Pigeon racing is becoming a new mainstream hobby in Ho Chi Minh City, and is no longer restricted to the ethnic Chinese community in the southern hub.
At least one race is organized every month, attracting anything from dozens to several hundred pigeons, with the winner taking home as much as VND10 million (US$480), Lao Dong newspaper reports.
Vo Chi Thanh, a player in Ho Chi Minh City, says races have been organized so far within three associations "“ the Saigon Pigeon Association, the District 8 Pigeon Association and the Cho Lon Pigeon Association, the latter named after Vietnam's largest Chinatown in the city.
Prizes for the winners came from participation fees of members, Thanh says.
There are short races all around the city, but there are also marathons to Da Lat, Bao Loc town nearby, and even Da Nang.
Vu Anh, one of the operators of Bocauvietnam.com, the online forum for pigeon owners, says there are plans for 360-kilometer race from Tuy Hoa in the south central coast to HCMC by the end of this month, and then a 1,000-kilometer race from Nghe An Province in the north to the city.
The race will be grueling, requiring the birds to be trained for a long period of time. A fifth of the pigeons normally fail to finish if the race is longer than 500 kilometers, and most birds lose a third of their weight after such a race, insiders say.
In the past, when pigeon racing was not very popular, training them for races was a hard and complicated task for owners.
| Hong holds one of his birds. The pigeon has a code attached on one leg so he will not mistake it for others.
Ngo Vi, who has been racing birds for 10 years, says: "I used to take several birds to Binh Dinh Province nearly 700 kilometers away by road to have them fly back home. Each trip cost several million dong."
Now the owners can rely on training services, which send people with a large number of birds at a time to train. It costs owners just VND10,000-25,000 ($0.48-1.20) per bird depending on the distance.
Most pigeons in Vietnam were imported by individuals from Belgium and Holland, via a third country or territory like Taiwan, mainland China, and Thailand.
Truong Dieu Huy, who has more than 20 years' experience, says birds from Asia, like from Taiwan, are better but cost up to several thousand dollars each.
Insiders say racing birds in Vietnam do not have a great pedigree, but training has improved their speeds to match those in many countries.
Most pigeons can fly at 60-80 kilometers per hour speed in good weather, with some even touching the 100-km mark.
But on rainy and windy days, the speed could come right down to 20 km.
Like in all other competitions, an unknown bird becomes famous and expensive after winning a race. But this means they end up in gilded cages, locked away for breeding.
Recently the winner of the 410-km race from Binh Dinh to HCMC, who finished in less than nine hours, was bought for VND31 million ($1,487).
Its new owner retired it and has given it a life of luxury in a cage.
Huynh Cam Hong, a breeder of pigeons for race in Ho Chi Minh City's District 6, says racing a winning bird again is a big risk. Hong keeps nearly 20 birds, some named winners in races, and he rarely entered them again in a competition.
Vo Thanh Trung, whose bird won two races of around 300 km from the south-central region to HCMC in July and August, did the same to his winning birds.
"I might just keep it for breeding. Its feathers already look bad. If it continues to race in not so good weather, I might lose it forever."
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