Nguyen Phi Cuong shakes the iron box several times and more than 300 pigeons from different corners of the Notre Dame Cathedral swoop down to eat the rice grains he has scattered on the ground.
Two students feed pigeons near Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City.
For nearly ten years, Cuong and several of his friends have fed the birds with their own money.
There’re now more than 300 of the birds and it costs VND70,000 (US$3.60) a day to feed them 12 kilograms of unhusked rice three times a day.
“I just need to eat less, hang out less to save more than a million dong every month to buy rice for them. I love them like my children,” the 40-year-old told local news website VnExpress.
He recalled that one time, someone had come to his house and asked to buy some of them at VND40,000 each, and he sent the visitor away immediately.
“I’m not raising the birds to sell, I raise them to make the city look beautiful,” Cuong said.
“Many big cities in the world have beautiful herds of pigeons, so why can’t we?”
Cuong has also trained the pigeons to recognize some of his orders.
When he whistles or shakes the iron box, the birds come and eat. When he claps his hands, the birds fly to the roof of the cathedral or the nearby Saigon Central Post Office.
Cuong said a pigeon can live for eight and ten years and they grow very smart from when they are three.
“No matter where they fly to, they will fly back at meal time.”
He was not the first person to do this. He took over the job from two other men. The first one, Ba Le, was a photographer in the area.
Le fed the birds from 1996, but he died in 2002, passing the birds on to his friend Diep, now 60 and also a photographer in the area.
During the bird flu pandemic in 2005, the birds were hunted so they wouldn’t spread the virus and there were only 15 left. That’s when Cuong stepped in.
“After protecting the birds for a while, I discovered they had a place to lay eggs. So I decided to develop the herd,” he said.
A young man named Den, 24, helps Cuong feed the birds for the other meals at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Den came from the Mekong Delta’s Soc Trang Province to HCMC eight years ago. He runs a small drinks shop near the cathedral.
Several workers and students also help once in a while.
Cuong said there’re people who asked to pay him for taking photos with the birds, but he didn’t take the money, so they bought food for the birds instead.
A couple of parents from District 3 usually brings their daughter to feed the birds. “Every time we do this, I clearly see the joy on her face… My daughter’s childhood is closely connected with the birds,” said the girl's father Quoc Cuong.
Bich Loan, 24, who works for a company in District 1, has visited the birds often enough to have her favorite one.
Duc Duy, 19-year-old student at Saigon Technology University, said feeding the birds was fun. “It’s really meaningful starting a day with such an activity. You feel a sense of relief.”
But over the last week, a group of workers have chosen to use the birds as food. They have killed nearly 100 birds, including newly-hatched ones and their eggs.
Cuong said he felt painful and has argued with the workers many times but gained nothing.