Friday, 23 September 2011

On being a dog-lover in Vietnam

Before I came to Vietnam, I thought that when people said the Vietnamese eat dogs, it was an awful racial slur. It sounded to me like a schoolyard taunt - “They eat dogs, you know” – and a horrible thing to say about anyone. The very worst, actually.

It came as quite a shock then when I realised it was true. I went though a period of denial where I decided that surely – surely – even if you could eat dog here, most people wouldn’t want to, right?

But this delusion was hard to maintain when my colleagues went out for much-enjoyed dog-meat lunches every month.

I then decided that the dogs raised for dog meat must be some very different kind of dog to what I’m used to. Totally unlike any dog I’ve known or loved, right?

They’re not. They’re exactly like the dogs I’ve known and loved. And saying they’re wholesomely “raised” hides the absolute, unspeakable horror of the dog meat trade (that many pet dogs get dog-napped off the street was another thing which I lamely tried to believe was an urban myth for quite some time).

And dog meat doesn’t look like a steak, or a lamb chop. It looks likes a dog. I can quite honestly say it’s the most gruesome thing I have ever seen. When I am taking guests around Hanoi, I always warn them if there’s dog meat up ahead, and give them the option of covering their eyes. Because I sure wish I had never seen it, and didn’t have to see it, over and over again.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to eat dogs, or that it’s hypocritical to eat other animals and not dogs, or that the Vietnamese shouldn’t eat dogs etc. These are all conversations that any foreigner who has lived in Vietnam longer than three weeks gets pretty sick of having. What I’m saying is: I really, really love dogs.

Nothing makes my heart sing like the sight of a big ol’ fluffy dog. Nothing! If you said to me “Puppies or babies?” I’d say “PUPPIEEEEEEES!!” without a moment’s hesitation. 

Other than family dogs, I’ve never actually owned a dog of my own. This is because I love dogs too much. I know that if I got one, it would ruin my life. I wouldn’t be able to leave the house. I would live out my days and nights staring adoringly into its eyes and letting it eat all my socks.

So dog-watching has long been one of my favourite pastimes. This hobby hasn’t been hugely rewarding in Hanoi. There are a lot of dogs in cages, a lot of chained dogs, a lot of dirty dogs (well, it’s hard not to be in Hanoi) and most dogs either look like this:
Or like this:
These aren’t my favourite kinds of dogs, but there have been some winning moments:
 Every time I look at these photos, I yawn.

There’s also an increasing trend for imported dog breeds as a kind of luxury status symbol:
Some of the dogs here are pets, some are guard dogs, some are to be eaten, and some are all three. For example, I watched the neighbours over the road lovingly rear a puppy and then one day when it was fully grown, sell it to a man on a motorbike with a cage crammed full of his furry friends (presumably all about to be killed for meat). That wasn’t a particularly happy day for me.

From my dog watching, it seemed to me that the general attitude towards dogs here was one of indifference. And the dogs seemed to know their place too. They never ask for pats or beg for food or scavenge off street-side tables. Good luck trying to have a picnic in the park in Newtown in the face of sandwich-stealing spaniels, but here in Hanoi, where meat is barbecued right at dog eye-level, no dog would even dare to sniff it.

The only sign I could see of affection towards dogs, and indeed the only sign I could see that Vietnamese people think of dogs as having feelings at all, was in the winter-time, when dogs start appearing in jumpers. Human jumpers:
And then came Tiger:
Tiger is our friend Alnea’s shih-tzu. In her seven years she’s lived in Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and now Hanoi. She likes cats (from a distance) and eating carrots. Also, as I mentioned in last week’s post, mooncakes.

When I first met Alnea, the conversation went like this: 

Alnea: “Hi, nice to meet you.”

See, I love dogs too much.

I terrified Alnea so much that she went on a holiday almost immediately, leaving Tiger in my clutches.

I did check with our landlord first, actually. His name is – I kid you not – Mr Chien. If you have forgotten your highschool French, I will remind you at this point that “Mr Chien” is French for “Mr Dog”.

Mr Chien is a cheery fellow with a big hairy, lucky mole so he said Tiger’s tenancy was fine so long as she was, in his words, “a little fluff dog”.

I can’t describe how it felt to have that little fluff dog running up and down our hall, cuddling up to us on the couch, and bounding up our stairs after her walk. 
For ten days my heart was a little melted puddle.

No surprises there. But here’s the real surprise: the neighbourhood freaking adored her.

As we walked Tiger around our island, old men would rush from their houses, their faces expressing nothing short of rapture as they crouched down to see her in all her cross-eyed under-bitten glory; mothers would bring their children over and force them to stroke her coat; teenage boys would coo over her, and take her photo with their phones.
Everywhere we went we heard cries of beautiful! pretty! cute! clean! and, if we were carrying her, baby! The smiles were infectious: walking her was like one big love fest.

When I took her to the market (holding her in my arms so she didn’t dirty her little paws on the offal juice), the crowd went wild. The hardened, sour faces of the butcher ladies transformed into delight at the mere sight of her. Chi Xuan, our favourite market lady, went what can only be described as ape-shit, as she rubbed her face all over Tiger’s fur, and then suggested I sit Tiger down right on top of all her fruit and vegetables for a better view.

On the way out of the market, I decided to walk past the dog meat section, which I usually carefully avoid. And, yes, the dog meat sellers went gaga for Tiger too, just like everyone else.

What does this mean? I don’t know! Is Vietnam gearing up to be a dog-loving nation, but only towards little fluff dogs? Are Tiger’s charms just simply irresistible?

I recently read in AsiaLIFE magazine an interview with a Vietnamese vet, Dr Nguyen Van Nghia, who had this to say about the Vietnamese attitude to animals:

"When I went to France and England or read books from America, I saw how to love animals. I would see people feed the birds in nature. If an owlet fell from a tree, they – just normal people – would take it to a hospital. I don’t see that here. Even if people love animals they don’t know how to love animals."

First of all: owlet is my new favourite word. Second of all: I think you're right Dr Nghia. People can see that Tiger is obviously such an adored dog that they can't help but adore her too. If an animal (for example, an OWLET!) is shown love, it generates love. I think that most dogs in Vietnam just don't get that chance.

Tiger has been cruelly taken from us now, leaving an adorable little Tiger-shaped hole in our lives. We try to find ways to fill that hole:
But then one night we just really felt like pumpkin soup.


  1. no daschunds in Hanoi, then?

  2. It will not come as a surprise to you dear Tabs that this is my favourite post of yours EVER. And just goes to show that dogs (and perhaps other small cute fluffy mammalia) make the world go round (and go gooey on the inside and apeshit on the outside).

    Perhaps for the Vietnamese it's a case of 'we'll eat you up, we love you so'...

  3. Julie-Anne: Actually there's one or two owned by foreigners that I've seen (aka "stalked"). I'd be very afraid if I had one here: Vietnam really does put the sausage in sausage dog.

    Edyta: I'm looking forward to some quality dog-watching time with you and Buster in January! We'll rank them according to eatability.

  4. Hi,
    I've been reading your blog a while. It's just superb. I'm always impressed by how your love of Hanoi shines through.
    I'm presuming the next post is going to be of you breaking into their house and stealing Tiger back so I'm hoping the Vietnamese Ladies' Prison lets you log in & keep posting.
    I was wondering, do you think the reason everyone loved him was just because of him or because of the way the Tay girl would carry him and talk to him? Do Vietnamese people do that with their own dogs?


    1. No, special breeds are eaten. Like the USA, meat animals are stratified: Some are for pets, some are for meat. Most aren't going to say "Wow Fido looks delicious let's eat him tonight" any more than people in the west with pet pigs do that to Babe.

    2. I don't agree about the stratification. It is not a regulated market, so you have dognappers stealing any dog they can get their hands on, indiscriminate of breed or pet-status:

      Also, street dogs are rounded up in Laos and Thailand and sent to Vietnam to be eaten. These are not some kind of special "meat dog". They're just dogs:

      Whether people eat their own "pet" dogs, well, I guess that's a case-by-case thing. I know several Westerners scarred by their family eating the "pet" rabbit or the "pet" lamb, so I guess it can happen anywhere!

  5. Martin: Thanks for your comment! I think you're right to say that it wasn't Tiger per se that won the locals over (sorry Tiger), but the way that she looked so clean and so cared for, and the way that we were obviously, psychotically, in love with her, chatting to her as she sniffed around, and carrying her over puddles. Most Vietnamese people don't seem to interact with their dogs in this way (I'm sure there are exceptions though).

    Katrina: Thank you. That pumpkin soup was delicious too.

  6. I'm so clucky for a puppy!! This post should be read by everyone thinking of getting one, to remind them what an honour and privilege it is.

  7. In Chile people lovingly raise puppies, dress them in sweaters in winter and take them to the seaside in summer. Then... they LEAVE THEM THERE. Bizarre and heartless behaviour. Packs of dogs roam the country, a mottled crew of random breeds. Some are re-adopted, some become street dogs... but (apart from abandonment issues) they seem happy enough, people feed them and pat them when they trot by.

    They still have a much, much better life than Vietnamese dogs.

    And I would quite happily adopt them all :)


  8. The pumpkin!! Awww....

  9. I think for Vietnamese, most dogs are raised to be house guard and meat supply, and we do not have a definition of a dog as a pet. So eating dogs does not make us feel guilty. But I can understand how you, Tabitha get mad seeing Vietnamese eating dogs, because as I see in America, people take care of their dogs just like their children, sometimes even more.

  10. Overtly sentimental affections for dogs used to be the exclusive affliction of the bourgeois nobles of Europe, which then spreaded to the merchant class and the gentry class when the last two seeked to emulate the former; the plebes were too busy eking out hard scrappled hand to mouth existences to have frou frou feelings for the four legged kinds.

  11. Lani: Your comment conjures up an image of dogs in sweaters, roaming free at the seaside! Awesome! But I think you're right: most stray dogs around the world at least have a better life than Vietnamese dogs.

    Suzy: Weirdly, the pumpkin actually looked quite a lot like Tiger! And I did have to turn the eyes away from me when I cut it up. Oh dear.

    Huyen: Thanks for your comment. Really loving the insights in your blog on the USA. And a great post on dogs, which is here if anyone hasn't seen it:

    Robert: I completely agree that it's a luxury to be overly sentimental towards animals. But humans and dogs made a contract of co-operation many thousands of years ago that they would protect us and work for us, if we fed them and cared for them. There's a great article about the relationship between dogs and humans here:

  12. I've watched "Nature: Dogs That Changed The World", a PBS television program that offered very insightful looks into the evolution of the relationship between humans and dogs. Furthermore, my father's side of the family follows Caodaism, a religion which enshrined human-dog compact in a tenet that forbade its adherents from eating a dog's meat because he's been assigned by God to be man's faithful guardian of home and hearth.
    Traditionally, a majority of southerners do not eat dogs, so much so that habit's associated with northerner; more specifically, Catholic northerners, because a large number of them moved to the south when the country was demarcated in 1954.
    On the eighth day man ate the family dog, and it was good!
    Since we're nitpicking, I feel I should add my personal theory as to why 'thit cho' consumption is more prevalent in the north: historically, that part of Vietnam's proned to famines(the latest one occurred in 1945) due to wars, pestilences and the likes, necessitating the addition of creative items to the people's menus-there are times when humans have to simply eat to live. This may also come accross as a bit maniacal, but I think the superstitions surrounding dog meat's consumption and its elevation to delicacy status may have borne out of a subsconscious urge to pay tribute to the dog's role as saviour in dired time of needs. If you care enough to look, there are many ancient carvings of stone dogs guarding temples, village gates, and a few old houses in Hanoi and else where in northern Vietnam.
    BTW, my neighbor's poodle has been yelping non-stop as I'm typing this, causing dark and delicious thoughts to form alternately in my mind. Poodle pumpkin stew...Mmm...Mmm!

  13. I had an ongoing joke with a Phillipino friend re dog meat - she once offered to bring me in a Phillipino food treat, my response? "So long as it's not dog meat!", we kept the gag going for about a year or so (luckily she has a great sense of humour!)

  14. Let's put the culinary question aside; the dirty thing is that all the dogs are not only raised for their meat BUT there is a big mafia behind poaching/steeling them, importing/transporting them from surrounding countries in a cruel way and preparing/killing them like heartless/bloodless people. This is an ongoing matter and expending because the demand is increasing. Want to read more about this cruelty: Google or see only the following blog:
    Last night the Thai authorities caught again a mafia-transport with 800 dogs which is only a very small part of the thousands and thousands passing the Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese borders! A SHAME!

  15. The Vietnamese people are missing out on so much by eating dogs instead of loving them and receiving love from dogs. I just lost my 12 year old Westie and believe me dogs are much better than people in so many ways. The Vietnamese should stick to eating fish. This is such a shame it has killed my desire to ever visit Vietnam and I will probably never go to a nail salon here in the US, now mostly owned and operated by Vietnamese. I know it is part of their culture, but I'm sorry it is disgusting to do this to such loving and loyal creatures. But then we are talking about countries that have big problems with child prostitution and child slavery. Such a shame.

    1. .. O_O
      It's your business if you don't want to visit Vietnam, but what do the actions of some in Vietnam have to do with all Vietnamese people so that you apparently won't even patronize the businesses of Vietnamese-Americans? How bizarre. So I should never patronize American businesses because Jeffrey Dahmer killed and cannibalized a ton of people?

  16. As much as I am against all the dog meat "industry," mostly because of the way they slaughter the dogs and because dog meat really doesn't taste good to me (I tried a small bite many years back), this over-sentimentalism is highly double standard. Look at the way cows and pigs and chickens are treated and slaughtered in the West (watch Meet Your Meat and Farm to Fridge and the like). I commit to vegetarianism because of it, and I actually have much less qualm about those occasional bowls of chicken or beef noodle in Vietnam because most Vietnamese chickens and cows are happy running around on the green green hills, which Western chickens are cows are definitely missing.

    I could also say that many of you are missing out on so much by eating chickens instead of loving them and receiving love from them, because I have, and little chicks are just so damn cute. My heart broke to pieces when our chickens died. Same with pigs, cows, and sheep (think Bebe, think Heidi). It is disgusting to slaughter animals the way we're currently doing it in the West to such loving creatures.

    Vietnamese should stick to eating whatever that keeps them alive, and thanks to Robert for giving us a very interesting historical reference on why they eat dogs. Live through 1945 in North Vietnam and tell me how you will turn away from that random dog running on the street.

    This comment is not directed towards Tabitha but at those who condemn Vietnamese culture for eating dog meat. Despite how much I'm not a big fan of many things Vietnamese (which I have good justification for), that last post just reeks racism.

    1. Thanks to everyone for your comments.

      I agree with Unknown that while I personally don't like the dog meat industry, it's in many ways no worse than the meat industries in most other countries. Pigs are widely regarded as being as intelligent, affectionate and as emotionally developed as dogs, and yet they're treated horrifically the world over.

      And I do think there are better ways to express your love of dogs than through boycotting Vietnamese businesses. Animals Asia has a great welfare program for cats and dogs that you can check out, and support, here:

  17. I'm so sorry about everything in VietNam that makes you a terrible day.Eating dog is a long-standing tradition, it's hard to break. but we young generation feel the same way as you do, we love animals, especially dogs and cats,-man's bestfriends. As i know, there has been a sharp decrease in eating dog recently. I believe someday there'll be no case of eating dogs . By the way, i love your blog. the topics are fantastic. Keep up your work. thanks so much. You really make my day

  18. A quote from this post was used in a controversial article by Joel Brinkley that was just published on 1/29 by the Chicago Tribune online. He wrapped up the essay with your comment, "I can quite honestly say it's the most gruesome thing I have ever seen.", referring to Vietnam and dog meat.,0,5193782.column

    I'd say his use of your comment, unattributed, was out of context and as ridiculous as the rest of his article. In fact the Tribune is now embarrassed about having published it at all!

  19. I just stumbled upon your blog while Googling "eating dogs in Vietnam" and love your style. I, too, am an unapologetic dog lover (picked one up in Thailand) who describes things as "ape shit." Great post.

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  21. Currently on Cat Ba island in Vietnam. There are some streetdogs here that are so neglected that I feel sick to my stomach. One of them was so skinny you could see its skeleton. Rib bones sticking out. Fuck. It feels hopeless not being able to do anything. There's no animal rescue group in this part of the world. I felt sick every time I saw it. Decided to buy it some meat - even though a small meal wouldn't save its life - I just wanted to do something to lessen my guilt of being human. As an aspiring vegan, I didn't want to order meat to feed it (here they'll walk out the back and find whatever animal you order and slaughter it - yesterday some people at the hotel restaurant next to us, ordered some chicken for breakfast and a few minutes later a guy comes walking through the lobby with LIVE CHICKENS headed straight for the kitchen - ugh! Poor things! )
    Anyway, I found a joint selling kebab and sausages - already dead, but just as bad I guess - and bought some. Of course the skinniest dog which we saw every day was gone, so I gave it to another sorry looking poor pup. Ughhhhh! Fuck. Wish there was more to do. How can the people who live here not care? I dont know whats worse - no street dogs on mainland because they just catch them and eat them VS. dogs starving to death.
    Terrible. But the neglection of animals by humans doesnt only apply to dogs (they are probably the most loved animal by humans) just look at the meat industry. How few fucks are given.. people are like "I can't be perfect, I like meat so I'm just not going to give a fuck and forget that what I'm eating actually is a carcass."
    Ughhh. Humans.


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