Pet dogs and cats are commonplace in the city, but what is it like to own a more unique animal? Michael Tatarski gets to know some of Saigon’s most curious creatures. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Almost everyone has owned a pet dog or cat at some point in their life. Even in Saigon, a city not renowned for its friendliness towards animals, pets are common. But while traditional animal companions are plentiful here, some Saigon residents crave a more unique furry – or not so furry – friend. From reptiles and marsupials to large mammals, there are some very interesting animals living in the city we call home.
I met Bao and Bean — as in Mr. Bean — at a cafe in Phu Nhuan District, where they were hanging out with their reptilian friends. Bao is the proud owner of a two-metre-long Burmese python named Say with yellow-and-white patterned skin. The snake remained remarkably calm throughout the interview as it rested in Bao’s arms, constantly flicking its tongue to taste the air.
Bao tells me in Vietnamese that he bought Say because he is beautiful. He keeps the two-year-old snake in a large box at his house.
“It could grow up to four metres in length,” he adds. “I feed it chicken legs and thighs and it eats the whole thing, even the bones.” Say is so friendly that Bao allows it to hang out with his two-year-old daughter at their house.
Asked what he does when Say gets sick, Bao shared that there are no reptile veterinarians in Saigon.
“If I need something I’ll ask friends who have raised snakes or occasionally go to the zoo since they know what to do,” he says. “I know more than ten people who have large snakes so we help each other. Reptiles are easy to raise.”
Bean, an excitable young man who speaks excellent English, has a frilled dragon and a bearded dragon, both native to New Guinea. We talked while the lizards bathed in the sun on a motorbike seat.
“The frilled dragon is about three years old and fully grown,” Bean says. “I have a cage for him but I only put him in it after 2pm, in the morning I keep him in my yard on a piece of wood so he can get sun.”
Both dragons like the same climate and have the same diet of crickets, grasshoppers and wax worms. Asked why he has such strange pets, Bean replies that he has loved reptiles since he was a child.
“I love watching shows about animals and once I saw a dragon on a TV show about Australia and thought, ‘Wow, it’s like a dinosaur!’” he shares. He didn’t think it would be possible to find one in Saigon, but eventually he met people who knew about a market where they are sold.
Bean’s enthusiasm for the reptiles is infectious, and even if they aren’t the most affectionate of animals it is obvious he loves them. He enjoys riling up the frilled dragon, which spreads the frill around its neck when it feels threatened, much like one of the dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park film. Seeing these creatures relax around a cafe was one of the stranger sights I’ve come across recently.
Alex Vu adopted a hedgehog in mid-January and his niece decided to name him Nhim. Vu tells me that hedgehogs are common pets among Vietnamese, but this was the first time I had seen one here. He obtained Nhim after seeing a Facebook post seeking a new owner for the pet.
“I really like hedgehogs, my friend has a couple and they are very cute,” he says. “So I thought why not, I can adopt it.”
The 16-month-old hedgehog is, as Vu admits, quite fat and lazy. He stirred briefly during our interview but otherwise lay in his aquarium at Vu’s District 1 home like a blob.
“I’m trying to get him on a diet to lose some weight. Hedgehogs are insectivores but at the moment I’m feeding him cat food and two or three days a week I try to give him some veggies or chopped boiled eggs,” Vu explains. He and his niece also let him out into the room to play with him and let him get exercise.
Vu shares that it took Nhim a while to adapt to his new home.
“When I got him I couldn’t touch him because he wasn’t familiar with my scent, which is how they recognise things. For the first few days I wrapped him in one of my T-shirts so he could get used to my smell.” Nhim is now happily adjusted to his new family and Vu appears happy to have him around.
Seok Hee Won and his 11-year-old daughter Yubin own by far the largest pet in this story. The South Korean expats care for a pony named Delilah, which they board at the Saigon Pony Club in District 2. The friendly, dark brown pony has a white diamond-shaped mark on her forehead and is roughly seven years old. Yubin has been riding horses since she was young and when Delilah’s previous owner left Vietnam late last year, her family decided to buy the pony.
Delilah was bred in Vietnam, as ponies raised in other countries can’t adapt to the climate here. Yubin visits the club with her father on Fridays and Saturdays to ride with Delilah for about an hour and then spend some time with her. When I visited, Yubin and Delilah were getting along famously after a hot morning riding session. The pony couldn’t get enough carrots as a snack, and although she is stubborn at times it was obvious that she and Yubin had a connection. The young rider also grooms her pony a couple of days each week and sometimes lets her roll around in the sand on the grounds for fun. It was quite surprising to see such a large animal at ease in a cramped city like Saigon.
Georgie Arnott and her boyfriend keep two sugar gliders in their apartment in Binh Thanh District. The small, nocturnal animals look similar to flying squirrels but are not related and are native to Tasmania, eastern Australia and Papua New Guinea. The male, Thaksin, is about one year old, while Akiko, a female, is about six months. The pair sleeps most of the day but when I stopped by one afternoon they were quite active, scurrying around the couch and sniffing me to make sure I wasn’t a threat. Their wide eyes highlight the need for night vision and their soft fur is great to pet.
Thaksin and Akiko were bought at a pet shop in District 10 and Arnott has learned how to care for them through extensive internet research.
“They require a lot of time and love,” she shares. “We spend a lot of time with them in the morning and evening and let them do their thing at night.” They stay in a cage at night since if left unattended they could climb up the window shades and tear them.
“They are fed a special diet. Once a month we make a big batch of honey, baby food, chicken, egg, vitamins, yogurt and fruit,” Arnott explains. “They get their main meal around 10pm when they wake up and we’ll give them fruit throughout the day.”
When Akiko showed up, it took Thaksin a while to adjust since he had been living alone. They were kept separated for months, as there was a chance that he would try to kill her if she was seen as an invasive.
Now, though, the two are good friends. As Arnott says, “He actually kind of follows her around now.” The sugar gliders behave a bit like squirrels, constantly moving and looking around. According to Arnott they have very distinct personalities.
“Thaksin is loopy, smart and cautious, while Akiko is fearless and adventurous.”
They are very attached to their owners, but Arnott cautions against keeping sugar gliders as pets.
“They are amazing creatures and super cute, but it’s worrying that they are so popular as pets. They should be kept in the wild, and they are very hard to look after. I wouldn’t promote owning one,” she says.
From tiny critters that fit in the palm of your hand to animals that are big enough for a human to ride, Saigon is home to an array of pets that is, if anything, even more diverse than its human population. It seems this city is a concrete jungle in more ways than one.