Spurs of the moment

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Nghiem Gia Dung holds one of his special chicken at his farm in Dong Nai Province.Photo courtesy of Saigon Tiep Thi

If he could travel back thousands of years to before the time of Christ, Nghiem Gia Dung could have been king.

He might have gone down in history as the 19th king of Vietnam if he had what he has in his possession now, the ability to breed extra-spurred chicken, including the most prized one of them all a nine-spurred chicken.

Nine has always been a lucky number in many cultures, and in Vietnam, a legend explaining the country's annual flooding says they are brought by ocean god Thuy Tinh who is still angry about not finding the requested wedding gifts to marry the only daughter of the 18th Hung King.

The king ended up ruling in favor of mountain god Son Tinh, asking only for what could be found on mountains, like elephants with nine tusks and chickens with nine spurs.

Royal origins

A Saigon Tiep Thi report says Dung found his first two chicken of the extra spur (more than one per leg) kind at the mountainous village of Coi in the northern province of Phu Tho, the headquarters of Hung Kings, said to be the nation's founders.

The chickens are now a highlight at his 10-hectare farm in the southern province of Dong Nai, an oasis that can only be reached after getting past several dozen kilometers of red soil path that zigzags through local rubber plantations.

Its 29-year-old owner, in sports sneakers, blue jeans and a pull-over featuring fighting ninjas, was born and grew up in Ho Chi Minh City with no farming experience.

The call of the wild, so to speak, came to him out of the blue.

Four years ago, Dung was working for major lender Sacombank with a decent income of VND8 million (currently US$380) a month.

When he decided to "drop out," people shook their heads.

"Everyone called me crazy, but I didn't care.

"My point is, you won't get rich from the banking system without taking bribes, and I'm scared of the consequences. So I just left town for the jungle, to be free."

He threw VND1 billion (around $48,000), combining his savings of three years and money borrowed from parents and friends, into the farm, making a pond for bagrid catfish, which is both a food and aquarium fish, as well as facilities to raise pheasants and peacocks.

But he was obsessed with the legendary chicken.

Once he found a pair and paid VND20 million for them, but found out later that they were crossbreeds.

He did some research and several sources said the nine-spur chicken comes from Coi village in Xuan Son Commune, Tan Son District, Phu Tho Province.

He flew to Hanoi and hired a motorbike to reach the village and stayed there for months, but could not find any apart from a nine-spur rooster belonging to the village head, who had little interest in money.

He did more research and found out the old man was really into drinking wine.

So he flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, bought over 300 liters of Go Den, a famous brand of rice wine made in the city's neighboring province of Long An and took it to the village head.

The man was moved and he gifted the rooster plus a hen from the variety, plus breeding advice.

That was early this year, and the acquisition began his days of sleeping and eating with the chickens.

"Staying up until 3 to 4 in the morning to wait for eggs to hatch is just part of the day," Dung said.

The first chickens have produced around 40 other pairs that have seven or eight spurs on their legs.

He sells them for VND3 million a pair (rooster and hen), and together with the sales of other plants and animals in the farm, he earns VND30 million a month, the Saigon Tiep Thi report said.

He has so far managed to breed only one nine-spur rooster that he still keeps for himself. He said some people have offered $1,000 (over VND 20million) for it, but he has no plan to sell it.

Locals in Coi village say nine-spur chickens are usually born with three spurs in each leg and grow more later.

They have strong and fast feet that make it hard to catch them, and when they are caught, they don't seem to panic like normal fowl.

They are neat and their meat is tastier than any other kind of chicken, the locals assert.

Ly Phuc Lam, a Coi resident, said the fowl should be called chicken with multiple spurs, instead of nine-spur chicken, as most of them have five to eight spurs, not nine. 

Lam said an owner does not have to do much when the chicken grows up as it is the independent kind, usually finding its own food. "A herd can go away looking for food for several days," he said.

But he also said that not many fowls are able to survive until they grow up, as having too many spurs causes the little ones to get stuck in places and unable to escape.

Lam recalled a time when locals decided to butcher the chicken to make way for more efficient investment in other kinds of chicken or cattle. 

He said the variety is still around thanks to Tran Dang Lau, then director of the Xuan Son national park in Phu Tho Province, who visited the village and asked to buy all surviving ones, and forced his staff to raise at least one of them. 

In 2008, Danish government's support program Danida provided funding to help local families increase the chicken's population again.

The nine-spur chicken is still rare, but others can be sold for higher prices.

Dung plans to open his farm to tourists from the beginning of next year, serving the chicken to visitors and spending more time talking to anyone interested in raising it.

"I want to prove that nine-spur chicken is not just a legend, that it exists. And once it was only raised in the north, now it can be raised in the south as well," he told Saigon Tiep Thi.

He said families with daughters in Dong Nai might soon receive dowries that include something more interesting than conventional treasures like gold bars a pair of chickens with a nine-spur rooster.

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