Birds of a feather

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Lai Cuong and his little daughter feed pigeons in front of his cafe near the Notre Dame Cathedral in District 1, HCMC

One day last week, when the rain was pelting down in Ho Chi Minh City, I was heading for a restaurant near the Notre Dame Cathedral when the rain got even harder.

I had an umbrella, but was worried for my Hoi An grass sandals. That was when I saw this sidewalk café on Cong Xa Paris Street. A blue plastic sheet held up by strings kept the rain out.

A man with a suntan and bright eyes smiled at me as if he understood my unease and invited me to duck under sheet and have a drink.

I realized it was one of the most beautiful spots in town.

On the left was the imposing Cathedral with its beautiful domes and steeples and the massive green park going almost up to the Reunification Palace.          

Just past the Cathedral was the Post Office, another impressive and charming French colonial building with large trees beside it.

The pavement here is large enough for children to gather and play.

The café had half a dozen simple wooden tables with nails protruding from the surface. Some young people are there, wide-eyed, taking in the nice views.

Though it is normally a busy street, the rain meant fewer and fewer vehicles, giving it a gentle, romantic air.

The café is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is no menu. Lai Cuong, the owner and the man who invited me in, tells me he has coconut juice (VND20,000), orange (VND15,000), lemon, xi muoi, and kumquat juices, and coffee (all VND10,000).

To avoid the police who often come and seize the furniture and other stuff, Cuong makes all the drinks at a small shop nearby. The fresh fruits and shakers are on a parked motorbike for easy transportation if the police arrive.

I order a coconut juice.

The rain eases off and Cuong takes down the plastic roof and starts feeding pigeons. He shakes a tin box of rice. The noise attracts pigeons from the Cathedral dome, and within a minute hundreds fly down, wing to wing, for the food.

He also has a large plastic bowl with water for them to drink.

After feeding them, he comes and sits next to me with a cigarette.

He says when he was 17 he had to drop out of school because his family was too poor. He worked at an incense making factory, but it barely afforded a livelihood. He quit the job, and, with nothing to do, hung around Ba Muoi Thang Tu (April 30) Park (next to Cathedral) with friends.

"I started selling coffee and fruit juices in 1988 near the Cathedral.

"In the beginning, regular vendors were angry and jealous and tried to prevent me from doing it. But I [managed]."

He also attributes his survival to divine intervention.

"Mary is sacred and I feel she helps me a lot.

"In 2002 and 2005, bird flu became very serious in town and many families had to set their pigeons free. These abandoned birds flew to the Cathedral and found shelter. I feed them five kilograms of rice everyday (each costing VND7,000)."

He thinks there are around 300 pigeons, and each lives for five to eight years. "They take the food in the mouth to feed their chicks and fly back and forth. When the young birds fledge they also fly here for the food."

A different path

"Many friends of mine who were hanging around this area became drug addicts and pickpockets. Some of them went to jail or died."

He had a very difficult time in 2004 and 2005 when the city authorities began a tough campaign and closed sidewalk cafes like his. He found it difficult to feed his family and keep his children at school.

All this has made him appreciate life more than ever. Though he is constantly chased away by the police (sometimes three times a day), the modest business allows him to send his two children to school.

After feeding the pigeons for many years Cuong says he can identify individual birds by sight.

"Tourists like pigeons because the pigeon is a symbol of peace. I do too."

He clearly wants to share his luck with the other creatures that have taken shelter in the Cathedral area. Just like he has.

The rain starts to beat down again, very strong, and Cuong shows me a place to take refuge. It is no longer possible to sit in the café since the plastic sheet was not match for the deluge. He gives his raincoat to one of the staff and quickly leaves on his motorbike.

Despite the cold rain, I could feel the warmth of this simple man's kindness.

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