The first rule of Fighting Cock Club is ‘Don’t squawk about F…’ No, actually it’s not clear what the rules are, other than it’s a fight to the death. Even then, some of the small circle of men surrounding this hastily-constructed ring, or cockpit, in Hà Đông district tell us the bout will finish when one of the contenders runs. Run where? you wonder: the blood-spotted ring is fenced in by foam walls, which the baying spectators take turns to hold in place. The cocks themselves don’t look in the mood for running anyway. Their necks may be pecked raw, their feathers filthy, but their tiny eyes burn with animal rage.
It took us a while to find this ‘chợ chọi gà’ (fighting cock market) after asking directions from a few likely lads loitering near the central Hà Đông market. Like many of Hanoi’s ‘less civilized’ attractions, cockfighting has found itself shooed to the margins of city life. Where once you would see feathers fly on the grassy islands between city centre roads, or in the broken umbrella shade of streetside tea stalls, now you need to venture deep into the ‘xóm’, neighbourhoods of narrow alleyways that still shelter traditional Vietnamese life, or to ‘chợ phiên’ like this, market fairs arranged, as in the country, following the lunar calendar.
This market fair has erected itself on the edge of urban wasteland, a familiar Hanoi landscape of half-built houses, fenced-in foundations and weather-warped, faded placards promising a brighter, more bourgeois future: air-conditioned, familial, soft-furnished. Until then, our market offers a motley range of animals for sale: common Vietnamese puppies and kittens squashed into cages or leashed to a pole; crates crammed with fluffy ducklings and goslings; and a solitary ‘gà tây’ (literally, ‘western chicken’) or turkey, like a bird from another planet with its drooping, fleshy snood. Near the cockpit, twenty or so men squat on plastic stools in the shade, each cradling, petting, bathing or feeding their own fighter.
Augustine of Hippo once wrote of a cockfight, ‘In every motion of these animals unendowed with reason, there was nothing ungraceful since, of course, another, higher reason was guiding everything they did.’ Our two rivals this morning, however, look to have lost patience with that: both stagger and sway between pecks and blows, the mid-morning heat and booming voices of their audience, the stench of blood and feathers, turning this bout ugly. A break is called, and the birds are swept out of the ring: five minutes for each owner to pet, cajole and feed their warrior’s beak with balls of sticky rice. The noise abates, and there are seconds of tenderness, owners blowing mouthfuls of water under wings, tail feathers, and over battered crowns.
Watered, fed, cherished, the two cocks strut, bob and prance back into the pit. Wallets flip open, cash notes pass from hand to hand, the crowd’s blood and shouts rise: the last round has rung. A swerve, a feint, wings flutter and fly, and something drops to earth like a rock. Half the spectators fall on the fight, and the others spring back, laughing in shock or throwing their hands in the air. One bird emerges the champion, thrust above the crowd of human heads, pride shining in his eyes, ‘cock of the walk’; but behind him, carried underarm, follows his beaten rival, crown lolling from a snapped neck, no longer a warrior, just poultry – inedible at that.
A few steps away, some thirty struts and prances for a gamecock, a new bout has already begun. At least now we know: like every other fight that counts, this one is to the death.
Words: Alex Sheal / Pictures: Colm Pierce