The routine has remained unchanged for 30 years.
|Nguyen Thi Tim, 72, feeds wild sparrows and owns a very tiny tea stall. — VNA/VNS Photos Hung Voby Quang Vinh|
At daybreak, 72-year-old Nguyen Thi Tim picks up a few handfuls of grain and scatters them under a large Senegal mahogany tree that stands in front of her small, typical street-side tea stall.
On cue, wild sparrows descend and begin a pecking frenzy, charming early customers, many of whom are regulars.
Tim began this unique tradition when her husband passed away, leaving her with three small daughters to bring up. Two daughters still live with her and off the small tea-stall at the corner of BaTrieu Street and To Hien Thanh Street.
Joining her mother in throwing a handful of paddy, the daughter answered on Tim's behalf a question on whether it was costly to feed the wild birds everyday: "expensive or not has nothing to do with feeding them."
Pointing at the nylon bag of paddy hung on the pavement's railing, Tim said the food must be readily available to feed the birds because she feels uneasy when they go hungry.
"How can you know when they are hungry?"
"They call out loudly for food."
As she talked, birds perched above on electric wires and tree branches waited for a group of passers-by to cross the feeding area and then dived down in droves.
As the birds jumped around and pecked, Nguyen Van Dung, 50, another Ha Noi native and regular customer, took out his smart phone to capture the moment.
Praising the old woman's good heart, he remarked that that she was doing was "a simple thing, but not something everyone can do, or is willing to do, or can succeed in doing."
Inspired by her success, many people, including her relatives, have tried to do the same thing, scattering paddy in the yards of their homes, but the birds have stayed away.
Dung said Tim is the only wild bird feeder he has seen in the neighborhood. However, there are other Hanoians who also show their kindness to animals and an inclination to living in harmony with nature, he said.
"Just a stone's throw from her home in the Old Quarter, there is another old woman who everyday asks for bread crumbs and stale bread from nearby restaurants to feed the fish in the Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake."
He is grateful for such people, Dung said, adding that they help preserve a precious little piece of old Ha Noi.
"Decades ago, I would wake up every morning to birds singing, but this rapid urbanisation and population growth has made this rare. We can no longer hear birds sing in trees."
Dung was also angry about what he said was a trend among city youth – hunting wild birds in tree-lined streets. This had driven many birds away, he said.
"The young think that the more modern their bird-hunting gun is, the more stylish they are. It has become an ostentatious display of wealth."
Tim said that until a few years ago, the mahogany tree used to be home to a flock of wild fowl large as the palm of a human hand. The birds' droppings had covered the area below in white, she said.
"But since some young hunters came and shot at them, the birds have been scared away," she said with evident sadness.
Tim and her two daughters take turns to keep the tiny stall open day and night. All they sell is tea, some snacks and cigarettes. Tim takes charge during the day and the two girls cover the night shift.
She has met no hindrance to feeding the birds first thing in the morning, Tim said.
"The street cleaner never complains. She is happy to see the birds and so are the local police.
"They are present here almost all day and all year round in the surrounding trees or on the electric wires but most crowded in the afternoon," she said, adding that she has no idea why it is so.
She also said that she misses the birds when she returns from the stall and retires for the night.
Recently, Tim has seen that her beloved sparrow family has expanded with the addition of four strange rock sparrows, smaller in size than the original. She does not know where they have come from.
"They could be lost birds or escaped from someone's cage," she surmised.
For Dung, the image of the slow-moving old woman feeding hundreds of birds is therapeutic. It offers peace and continuity in a fast-changing Ha Noi landscape.
"When I was at a park in Bangkok, I was surrounded by pigeons there. They perched on my shoulders and hands.
"I would love my Ha Noi – which we proudly call a City of Peace – to have more people like Tim so that the city becomes more livable and attractive for everyone, for us and for international tourists."