In an ever-modernising city, a clutch of Saigon residents holds fast to an old morning ritual. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Vinh Dao.
By 7am, the traffic along Cach Mang Thang 8 is in full swing. Commuters rush up and down the street, horns blaring over the din of bus motors and techno music, courtesy of the electronics outlet nearby. But inside Tao Dan Park, Saigon’s early morning commotion fades into the background, making way for an entirely different city soundtrack.
Each morning, for decades, the western side of Tao Dan has been reserved for pet birds and their owners. The tiny creatures, kept in wooden birdcages, hang together from atop a tree-like metal contraption, chirping and flitting around within their respective homes. According to the pet owners themselves, these small, excitable animals sing and socialise with one another, while the humans below, spread out in a half-circle around the collection of birdcages, are also free to sit and have their morning coffee.
For Toan, 65, this has been the case since he was a child. The Saigon native, who now owns 30-odd birds, remembers visiting the park as a boy with his father. It was a much smaller crowd back then, and reserved mostly for old men.
Today, the birds and their owners turn up as early as 6am or 7am, young and old, seasoned pet owners and novices. The birds, too, have grown in diversity: colourful species from as far as Africa and Europe join the morning choir, along with a host of Vietnamese bird varieties. Though many local traditions have faded during the city’s ever-deepening modernisation, Toan insists this is one ritual that has only grown with time.
For Le Huy, an office worker, the morning begins around 7am. Hanging one or more of his pets from the hangers nearby, Huy spends an hour or so talking to friends and taking in the surrounding atmosphere before heading to his job. Though traffic is still audible, close your eyes and Tao Dan’s grounds could pass for a spot far more natural than downtown Saigon: birdsong fills the air, drowning out much of the city’s sounds in the process.
According to Huy, placing the birds in close proximity to one another helps them to socialise and helps them to learn songs from one another.
“When I was young, I grew up in the countryside and raised a lot of birds there,” he explains in Vietnamese. As he speaks, Huy opens a tiny door on the side of the birdcage and lets his pet, a magpie-robin, rest on his finger. Now a daily visitor to the park, it’s not just the bird who has benefitted from this practice; Huy knows many of the other owners who come to Tao Dan on a regular basis.
Toan, too, is friends with many of the park’s regulars. “Everyone here knows one another,” he says in Vietnamese. “Everyone raises birds. We talk with each other and share how to raise birds, feed and care for them.”
For the pets, of course, this pays off. But beyond Tao Dan’s feathered community, Toan relishes the daily routine he’s created and his friends at the park. The birds, for all their importance as pets, are also a social tool, a way of bringing individuals together who might not otherwise interact. Through the simple act of showing up to the park, bird owners are able to connect and spend some casual, quality time with one another.
It seems, too, that foreign tourists have begun to take notice of the trend.
“There are lots of tourists that come to see what Vietnam is like,” explains Huy. Small walking tours and stray travellers will wander through the space, seizing upon the photo opportunities presented by its forest of birdcages.
By Toan’s account, this has become a regular attraction. “Every day, it seems, there are tourists who come to see the birds,” he says.
By 9am, however, the birdsong has begun to fade, each man eventually retrieving his feathered friend from the hangers. A dark cloth cover slides over each cage, hiding the bird during transport, and one by one, Tao Dan’s one of a kind choir disappears, to be reunited the next morning.