Annigje Jacobs is on the trail of Saigon’s best songbirds. Photos by Brice Godard.

Aloud chattering rises from Vuon Chim, a coffee house located at the lush dead end of one of Binh Thanh’s hems. Around 50 men, with so many songbirds, have gathered this Saturday morning for the monthly chao mao competition. The chao mao, red-whiskered bulbuls, arrive in beautiful bamboo cages that are carefully covered with pretty floral fabrics.

It is a stark contrast with most of the men. Except for one sharply dressed judge, the guys wear shorts, flip-flops and worn-out t-shirts. A few have impressive tattoos or big gold watches. Some are old, some are young. It’s pretty much a cross-section of the men you see everyday on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Only men; this is not a sport for women, as one of the attendees would later tell me.

While more and more guys arrive with their precious birds, four men start hanging all the cages on a three-metre high metal construction. The competition starts a little after 9am. Today, around 100 chao mao will compete for the first prize: a certificate, a trophy and VND2.5 million.

Bird Cafe

The first time I heard about the existence of bird cafes must have been around six months ago. Sure, I had noticed that keeping birds was a popular pastime all over Vietnam. And I also wondered why so many guys were driving around with covered bird cages on their bikes – especially on weekends.

But little did I know about the world that lies behind it until a friend took me to Vuon Chim, or Bird Garden. One of the – apparently – many bird cafes in Saigon. I expected a cafe with some feathered friends flying around. Maybe a parrot at the door to greet visitors – basically, something similar to the popular cat and dog cafes.

What’s In A Name?

From the moment we arrived, I realised this was not a venue to snap selfies with exotic birds; this is serious business. Initially, I felt a little out of place – I know nothing about birds. Good thing there was something even more interesting than the singing pets: their owners.

A minute after we sat down, one of the guys moved his plastic chair next to ours and started talking. “Today is a relaxing day,” he explained. “We just come here to have a coffee, watch the birds and chat with each other.” It turned out that the birds are the only thing they talk about. He told us how he feeds his chao mao, cares for them and trains them to sing. With a straight face he added: “my birds are very important to me. Some mornings, I don’t have time to buy breakfast for my children, but I make sure I always feed my birds.”

Then, he suddenly got up, walked to his cage and moved it to a different spot. When he sat down again, he said: “if the birds are next to each other for too long, they run out of things to say. When I put them somewhere else, with new neighbours, they start chatting again”.

The more he talked about his beloved birds, the more I started to believe he attributes human traits to them. Casually, I asked him “what’s the name of your chao mao?” He looked at me like I’d just asked him the most ridiculous question he’s ever heard. His friend, who until then had been quietly watching the birds, turned around in disbelief.

Both stared at me for a few seconds, then pushed each other and laughed. “No,” said our neighbour when he cooled down, “when we enter them in the contest, they receive a number – but that’s it.” He said we should visit the competition one day.

The Art Of Singing

So, here we are – same place, different day. Our neighbour from before is nowhere to be found – but there are enough other bird enthusiasts who are more than happy to talk. Mr Phuong, for instance, a healthcare engineer from Pleiku, now living in Saigon with his wife and no less than ten chao mao. “I buy them from friends or from kids who catch them in the wild,” he said. “The most important thing is that I feel a connection with each bird, but I prefer the young ones that I can train.”

In Vietnam, training a bird is considered a form of craftsmanship. The men who know how to shape the voice and character of a bird, are referred to as nghe nhan (artisans). Just like blacksmiths or carpenters. For those with talent it can become a lucrative business. The price for an award-winning bird starts around VND10million.

Number 1

Everyone I talk to tells me that the chao mao is the most popular, the “number one” bird all over Vietnam. Hung Le Minh Quoc, President of the Bird Association ‘Vuon Chim’ knows why: “Everyone likes the chao mao, from the very young to the very old. This bird has an interesting face, a strong voice and it’s very social.”

Half an hour after the start of the competition, the first elimination round takes place. After that, it takes another four hours before the winner is chosen. The birds all look pretty much the same to a layperson like me. But not to judge Nguyen Van Hien. “First, we look at the attitude of the bird. They have to be social and hop peacefully on the perch. If they’re shy and stay still, they’re out. If they try to fly off, they’re out too.” He has been judging chao mao for five years and is impressed with today’s competitors. “The winning bird has a beautiful voice. Oh, and a sharp tail – very important too.”

Early Birds

The Bird Garden Cafe is open every day, but it’s a lot more crowded on weekends. Going on a Sunday morning might be your best option as you can then also visit the wonderful Cao Minh vintage market next door.

Cafe Vuon Chim – 251/85 No Trang Long, Ward 13, Binh Thanh District.