From the third to fifth months of the lunar calendar every year, bird lovers in the north gather at different venues for a spectacular dove-flying competition.
Pigeons representing peace are meticulously trained for the competition
Contesting flocks are released into the sky and scored for elegance, beauty and strength. Those displaying tight formations, grace, and style in flight are declared the winners and their trainers win the coveted “Talented Person” title. As for prizes, the winner gets a cigarette packet.
The contest dates back to centuries ago when kings of the Ly Dynasty traditionally released birds as part of a Buddhist ceremony to liberate sentient beings in the famous one-pillar pagoda in Ha Noi.
But from being a religious and royal ceremony, it has transformed into a fun activity for the public, reflecting their love for freedom and peace and presenting bird trainers and ornithologists the opportunity to display their skills in raising, taming, and training pigeons.
As the contest is held at the same time as other traditional festivals and when the weather is windy and sunny -- perfect for flying birds -- this exciting activity has truly taken root.
People from faraway places pour in with their cages. Others simply bring food to eat while watching the competition held in an area stretching from the Thien Duc river banks (now the Duong River) to Vinh Phuc and Bac Ninh Provinces. The contest is also held in Ha Tay Province near Ha Noi.
Not about speed
Dove-flying contest such as this in Ha Noi attracts massive public interests
A spacious area without tall trees to obstruct the spectators’ and judges’ view is chosen. Most ideal are the yards around communal houses near large ponds from where observation is easy.
Only doves are chosen and not other species since they can find their way back home even when injured or in stormy weather. They are also social animals that live in flocks.
Based on such attributes, several criteria are set for judging the contest. If the birds fly in tight, evenly-spaced formations, their turning curves pleasing to the eye and maneuvers graceful, they are likely to win. The race is long and only when the birds become tiny dots in the sky do they return to complete a lap.
To have strong doves that can ward off adversaries, a trainer has to handpick the birds before methodically and rigorously training them to form a cooperating flock.
According to trainers, they must have protruding, tight and muscular chests, large wing spans, small legs, slender necks, and small pupils to be able to withstand strong winds and dazzling sunlight.
Experience shows that doves with a small brown tuft on the neck tend to have greater stamina during flight and be good at leading a flock. But they are also choosy when it comes to accepting new members.
After dozens of birds are selected, they are trained to fly back and forth from home. Weak or unruly ones are taken off the group. Food presents a daunting task. They cannot be served too much unhusked rice since it will make them fat and heavy, or too little since this might emaciate them.
The jury cannot enter their doves and is divided into groups that judge different periods of flight. For instance, one group will focus entirely on take-off and initial flight while others concentrate on the middle and upper stages.
Minor prizes like a roll of cloth or a pack of cigarettes are announced soon after the event.
As Ha Noi approaches the 1000th anniversary of its foundation in 1010, when King Ly Thai To moved the capital there, preserving and developing this unique dove-flying contest is of cultural and historical importance.