At the Saturday morning market, along the sidewalk lined with baskets of fruit, large tree funghi and wild Sapa orchid plants, I saw my second baby owl in a grass cage barely big enough to fit it. Even more than before, I found this a painful sight. Small, covered in downy grey feathers, blinking slowly in the daylight, it was clearly out of place, ripped from the forest as forcibly as the funghi from the tree. I tried to ask how much it cost but the sidewalk seller just shook his head at me. I bent down to take a photo, which caught the attention of a young Vietnamese man. He picked up the cage for a closer look and after some questions a shining emerald beetle was shaken out of an old water bottle and skewered on a stick to feed the owlet. The man handed over 100,000 Dong – the equivalent of $5 CDN, and left with the owlet.
The first time I saw a similar owlet, in a similar cage was as my friend Mario and I were leaving the Bac Ha Sunday market, on our way to Sapa two weeks earlier. I had seen songbirds and thrushes hanging in small cages in storefronts across Hanoi, but it wasn't until I got to the Bird Market in Bac Ha that I found out more about the trade. The bird market was full of men eyeing up a variety of birds in small cages, Red-whiskered Bulbuls among the most common, the rest of which names I didn't know.
I asked our guide Cho why there were so many birds – for pets? “No, decoration!” she laughed. She told us they had one bird in their house that used to wake her up in the morning, “We feed it rice. One day I forget to feed it rice, and two days later it no wake me up in the morning” she laughed again. Birds are decorations, just like flowers, I learned – forgetting to feed a bird is the same as forgetting to water a plant – a silly mistake, but not really a big deal. Fortunately I was in good company when this news hit, Mario also found it hard to take. “In Costa Rica a caged bird is second to cannibalism”, he said. “It is a crime.”
Caged birds are status symbols, and they are sometimes taken in their cages to cafes to show them off. The more rare the bird the more expensive the price.
That day after seeing the caged owlet, I couldn't get away from the pitiful caged birds, and the increasing feeling of despair as I looked at them. In the market, hanging from trees along the lakeside, in the stores selling cheap North Face gear, they were everywhere. I walked down a different street into a fancier-looking hotel complex, where I saw three caged birds, each a different species, hanging close together in a few trees. A fourth small Bulbul-type bird was flying freely between the cages, landing on the tree branches, on the sidewalk near my feet – while the birds were somersaulting in their cages and calling. What kind of behaviour was this, if it wasn't a cry for help? I had a strong urge to just start opening the cage doors and let them all out, and chasing the free bird away before it could be caught. I waited, but there were too many people in the vicinity and I decided I couldn't risk it. I already suppressed my vigilantism earlier in the day, when I thought of just running through the market throwing money at people and taking all the birds. I talked myself out of that one on the basis that it would just encourage them to go out and get more.
It makes me wonder about what appears to be a detached view of animals in Vietnam. While some people keep them as pets, many people eat dogs, and it's not clear to me how many people raise them as food. While I know eating other less friendly animals is common place across the globe, carnivores I have met here from the West also share a reluctance for eating animals primarily labelled as pets. Meeting necessary food requirements is one thing, viewing wild birds in the same light as potted plants strikes me as inconsistent with a lifestyle that largely requires living off the land. I just don't get it, and I wish I knew how to change people's minds.
Seeing these caged birds also brings to mind another comparison – that of kidnapped teenage brides, and the beautiful girls in the school I am teaching English in – one of whom was kidnapped after my first week, and now thankfully returned. Like these birds, brides are paid for, and leave their family homes to live with their husband and his family. Married life is a hard one for women in the villages.