“Can you think of a food item beginning with ‘D’?”.
We’re playing Stop the Bus in class today. It’s a game where you are given a letter of the alphabet and have to try to find examples of words beginning with that letter. If your letter is ‘L’ and the subject is animals, you may, for example, say ‘Lion’. One young man pops his hand up among the excited chatter of his teammates.
“Yes?” I ask.
“Dog meat”. The entire class erupts into laughter. The young man is wiping away the tears from his face. The stereotype has been perpetuated. And it’s cool, even hilarious, to joke about it.
** for info on teaching in Vietnam, click here **
In 2013 the Vietnamese government stated there were 10 million dogs in the country. From these, millions are incorporated into the dog meat trade every year. There is a very real appetite for dog in Vietnam, especially amongst the wealthy and on special occasions.
“It is believed to make you strong,” says Lam, a friend and coworker of mine. “Some people are very traditional”.
When asked if he ever ate dog, Lam shuddered and said “No way”.
Thit cho (dog meat) is the horror and strange fascination of many foreigners. The novelty of it stems from our cultural history of keeping canines as close companions. Man’s best friend, in our Western world, is given a special place in the animal kingdom, securely kept in the realm of the human domain.
For generations of Vietnamese people, particularly in the north, dog meat is as normal as chicken or beef. Thus the ethical debate surrounding dog meat is a tricky one. We cringe at the thought of dog for dinner, but it’s traditional here, simple fuel with nutritional benefit.
The problem for many is not solely the act of eating dog, but the way it is prepared. There is a belief in some regions that the more a dog suffers when it is being prepared to be eaten, the better it will taste. While this isn’t standard practice, it happens enough to upset some folks.
While the dog trade on the Vietnamese black market is worth millions of pounds, with much theft and cruel handling the issue for many activists, there is a shift in attitudes happening in Saigon. More and more people are starting to keep canines as pets. The laughter from my students and the shudder from my coworker signal a change in the modern, 21st Century Saigonese youth. To them dogs are friends, not food.
As Vietnam has grown richer, more and more people are keeping dogs as pets. Most of these, as I’ve seen, tend to be little miniature dogs that can be easily picked up and mollycoddled. Shitzus, Highland Terriers and Chihuahuas. There’s nothing cuter than watching a Vietnamese family sit and dote on a pooch, sitting at their doorways and chatting to their neighbours whilst Fido gets bellyrubs.
Pet dogs are lavishly doted upon here, to the extent of excess. They are the centre of many a large family’s attention, handled every five minutes (especially if there’s children around). They are often wrapped up in silly little sweatshirts that make them look like furry, four-legged old men. They are the wee teddy bears of the family, spreading cuteness and joy like barking elves.
A big issue for many dog owners is theft. Thousands of pet dogs are stolen every year, snatched from their doorways and from the hands of their owners.
In this land of motorbikes, a quick getaway is easy as pie. One man drives while another man grabs, making fast money from the relocation of someone’s beloved pet. It’s a sad fact and a very real risk that affects many a Saigon dog’s lifestyle.
You will almost never see someone taking a dog for a walk in Ho Chi Minh City. Pooches are often kept either inside the house or at their doorways, under the watchful eyes of their owners. If they need to go potty, it’s always with a family escort. There’s no running around and chasing a frisbee here.
According to News Site Tuoi Tre, last year several people were killed in the midst of an attempted dog theft. Passions run high on both sides – from the thieves who can make a mean living from their capture, and from the owners who fiercely love their pets.
District 7, where the theft is said to have taken place, is one of Saigon’s wealthier areas. The dog owning community here has made efforts to allow themselves to grow. There is a weekly dog walking event at a local park, where like-minded pooch-loving people can gather and let their dogs enjoy some well-earned, rare exercise time. It’s a welcome activity, and an example of the societal change. Decades ago a dog park would have been seen as silly as someone taking a chicken for a walk.
You can spot bigger dogs at the park such as Huskies and Malamutes, who probably are more averse to being cooped up. Although their fur may make them unsuitably dressed for the climate. A former student of mine kept a Malamute in his airconditioned apartment. When asked if he often let the brute out of his house, he shot me a grave look and sounded a firm no.
The dog meat trade isn’t the only motivation for dog theft. It is the growing love for dogs, which can coerce owners into forking out unsightly sums to have their dogs returned to them. Ransom, in other words.
According to website Vietnam Pets, dog thieves can make something up to a few months salary from selling a dog back to its owner. There are stolen pet markets on Hoang Hoa Tham and Duong Kim Nguu, amongst several others. The police do little to combat dog theft. So it’s usually up to the owners to source their dogs and buy them back. The advice on the site says to “put on a poker face,” as showing emotion or grief will make the return price of your stolen pooch higher.
One notable dog seller does business near the intersection between Vo Van Tan and Nam Khi Khoi Nghai. Here on most days you can see a group of people displaying puppies. They sit scrambling over each other in cages from the back of a motorbike. It is not uncommon for stolen dogs to be bred to make more dogs to sell. A cute puppy could fetch more money if its cute factor is high.
It’s apparent that pet ownership in Vietnam comes with some risk. Your dog runs the risk of being stolen for ransom money or someone’s dinner. Your dog’s lifestyle may be compromised by this risk, leading them to lead more sedentary, indoor lives.
But the dog owners of Saigon live with these risks. They sure love their pooches. And let me convince you with a real life example.
Our neighbour on Le Van Sy street keeps a Chihuahua. Her name is Su. She is a brown, pot-bellied little thing that can be seen dozing in the doorway in the shade from the sun.
Su was the first creature to greet me when I moved into the house, wagging her tail and barking at the strange rucksacked person that wandered into her territory. I noticed Su had a cast on her left front leg. She had broken it somehow, and her owners had made sure that she was taken to the vet.
Curious as to why their little Chihuahua was yelping so madly, our neighbours popped outside and were delighted to see us.
“Hello!” said one lady. She continued to speak in Vietnamese. To aid my confusion she pointed to the house next door. “Are you moving in?” I’m guessing is what she said through her gestures. I nodded in agreement. Then, as I sett off into my new home, I accidentally trod on Su’s broken paw.
Needless to say, Su has kept a vendetta against me from that day forward.
Every time I roll up to the house on my motorbike she’s lounging there, eyeing me up and growling with a hint of distaste. If I get too close and want to make friends she’ll start barking. Probably the worst first impression I’ve ever made.
Still, I can’t help but admire that little rat dog. She’s had puppies recently. Four bouncing balls of fluff wrapped in those dorky colourful vests. Just like their mama they’ve been led outside, adored by all the neighbourhood kids, chased mailmen, ran into our house followed by an embarrassed looking man from next door. They, like Su, have become part of that community in our little alleyway. Just like many little dogs in the big city of Saigon.