The Ho Chi Minh cafe where Vietnamese men go to gossip whilst their birds learn new songs
We first visited (and wrote about) the Saigon bird cafe a few years ago when we were working and living in Vietnam’s largest city (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City).
Tucked behind Reunification Palace, Tao Dan Park is a little green oasis bang in the heart of downtown Saigon. If you visit early in the morning, soon after sunrise, you’ll find the park buzzing with activity: full of people walking, chatting, and exercising. Until a couple of years ago, this is also where you would find an open-air section of the park nicknamed the Bird Cafe. Beginning at first light and continuing until around 9am, the area was occupied by Vietnamese men of all ages, along with their pet birds.
The men would hang the birdcages from what looked like metal tree branches before settling in on those tiny plastic chairs that are a familiar scene in Vietnam. They’d drink coffee and chat with their friends, whilst keeping an eye on hanging caged birds who were engaged with their own chirpy conversations. The men would come to the park to show off their prized birds, enjoy the morning air and socialise with friends over a cup of freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee. It was an engaging scene and incredibly tranquil by Saigon standards.
Tao Dan Park Bird Cafe (now relocated)
As an aside, this was the bird cafe that Phil of the Netflix series, ‘Somebody Feed Phil’ visited in the Vietnam episode of the show. The first time we heard of the programme was when we walked into our favourite khao soi joint in Chiang Mai and saw a handwritten sign indicating he’s been there too. It’s as if his researchers are using our blog, but I doubt it very much!
When we were in Ho Chi Minh recently (February 2020) we happened to walk through Tao Dan Park one morning. We went by the place where the birds and their owners should be but they were nowhere to be seen. It was around 9am, so perhaps we were too late. Or maybe the bird cafe had moved, or closed altogether?
A couple of days later, I decided to get up early (Mark just grumbled, rolled over and went back to sleep) to find out if the bird cafe still exists. I arrived at the park at around 7am but the place where the cafe used to be was nothing but an area of concrete being used for exercisers.
Above: The area where the Tao Dan Park bird cafe used to be and, in the background, the relocated bird cafe at Cong Doan restaurant (it should have been easier to spot than it was!).
Determined not to give up, I wandered around the park, until, above the Saigon traffic, I heard bird song. I followed the cheeps to the pavement outside the park, where I noticed a few people were selling bugs. Bugs are a popular snack for all in South East Asia, but in this case, it was bird food. I looked up at a restaurant across the road and on the upper level I could see rows of bird cages.
Weaving my way through the rush hour traffic I crossed the street and went to the first floor of the Cong Doan restaurant where I was greeted by a sign “Welcome to Bird Art Club”. It turns out that the Tao Dan park bird cafe has moved from the park to the cafe across the road.
The familiar scene from Tao Dan Park has been transported to the open-air terraced Cong Doan Cafe. The men were sitting chatting and drinking coffee and their bird cages were hung around the edge of the balcony catching the rays of the rising sun. I sat at the table to one side, ordered a ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk) and took in the scene. Whilst chatting amongst themselves, the men always kept one eye on their birds. Occasionally one of the men would get up and move a cage from the shade to the sun or vice versa. The birds were all chirping away, and it’s said that the birds teach each other new songs.
Above: Scenes from the terrace of the Cong Doan Cafe where the Bird Art Club is held daily
I asked the waiter about this bird cafe, and he confirmed that the original bird cafe had moved from the park a couple of years ago and now the men came here every morning from around 6am and stayed until about 9.30am.
I recall that on our previous visits to the Tao Dan Park cafe, it was mostly middle-aged and elderly men but at the Cong Doan Cafe there was a wider age-range – perhaps the hobby of keeping birds is seeing a revival in popularity? But the lack of any women confirmed it remains a male-only pastime.
If you are concerned about the ethics of caged birds, it’s worth considering that these tiny birds are prized and pampered pets. It’s really no different from keeping and doting on budgies, hamsters, or guinea pigs. Or keeping homing pigeons. Their owners take them out to socialise and interact with other birds, they ensure they are comfortable by moving them from the sunlight to the shade, and once home they give them the best food, and bathe them regularly. If you look closely, you’ll see that many of the cages are incredibly ornate and decorated with carved panels – these songbirds are living in palaces.
Ornate birdcages being admired by the owner
An outing to the cafe is essentially a training session – as well as being beloved companions, these creatures are also competition birds. Different bird art cafes have competitions are various times throughout the year, so the men need to make sure their birds are on top form, and a bird cafe is the perfect opportunity for the birds to practice with each other. At competition level, in addition to being judged on how well and for how long a bird can sing, the other criteria are how beautiful the bird is and its shape (I don’t know what shape is preferable though).
When it‘s time to leave the cafe, the bird cages are cloaked in a velveteen cover before being transported home on the back of the motorbike. These lucky birds don’t have to witness the crazy Saigon traffic!
I’ve included some of the photos from the bird cafe’s original open-air location at the beginning and end of this post, so you can compare with how it is now. I preferred the former venue because it felt like you were enjoying the fresh air of the park rather than sitting in a cafe, although it is still a fascinating local experience to observe. One benefit is that the birdsong sessions last longer because the covered terrace of the Cong Doan cafe doesn’t get so warm once the sun is up.
Birdcages hanging from the balcony of Cong Doan first-floor cafe
Information about visiting Cong Doan Bird Art Club aka Saigon bird cafe
Visitors are welcome at the bird cafe, but do order a drink. It’s fine to take photos of the birds, but don’t get too close without asking permission from the owner. And don’t get in the way of people videoing and photographing their own birds – I saw one guy get annoyed with a tourist who stood in the way of his view and got very close to the birds.
Cong Doan cafe has a menu in English and aside from coffee has a variety of drinks. It’s not the cheapest café we’ve encountered in Vietnam but it’s worth the extra cost to witness a little local life. The restaurant downstairs serves traditional Vietnamese food at fair prices so if you’re getting a bit peckish, you can order some breakfast.
The Saigon bird cafe is located on the upper floor of the Cong Doan Restaurant, found on Google maps here: 10.772586, 106.691185. A sign in English on the pavement outside announces ‘bird visiting time’ is from 6.30-9.30am and also from 1 to 3.30pm. I didn’t find the time to go back and see how busy the cafe is with birds in the afternoon, so if you do, please let me know via a comment below. Thanks.
The men chat and the birds gossip at the original Saigon bird cafe in Tao Dan Park…
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