South of Hanoi, there is a quiet village where everyone makes birdcages. Past the skeleton of the future metro rail, east down another dusty highway, tucked away off the main road, Canh Hoach is a maze of old bricks and pastoral air.
Famous for its craftsmanship, bird breeders from all over the country come to the village for made-to-order cages. It’s estimated that some 80% of families here produce birdcages for a living, which has proven to be much more lucrative than the village’s previous crafts — lanterns and bamboo fans.
There’s not a lot to do here, so don’t turn up expecting a party. It’s more the place you go to wander when you need a reminder of why you love this country. There’s bamboo everywhere — leaning against the walls, piled high in the sun, or resting in a teepee formation, waiting to be carved up and curled.
Glued to the Job
From the main road, there’s a pagoda on a tiny pond, and a large grey archway to the left. We turned under the arch, walked blindly down an alley, and followed it to a corner house. Through the open door, we could see a woman patiently applying glue to a half-finished birdcage.
The porch of her house had become a workshop. Finished cages were stacked along the wall. A man sat in the corner at an old sanding machine, grinding and polishing. We watched as the woman finished gluing, then lit a small fire on the ground and gradually moved the cage back and forth through the flame to set the resin.
“VND200,000,” she said to us. But the cages were too big, and we didn’t have any birds anyway. We wandered back into the alley maze. I spotted the spire of an old cathedral, and we passed several more birdcage workshops until the alley opened up into a large courtyard.
I’m always drawn to old churches. As I slipped through the gate, I heard the faint sound of chanting, drifting through the open door. A woman in a conical hat entered the courtyard from the other side, saw me, and waved toward the entrance.
We stepped into the dark foyer and she took off her hat, placing it in a pile of others, and took her place in the pews with the other women. I tried to hang back, to not intrude, but she turned around and motioned me to an empty seat nearby.
I slid onto the hard wooden bench, next to an ancient woman who was singing fervently. She clutched a paperback hymnal held together with tape at the seams, her wrinkled fingers tracing the words as she chanted. I didn’t know the words, so I folded my hands in my lap and let my eyes drift across the ornate golden altar in front of us. It was 10 minutes before I realised that I was wearing a t-shirt with Satan printed on it, and silently excused myself.
Outside again, the sun was blazing, but in the distance, the sky began to darken. After weaving through the alleys for a while, riding alongside groups of children cycling to school, and passing through the village pagoda, we emerged in a field of rice. The wind made the most serene rustling sound as it blew through the stalks, carrying the scent of coming rain. That was our cue, so we put on our ponchos and headed back to the city.
Take Tay Son south out of Hanoi, turn left onto the QL21B and drive about 17km until you see the pagoda and grey archway to your left. Bonus: after 5km on QL21B, take the dyke road left just before the river, it’s much more scenic.