You never know who you will meet at your regular smoothie spot. For example, a charming Vietnamese man who had a story to tell me about how he looks after his hawk, Kata. His name is Phong, a Saigonese man whom I met not a long time ago and who turns out to belong to an impressively big falconry community.
Yes, you read that correctly, this tale is about Vietnamese people practicing falconry. Phong kindly invited me to join him in meeting up with the rest of his crew outside the city the following weekend.
And so, on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago, I drove my motorbike out past District 6, wondering what was to come, as my conversation with Phong hadn’t provided me with many details. “It’s the Cong Dong group’s birthday, so we are meeting to celebrate. Come!” was nearly all he had told me.
After a long drive I showed up in what looked like a tranquil residential neighbourhood which hid a plot of land where more than twenty birds of prey — falcons, hawks, crested hawk-eagles, a majestic white-bellied sea eagle and a shy adorable little owl (who looked a bit out of place) — were perched on tree branches.
What is What
Hawks and falcons are related but quite distinct birds. Both are classified as raptors, but hawks belong to the accipitrinae subfamily, while falcons belong to the falconidae.
On a more practical level, there are many differences in size, colour patterns and hunting techniques which distinguish these birds. In general, eagles are the largest birds of prey, with hooked beaks and long, strong and curved claws known as talons. Their cousins, the hawks, are smaller in size, but are more aggressive. Moreover, most eagles have a greater wing span than hawks. Hawks and falcons can be very similar in characteristics, however there are a few features that distinguish them.
Falcons are smaller birds than hawks, although with longer wings, giving them the ability to reach fast flying speeds; for example, the peregrine falcon is known to be the fastest bird on earth with an estimated maximum diving speed of 322km/hr. Another big difference is the way they hunt; falcons grab their prey with their beaks, unlike hawks and eagles, which have big talons to catch their prey.
A Serious Business
Once there, drawn by the singing of the raptors, I started wandering around the woods and introducing myself to the birds and their owners. I was still astonished to discover that Saigon conceals such a spectacle that most of us have no idea about. It was then that I met Quang — I immediately felt he was the leader of these bird enthusiasts — who spent time with me revealing the little secrets of their hobby.
Saigon is home to a big community of trainers in more than 10 groups whose members have been taking care of these birds for years. Fuelled by their passion for raising raptors, these people regularly meet to share how their birds are doing, what achievements they have reached, and how to improve their living standards. Moreover, they organise big meet-ups where they celebrate birthdays and other events.
Vung Tau Falconry, Falconry & Friends, and Binh Duong Falconry are the names of some of the groups. At this particular meeting, a good few of them were proudly showing off their team’s equipment — without wishing to take away any credit from their pets, who were the real stars.
After some greetings and warming up, the show began. These guys sure know how to make the most of these bashes. A Linkin Park tune erupted from their XL-sized speakers signalling that the first challenge was underway. Three of the trainers competed to see who could skin and chop up the largest number of dead quails during the four minutes of song. The quails’ entrails would later be used as meals for the raptors.
In the meantime, I approached Quang and his imperious white-bellied sea eagle from Phu Quoc Island, in order to learn a bit more about falconry.
“The food is used to build relationships between the bird and the owner,” explained Quang, as we kept an eye on the training. “Once they are satisfied, they won’t listen anymore, so we have to use the prey wisely.” A few wheels and ropes were used as obstacles for the raptors to fly through.
“A simple game which in reality works as a training session,” Quang continued. After watching some of the predators’ demonstrations, it was Quang’s sea eagle’s turn to show us what his skills were. The veteran led his pupil to a more open field above which it glided for a couple of minutes — a truly beautiful scene to look at.
“The trees here are an impediment for the eagle to fly around, otherwise he would be able to remain in the air for a bit longer,” grumbled Quang. Nevertheless, that performance was enough for Quang to be awarded the ‘best trainer’ prize at the end of the encounter.
Not Just a Saigon thing
As my falconry research progressed, I found out that Saigon was not the only city that hosts this kind of practice. Every big city in Vietnam is home to some devoted falconry groups. Dalat, Danang and Lao Cai are some of the names on the list. The birds from Lao Cai in the far north of Vietnam are particularly strong and fierce, according to an impressed Phong. Hanoi has also a big reputation in this field. Recently I made my way up to the capital and went in search of a small group of men who meet beside the West Lake to share some stories about their birds. Unfortunately my poor grasp of Vietnamese meant I couldn’t hold a decent conversation with them beyond learning the raptors’ names and ages.
Back in Saigon, after sharing a few more words with Phong about how they manage to obtain and keep their birds, he vaguely explained how they have been trying for a few years to get make their activities official. The process is long and slow.
Despite the lack of official support, their passion for falconry drives them to find more birds to train and take care of — most of them are bought online, for prices that can reach up to VND30 million.
Towards the end of the encounter, once all the prizes were given and the guys had taken a few photos posing with their birds, we sat at the table to celebrate what the morning had brought us. Surrounded by food and beer, the toasts started and kept going as Bruno Mars played in the background. It was a worthy celebration of what was going on there, and indeed there was a lot to celebrate. Happy birthday again, Cong Dong falconers!