Before setting foot in Ho Chi Minh (HCMC), Vietnam I knew very little about Vietnamese culture. Whilst I have an Asian background (my parents were born in Sri Lanka) my connection with Vietnam was surface level at best, our love of seafood and our ability to get on with life even though it is always bloody humid!
A month and half later, I have appreciated so many things that Vietnam has to offer as a country to visit or possibly live in at some point in the future. The country precariously juggles between communistic and capitalistic ideologies whilst balancing traditional culture with the need to modernise to compete in global markets.
One of the more traditional ways of life is the vietnamese love of birds. This becomes apparent when you visit a vietnamese market. There is a strong possibility that you will see someone selling birds.
When I first saw the lady in the image above I was told by a friend that this supports a Buddhist belief that one can gain spiritual merit by freeing birds from their cages.
However to supply this market, one has to capture them in the first place. The main issue being that most birds are caught in their natural habitat (woodlands in general) and then released in cities.
Another thing I have seen along my travels here are caged birds that are hung outside people’s homes. Space is a premium in HCMC and it’s generally hot and humid here so seeing birds out on balconies is common.
When looking into birds of Vietnam I stumbled upon an article about Vietnam’s love for song birds and it got me thinking about the relationship between people and their need to keep birds?
The history of the caged bird
The Sumerians, the oldest civilization known to have kept written records, had a word, subura, for birdcage.
Caged birds were used by ancient mariners—namely Babylonians, Hindu merchants of the fifth century BC, Polynesians, Vikings—often carried caged birds on long ocean journeys. When seeking land they would release a bird and observe its flight. If the bird saw land in the distance it would fly in that direction and not be seen again. If no land was detected, the bird would return to the ship, to its cage.
For hundreds of years, the royal courts of Europe (women’s quarters) were enriched with cages housing local species of birds (tropical imports could not survive the cold of winter). Among those most prized were chaffinch, greenfinch, siskin, and, especially, bullfinch, which were trained to mimic a variety of melodies.
Following the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama’s completion of a sea route to India in 1499, traders began transporting large numbers of parrots from Africa, India, and Java to the capitals of Europe, where they were purchased as house pets by merchants.
The Chinese Buddhist custom of fang sheng, or “release life,” has long granted honour to those who would bestow freedom upon captive birds and other animals. Something that I believe is being practiced today in Vietnam.
Don’t forget that the a caged bird is used by us to represent captivity such as the word “jailbird” was a common slang term from the 16th century describing an incarcerated prisoner.
In the late 1870’s a bird importer from the states wrote the following “Persons keeping canaries for their singing only, should keep them in cages of about a foot in diameter, either round or square; as in a large cage they will not sing so well or constant, having too much room to fly about and amuse themselves, which in a great degree takes away their attention from singing.”
Caged Birds today
According to one study I read, roughly 35% of homes in the Southeast Asian region keep birds as pets. It’s not just Southeast Asia that has a penchant for keeping birds in cages, it is estimated that 6% of US households keep birds as pets.
Some men believe that by looking after a bird allows them to stay clear from vices such as alcohol and gambling. Whatever the reasons people keep birds in cages there is a strong possibility of the extinction of a number of species as some people prefer birds that are caught in the wild and not captive-bred, the more unusual the better according to a study in the Biological Conservation journal.
In Southeast Asia, some species of songbirds may sell for as little as ten cents to as much as $20,000. The expensive ones go into singing competitions.
Songbird Cafe’s in HCMC
I’ve read about a few places/cafe’s that people bring their songbirds to, but the one I visited was a little off the beaten path and was situated in a place where only locals frequented. I was given a really nice warm welcome by the dozen or so guys that were shooting the breeze.
The guys at the cafe were busy sharing stories about their birds (I think), maybe giving each other advice on how to look after their birds, every so often they would either move their own bird to another location or sometimes cover it from the light.
People buy small plastic bags of locusts that they feed their birds with, one guy was adamant that I look at them and he showed me how good they were by popping one into his mouth!
The idea behind socialising birds together is so they have an increased chance of learning the songs of others.
I have to say that it was a very relaxing experience being with these guys. To see the love that they show to their bird/s was really nice to see.
The birds are well looked after but I cannot change my own opinion about the fact that these birds would not by choice enter these cages by themselves. It’s traditional yes but maybe this is a tradition that future generations might want to consider changing for the protection of these particular species of birds.
Living in a cage
“Do we bring birds inside our homes because we are unable to enter theirs? Do we try to tame wild nature because we fear we can never tame our own?” by Jerry Dennis on the history of caged birds
I found this beautiful short film (6 minutes) by Keith Halstead. Filmed in Hanoi, Vietnam by Hoang Chaizee and Produced by Nguyen Thi on why do keep things in cages. It’s very poignant to this story.
The cafe I visited for seeing people with their songbirds can be located here although there are a few situated in Ho Chi Minh City.
Feel free to share your own experiences about song birds and your own beliefs about this topic. Feedback always appreciated.