In Vietnam, things are not always what they seem – Part 1 – The Birdhouse


I’ve moved to Đà Nẵng, a lovely and bustling city on the mid-coast of Vietnam, roughly half-way between Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon/ HCMC) and the capital, Hanoi. I found a teaching job fairly quickly at VAS (the Vietnam-Australia School), and when I was sure this is the place I wanted to be, I started looking for a place to live. Having lived in hotel rooms and bed and breakfasts for nearly 2 months, I wanted a bit of space, where I wouldn’t spend the days and evenings sitting on my bed, with my laptop balanced on my legs, where I would be able to cook my own meals when I wanted to, and make my own tea and coffee. But the biggest challenge in Vietnam is to find a place that’s not right next to a construction site, with jack hammers going 12 or more hours a day.

When I came across an apartment on the 2nd floor of a small block, in a quiet back lane near the beach with lots of locals around, and not surrounded by expat high rises, I snapped it up. One of the things I especially noticed was the birdsong, which is not common in Vietnamese cities, and the large number of small birds flying around the vicinity. It seemed all very promising.

After a rocky start, when nothing, and I mean nothing, worked in the apartment, I eventually settled in and am very happy with the place and especially the lovely area. I’m a 2 minute run to the beautiful My An beach, a 1 minute run to the local gym, and a 5 minute stroll to some great coffee shops and cafes. Plus the motorbike ride to school is only 10-15 minutes. Good choice, and I was enjoying the bird song.

Early on, I opened all the windows to let the cool sea breeze give me some natural aircon, when in flew 3 small birds, circling the living room  at enormous speed and depositing droppings on the walls. This happened a couple of times before I realised why the previous occupants hung makeshift curtains across the open windows – to discourage exactly this eventuality.

I thought not much more of it, until last weekend when I had a much appreciated visit from fellow ex-TESOL students: Gaby and Nicholas who came by train from Hue, and Victoria who flew up from HCMC. Walking back from the beach one evening with Victoria, I mentioned the bird incident and  the fact that the birds seemed particularly attracted to the strange-looking apartment block just nearby. We observed that the apartment had no proper windows, no balcony and generally looked more like a bunker than an apartment. Then Victoria suggested it might be a “bird house” – a place built to attract swiftlets in order to harvest their nests for bird’s nest soup.


Victoria was right. The bird song which attracted me to the apartment is actually a recording of swiftlets, pumped out through a loudspeaker, to lure the birds to the birdhouse, where they will then build their nests. The nests are harvested to make a medicinal soup. The bird saliva is said to have great healing powers. Nests can fetch up to $2,000 per kg, which is big, big money in Vietnam.


Now that I know the bird song is a recording, it somehow doesn’t seem quite the same. In Vietnam, what you see and hear, is often not be quite what it seems to be.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2016 except for dried bird’s nest pictured from Pho Yen, 86-88 Ham Nghi Street, District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, Asia Life Magazine as per link.


10 thoughts on “In Vietnam, things are not always what they seem – Part 1 – The Birdhouse

  1. Really enjoyable, Mike, to get a picture of your life. I hope there’s a lot of terrific writing coming out of this time. I’m looking forward to it.

  2. That is a great little read, Mike. I think it was William Faulkner who wrote of Alexandria that beneath the visible city teemed many other cities. For visitors it is hard to find them. We rarely know what to look for or where to look. But living in a place and allowing yourself to sink into it allows it to reveal aspects of itself to you. Such revelations are often unexpected: things really are not what they first seem. It’s such a lovely thing to share such revelations with us. I look forward to more.

  3. Good morning Mike and love the post. You always make your stories so appealing and could finish with an axe murder but you engage us so easily.

    Other than the poor bird trap, I do like the sound of your life and where you are living, cycling, gyming. Keep soaking up the culture and freedom from the everyday humdrum.


  4. This is so interesting, Mike. And how wonderful to hear more about your adventures – it really sounds like an amazing place. Hope you’re finding time to write, too. I’m looking forward to hearing The Vietnam Verse when you get back.

  5. Hi Mike, I love your Swiftlet storey. I guess that’s where the saying Birds of a feather spit together came from? Also loved some of these lines from your BIRD’S NEST IN VIETNAM link:-
    -A taste for nests made from swiftlet spittle
    -other varieties of swifts whose slobbery secretions aren’t so coveted.
    -people were spelunking across the region to feed the lively nest trade.
    -it “is spawning a cottage industry
    -the drooly concoction
    Keep up the great work mate! Cheers James

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