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Leaping lizards keep customers entranced

Update: November, 29/2010 - 16:55

Reptilian: Pet Club creates a relaxing atmosphere for clients to study the wildlife. — VNS Photos Doan Tung
Cafe residents: (Top to bottom) yellow lizards, an African python, a tarantula, the South American salamander.
by Trung Hieu

On their first trip to Pet Club on Ha Noi's Kham Thien Street, clients may have the impression they are entering a "dim-light cafe", which is slang for a dark place for lovers or prostitution.

Wallpaper decorated in a forest theme covers the walls and a number of wood decorations surround the dimly lit room. Animals peek out of glass cages lining the walls to give customers the feeling of entering a strange forest.

Visitors to Pet Club expecting to find cute, cuddly pets like puppies will be surprised at the creatures they meet here, which include big lizards, snakes and pythons, venomous tarantulas, salamanders and iguanas from Australia, South America and Africa.

Pet owner Nguyen Minh Nghia, 28, graduated from the Mining and Geology University but has made a life for himself as a businessperson.

His friends call him "Nghia Salamander" because of his great love for reptiles.

"I have loved animals since I was a little boy. I began raising reptiles five years ago, when a friend was so busy that he asked me to help care for his salamander," Nghia says.

Since then, Nghia has visited Thailand, Singapore, Australia and China in search of snakes and salamanders to add to his collection.

"Today, I have a collection of 17 reptiles. They are very important to me, they are my friends."

"Reptiles are easy to raise, feed and care for," he says. "But for beginners, raising reptiles is not a walk in the park. You have to read a lot of information to master the rearing process."

Nghia says he has carefully chosen reptiles that are suitable with Viet Nam's environment and climate.

"I had to study a lot to ensure these animals from around the world could adapt to life in Viet Nam," says Nghia.

He carefully evaluated each species to determine their ideal living environments, temperature requirements, preferred lighting and food.

After only six to eight months of training, Nghia says, reptiles become mild mannered and harmless to people.

"One of the secrets is that you should know how to hold reptiles tenderly in your hands so they will not be afraid and react defensively. The cafe is always dim because many of the reptiles are sensitive to light."

In order to make the strange animals accessible to people, Nghia spent a lot of time building holes in the walls to act as cages. He installed steel frames and added wood walls to the holes to make the cages comfortable, then added equipment such as light systems and glass to create humidity and air suitable for each species.

His efforts have created homes for each of the animals that are close to their natural environments, with plants, soil and rocks that help them feel at home. The cafe's clients are special: They are not only people who love decorative animals, but are young people who are curious and want the chance to see strange animals they might not be able to see anywhere else.

Slippery: A visitor handles a milky snake.
One customer, Nguyen Quang Thi, says the cafe is interesting.

"I often bring my children here on weekends so they can learn about animals they usually only see in textbooks. Looking at live animals is a unique way of educating people about nature."

Customer Nguyen Binh Minh, 22, says she loves both the atmosphere and the reptiles.

Holding a large, yellow salamander, she tenderly fondles it and says: "I have liked him since the first time I came here, but I didn't dare touch him until my second visit. Now my friends joke that he is like my boyfriend.

"I would love to raise reptiles at home, but it takes time to learn about them. Since I still don't know much about raising these animals, I opt to come here every now and then to play with the lovely creatures," she says.

Minh says she sometimes goes to the cafe with friends, "but not all my friends are as interested in the animals as I am, they just love drinking coffee".

Nguyen Phuong Duy, 21, allows a tarantula to walk on his hand as he sips on a coffee.

"Tarantulas are dangerous in nature, but this is a hybrid that has no venom. However, you should touch it lightly, because if you hurt it, the spider may react and bite."

"Building a house for a tarantula is not so easy. You need a large cage with a floor that stays humid. More importantly, you should make a shelter that is two or three times larger than the spider itself. The best choice is a rotten tree trunk."

People have strong feelings for some of the other reptiles as well. They are all fairly safe, says Nghia.

"For example, the milky snake is a species of albino snake that is indigenous to northeastern Mexico, and it is not dangerous."

Many customers also like the thorny tailed lizards native to the North African desert. Although they live in a glass cage, they still sunbathe everyday with the special lighting system.

Nghia says he plans to expand.

"One of the reasons I established this Pet Club was to have a place to share my love for reptiles," Nghia says.

"I hope that in the near future, with contributions and sharing from people who have the same passion, this will become an interesting zoo for everyone.

"I hope these special pets will help people further understand and love Mother Nature." — VNS

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