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Monday, March 07, 2011

Mike-diary: Birds of Hanoi

Last night our youngest wore his jammies and his bathrobe inside out in hopes of a snow day, and he got one with a vengeance. Several fluffy feet of flakes were piled high before the snowfall stopped. As we are now missing the absent Mike/Dad, who is plenty warm while volunteering in Vietnam, I'll post a little from his musings. He has moved on from Saigon to Hanoi.

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The Birds of Hanoi

Compared to their hardhearted, business-driven brethren in the south, the shop owners of Hanoi seem almost feeble in their commercial drive. In truth, the shops in the north are much more interesting, with lots of local mountain tribe crafts, elegant silks, jade carvings and a surprisingly thriving contemporary art scene. Unlike the south, there is not clutching of sleeves and tugging at belt loops to entice the westerner with a stray dollar or two into a place of business. And I think no aspect of the Hanoi shop better symbolizes this difference in values than the birds of Hanoi.

You see, most shops have a bird cage in them. Even street mechanics, soaking transmission gears in oil in their make-a-due garages on street corners about the city, would not think of starting their day's venture without hanging a bamboo cage or three of vireos on a local lamp post. These dear little birds, the color of unripe tangerines with just a blush of future sweetness showing, leap and chirp frantically in a panic within their bamboo worlds. But they are thought to bring luck, and do bring a natural charm, so their discomforts are accepted as a requirement of feng shui, or luck, or just good taste. So the sorrow of the birds is felt to be a price worth paying.

I happened upon the bird selling street. Shops tend to aggregate in streets by theme here, so there is a plumbing street and a wood carving street and a funeral street, which happens to make up the far half of the bird selling street. And what a lot of birds there are! Some are weedy sparrows who are bought for the sole purpose of being released as an offering for propitiation for sins. These, much like in the Bible, are two a penny, or rather $5000 dong a matched set. They fly away with an excited confusion, dazzled by their captivity and unexpected release. The sparrow cages are the most modest. They are simple rectangles of bamboo slats. I am sure they are crowded and unpleasant. But buyers are plentiful and there seems to be a lot of sparrow-sized sins that need a Buddhist-style accounting.

More impressing cages are reserved for more impressive captives. The vireos I have mentioned. After sparrows, they are held in the greatest number and as a chorus produce a mighty chirping. Rose-quartz-colored canaries are also well represented, and, while less numerous than the vireos, they seem to take to heart the challenge offered by the other inferior but more numerous singers. Were that all jealousies and conflicts so beautifully contested! The quick cheerful chirps of the vireos strive forth against the melodious lines of the canaries, each note as a foot soldier. To stand exactly between the walls of the vireos and canaries is to place yourself at a collision of beauty.

The largest birds are some mynah birds. They are valued for their mimicry and intelligence and this value is reflected in the elaborate cages reserved for this avian royalty. Lacquered, carved, inlaid, no craftsmanship is too extravagant for a bird that can imitate the human voice or a can opener with equal alacrity. The sellers dote on these fellows, coddling them against drafts, sun, or poking fingers. These birds command the highest return and are beloved by the merchants for this. These birds smell strongly like pigeons.

These little wicker spheres of birdy joy are spread through out the city. It is hard to imagine Americans, or Saigonese for that matter, wasting effort on birds. The mess and trouble would seem too much. But here the warbling is thought to be of great value. Perhaps they believe the singing, better than tugging or wheedling, will bring the willing customer within.

Picture: The bird cage is from, and is made by the Vietnamese company, Chanh Khang.


  1. I'm kind of thinking it would be great to re-instate the releasing of birds for the propitiation of sins. What a beautiful visual, eh?

  2. I did this in Bangkok last year--Mike bought me a little cage of birds that I released, though the street vendor simply said,"for luck." It was a great, fluttery moment, full of eagerness for freedom.

  3. Hello, Marly. I have been away from my blog for a few weeks, preparing for an overseas move. Was delighted to find your comment this morning regarding the Fae Malania poem, and look forward to reading more of your poetry, now that I know where to find you.

  4. Hi Laura--

    It was fun for me to see that poem on your blog! I think that one's in my April book (havoc in the brain--not positive.)

    Always a good hour when one remembers Fae... And I shall have to go look and see where you are going.

    And now I am off on foot, not having been brave enough yet to tackle several feet of snow on the drive and car. Alas.

  5. I would love to go there and free some birds myself.

  6. Some day, perhaps, you will go wandering!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.