Visit a Vietnamese park early in the morning and you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into a whole different world.
Gone is the cityscape of muted gray concrete, replaced by a canopy of carefully manicured trees and bushes.
The incessant hum of scooters is muted by a low hum from the trees, providing a welcome respite from the city’s most familiar – and mildly irritating – noise.
Frills are flapped back and forth, a man with graying hair and a polo shirt gracefully swings a sword through the air while doing tai chi, while in the distance a woman in pink running shoes hula-hoops to side of a half-empty swimming pool.
It’s a great way to observe people – but humans aren’t what I’m here for.
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Instead, it’s the songbirds of Saigon that I want to see – and as I venture to the southwest corner, the slightest trill of birdsong lets me know I’m in the right place.
At dawn, men and women arrive at Tao Dan Park in Ho Chi Minh City on their scooters, canvas-covered cages attached to the back.
About 50 intricate bamboo cages are spread out in a circle, with birds in a huge range of shapes and sizes.
A small green and white bird leaps against the side of its cage, twitching its wings and betraying its nervousness.
A black bird with red cheeks has a feathery horn sticking out of its head, while another black and white bird has a flashy orange chest and a long, trident-shaped tail.
But that’s what they look like, not what they look like, that’s why they’re here.
They are all songbirds, chirping different melodies and pitches that somehow seem to work together.
Local writer and photographer James Pham, who made a few visits to see the songbirds, says the morning meetings are meant to teach birds new tunes.
While some owners play CDs of classical music and other bird songs to their songbirds, bringing them together in the flesh is apparently the best way to speed up the learning process and get birds used to singing with them. other people.
Most birds start to sing within three months, but Pham says it takes them about two years to become fully trained.
While the birds are learning, their owners relax.
Most have a cup of tea or coffee in their hands, an ankle crossed over one knee while leafing through a newspaper or chatting.
They look at us with friendly suspicion, smiling and nodding in our direction but on their guard for any threat to their creatures.
Pham says bird care “curbs the obsession,” with daily baths, sunbathing, and diets of live grasshoppers, peanuts and fresh fruit.
This is nothing compared to the prices the best singers can attract: Pham once heard of a rare albino bird “with serious singing talent” sold for over NZ $ 140,000.
Competitions are organized by clubs in the city, with cash prizes and trophies for the best singers.
It is therefore not surprising that the birdmen can be protective: a bald man with his shirt half undone, revealing a silver necklace, beckons us to come out of his cages.
A friendlier owner holds his cages and encourages the birds to sing, but warns us against getting too close to his precious pets.
“Far from bird, they sing. Too close, they think you are hunting.”
The last thing I want is to pay the bill for a shocked songbird, so I take a few steps back, close my eyes, and listen to the tunes.
Free from the heat, noise and action, I wish I could stay here forever.
But as the clock strikes at 8 a.m., the cages are slowly filled, their drivers bring the birds home and prepare for their daily working lives.
However, they will be back tomorrow morning, eager for their birds to continue their song lessons.
And if their owners can escape to a world of peace and quiet for a few precious hours – well, it’s hard not to envy them.
GETTING THERE : Air New Zealand now offers seasonal non-stop service from Auckland to Ho Chi Minh City with flights three times a week from June to October, with one-way fares starting at $ 764. See airnewzealand.co.nz.
STAY THERE: The Park Hyatt Saigon is in the heart of the city, with spacious and welcoming rooms available from NZ $ 374 per night. See saigon.park.hyatt.com.
The writer and photographer traveled to Ho Chi Minh City courtesy of Air New Zealand.