Racing homing pigeons is a popular pastime in the countryside in northern Vietnam. Pigeon races are usually hosted in Lunar April or Lunar August, when skies are clear and farmers have less field work. These races showcase the bonds between the contestants and their birds, which show remarkable levels of intelligence. It’s no coincidence that pigeons were once trained to deliver letters; these birds have an incredible sense of direction and bond readily with their masters.
Pham Manh Cuong, President of the Hanoi – Bac Ninh Interprovincial Flying Pigeon Club, claims that in Vietnam this pursuit dates back to the Ly Dynasty. Taming and training racing pigeons requires a great deal of time and patience. The birds are trained to fly home over a distance of tens or even hundreds of kilometers in different weather conditions. Competitors hail from Hai Duong, Bac Ninh, Thai Binh, Phu Tho and beyond, all of them sharing a passion that has them driving long distances over country roads with cages of pigeons strapped to their motorcycles. The races are held in different places and allow enthusiasts to come together, share experiences and show off their birds’ skills.
In the courtyard of a titular temple or an empty village lot, members of the contest organizing board assign a number to each birdcage. The judges sit on a high place with a clear view and turn off their mobile phones.
After the starting drum beats, contestants unlatch the cages to release their flock of birds, which spiral upwards. Each team consists of eight birds and a race can include hundreds of pigeons. Well-trained birds circle three times before vanishing from sight. They will fly up to a height of three kilometers, then head for home. Down on the ground, people watch their progress, cheering on the birds who are making good progress and bemoaning those that get off course. When they set off, the birds resemble messengers bound for Heaven bearing human prayers. Perhaps this touching vision explains why rural people in northern Vietnam have pursued this pastime for generations.
Each bird is identified by a series of drum beats. By listening to the drum beats, the jury knows each team’s position overhead. The four best teams win prizes. The owners of the winning flocks are showered with admiration and receive a cash reward and a red ribbon, tied to their birdcages. These red ribbons are an ongoing source of pride.
Watching pigeons spiral higher and higher before vanishing into the blue sky, onlookers feel a sense of ease and wonder. This elegant hobby has a long history in Vietnam’s rural north, a region known for its lush bamboo hedges, ethereal lullabies and golden paddy fields.