In Vietnam, where the average income is $151 a month, Mai Vu and husband David Nguyen routinely spend $250 on edible bird's nest.
The couple accounts for the soaring appetite among Vietnam's young and upwardly mobile population for one of the world's most expensive foods, congealed saliva of Asian swiftlets. The country's expanding middle class hungers for healthy food. Bird's nest is believed to ward off diseases and feeds a growing demand for luxury products.
"It's one of the most valuable products one can give to those who have everything," said Vu, 28, who works at an international bank in Hanoi and was shopping for bird's nest for her toddler daughter at a new, upscale mall. "You want to impress people."
The demand for bird's nest, once reserved for emperors and their courts, has created a global market with annual revenue as high as $5 billion that caters to Asia's growing wealthy consumers, said Tok Teng Sai, president of the Federation of Malaysian Bird's Nest Merchants Association. Vietnam is racing to catch up with Malaysia and Indonesia, the region's top producers of the delicacy, and cash in on the demand.
"People have a lot of money now, especially people in China," Tok said.
Caviar of the East
Known as the "caviar of the East," edible nests sell for $1,000-$1,500 per kilogram wholesale and about $2,500 per kilogram retail, according to Le Danh Hoang, founder of Ho Chi Minh City-based NutriNest.
"A lot of people are making a ton of money," said Loke Yeu Loong, group managing director of Malaysia's Swiftlet Eco Park, which produces an array of bird's nest-based products, from coffee to skincare, and is targeting the Middle East as a new market.
Indonesia produces about 70 percent of the world's bird's nest, followed by Malaysia with 20 percent, Tok said.
In Vietnam, demand for bird's nest is spawning a cottage industry that has attracted investment from VinaCapital Group Ltd., the nation's largest fund manager, and helping mint new millionaires. Provincial governments are also jumping in to set up bird's nest production zones to spur jobs and exports.
In mid-2011, VinaCapital invested $7.5 million in a bird house in central Vietnam with about 100,000 birds, one of the nation's largest, said Dang Pham Minh Loan, VinaCapital's deputy managing director. The firm recently increased its stake to 65 percent in the company, Yen Viet Joint Stock Co., which is expanding into bird's nest porridge with the aim of capitalizing on Vietnam's growing health-foods market, she said.
"Chinese and Vietnamese are the top consumers of bird's nest," Loan, who is also chief executive officer of Yen Viet, said in an e-mail. "They have a very strong belief it can deliver a lot of health benefits, especially anti-aging and improvement to the immune system."
The edible nests are as much as 70 percent protein, one reason aristocracy has consumed the delicacy for thousands of years, according to Massimo Marcone, an associate professor of food science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Some Vietnamese say bird's nest has other powers, including keeping bodies youthful for decades.
Vietnam's bird's nest industry, estimated to generate $200 million in revenue a year, is increasing as much as 25 percent annually, Loan said.
Concrete, four-story structures replicating the natural coastal cave habitat of the birds have been erected across Vietnam among paddy fields and neighborhoods to capitalize on the boon. After an initial investment of $70,000 to $500,000 to build a bird structure, and monthly costs of about $50, a successful house can earn its owners as much as $1 million annually, said Hoang, who founded a Ho Chi Minh City-based bird's nest business as a college student in 2005 and now advises provincial governments on the industry.
Hoang's company operates eight bird houses and 13 retail stores. He also sells material needed to set up a structure and make birds feel at home -- including swiftlet feces that's smeared on floors and sound systems that play recordings of swiftlets chirping.
There is no guarantee that investing in a bird house will pay off, Hoang said. Many structures fail to attract birds and there is the danger disease could hit a bird house, Hoang said.
"It's a fairly high-risk industry," he said.
In coastal Phan Rang Tham Cham city, officials are working on a plan to expand the province's bird nest industry to 2.8 million birds by 2020, said Le Trong, head of the city's economic development.
The largest bird nest house in the province now generates about $50,000 of bird's nest monthly, he said.
In 2011, China banned edible nests from Malaysia after authorities discovered high levels of nitrate in them. Loke of the Swiftlet Eco Park attributed the problem to traders who used processes involving bird droppings and other chemicals to color the nests red, considered by many Chinese as the most nutritious.
In Malaysia, "the whole industry collapsed" as a result, Loke said. Tok expects the ban to end soon as China and Malaysia establish nitrate testing procedures.
In Vietnam, which was not affected by the ban, the bird's nest industry is just taking off.
"The technological barrier is low," said Hoang, who knows of one street in Ho Chi Minh City with 20 different bird's nest brands. "Companies spring up like mushrooms."