisingly accommodating environment - parents with kids in tow, husbands with wives, teenagers and retirees like 80-year-old Canh.
“I used to have fish,” explains the octogenarian. “Then I had orchids. But you can’t take those out with you. Here, you bring your birds out, enjoy the fresh air, see the same people every morning and make friends over coffee and a shared love of birds.”
“I don’t smoke or drink,” he adds with a smile. “This is my vice.”
However, this pastime isn’t strictly for the elderly.
“I got into birds when I was about 14,” explains 36-year-old
Tran Huy Tuan, a badminton coach-cum-songbird collector. “I was living in the country and had a mynah. But then my uncle introduced me to canaries. In his generation, it was popular among the well-to-do to have imported birds. But canaries are hard to take care of and they’re not widely available. Wild songbirds are much hardier and easier to keep. I now have 10 of my own, all different kinds.”
Just as their owners are from every walk of life, so too are these feathered creatures. They range in value from VND60,000 for an unproven common species all the way up to several hundred million dong and more. It isn’t uncommon for motorbikes to be traded for prized birds, especially those who are proven champions. The most expensive bird Canh remembers hearing about was sold for VND1.2 billion, a small fortune for a rare albino songbird with serious singing talent.
Bird competitions are also organised by various clubs around the city, usually for a top prize of VND5 million or so, but the prestige comes with the trophies. Those that place in the top three stand to fetch their owners a handsome sum. In fact, it’s rare to keep an animal for very long. They’re often traded as owners look for a certain type to fill a niche in their collection.
Serious birders also sport serious cages. While most enclosures are made simply from bamboo, others are embellished with intricate carvings or inlaid with mother of pearl, tortoise shell or even ivory, often costing hundreds of dollars.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
For those unable to make it to the parks, there are the bird cafes quietly hidden all around the city. Often nameless and without signage, these small coffee shops are known strictly by word of mouth. Most of the owners are themselves bird collectors, like Nguyen Van Lanh, who owns 25 birds. Patrons of his unnamed café in Binh Thanh bring their birds by in the morning, leave them there to socialise with their mates and then pick them up after work. There are no fees other than the reasonably priced drinks.
However, some customers come just for the unique atmosphere, sipping a café sua nong while reading the paper against a backdrop of manicured bonsais, a koi pond and 70 or so raucous singers. Nguyen Chi Hung, a 62-year-old xe om driver, enjoys a coffee and a paper here every morning.
“I can’t afford to keep songbirds,” he says. “They need a special diet and that’s at least VND5,000 a day. I just like to come here to hear them sing.”
Other cafes are reserved for true aficionados and are therefore grittier, not much more than a covered open space. Here, certain days and times are reserved for training specific species. And caring for these prized birds often involves a routine of having them bathe in a separate cage, feeding them a mix of live worms and grasshoppers, peanuts, egg yolk, powdered beans and fresh fruit.
Canh spends four hours a day as well as his entire pension in caring for more than a dozen birds.
However, what sets them apart from your everyday parakeet or lovebird is in the training — the voice is the key. While birds of both sexes can sing, males are preferred because their song is typically louder, clearer and more varied. Training can be accelerated by playing CDs of champion songbirds, classical music and arranging for birds to be in the company of other songsters. Training time varies from bird to bird.
“Birds are like people,” says Tuan. “Some learn faster than others. For some, it’s around three months. But to be truly trained, it’s more like two years. The payoff is that a VND180,000 bird can fetch 10 times as much after training.”
At Tao Dan Park every morning, owners fastidiously move cages from one place to another on the custom stands to get the best light or to be closer to superior singers. Other coops are placed out in the middle of the yard or on crowded tables to have the birds accustomed to singing around people while the mostly male owners fuss over their prized possessions and eye their next conquests. To them, this unique hobby is definitely not just for the birds.
Where to Catch Them
While various parks across the city have informal bird associations, in District 1 you’re guaranteed to find a sizeable number of birders in Le Thi Rieng Park and also the southeast corner of Tao Dan Park. Aim to arrive before 8am when it’s busiest.
For a friendly bird café where you can mix with the locals, head over to 289 Chu Van An, Binh Thanh, open from 6am to 11am. To witness training sessions for the White-rumped shama, commonly regarded as the opera stars of the bird world, visit the non-descript bird café at the end of the alley at 1 Ngo Duc Ke, Binh Thanh, on Tuesday and Saturday afternoons.