Dogs are back on the table in Vietnam

By Viet Tuan, Vo Hai, Phan Anh   September 13, 2018 | 07:20 pm PT
Dogs are back on the table in Vietnam
Dogs bred for human consumption in an abattoir in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh
The debate has been joined yet again. Should we or should we not consume dog meat?

A recent statement by the Hanoi administration calling on residents to refrain from eating dog and cat meat in order to promote a “civilized” image has reignited a debate that shows no sign of being settled any time soon.

“The city wants people to see the value in treating animals humanely,” the statement said.

It has received both support and criticism from prominent citizens and the common man.

Historian Nguyen Ngoc Tien said consumption of dog meat in Vietnam dates back to the French colonial times.

“From 1888, the French banned the consumption of dog meat, as Europeans think they’re cute creatures,” he said. The police even punished those who did, he added.

The ban was lifted in 1936. Food stalls selling dog meat began sprouting up on some of Hanoi’s most iconic streets in the Old Quarter, like Ma May and Hang Luoc.

“People who loved eating dog meat were often from the countryside,” Tien said. He claimed city folks were less likely to eat dog meat because they were influenced by “the French’s civilized culture” back then.

The popularity of dog meat industry exploded around 1973, when street-side bia hoi (Vietnamese fresh beer) stalls became commonplace. Once people realized dog meat went especially well with the beer, the dish became an irreplacable element in every nhau session, where people “drink and feast for no particular purpose,” Tien noted.

He added: “I support the opinion that ‘civilized people don’t eat dog meat.’ Not only will it create a bad image in the eyes of foreigners, but also because dogs are cute and loyal. To kill them for food is just cruel.”

Tien conceded that dog meat was still one of Vietnam’s most beloved dishes, so if Hanoi authorities want people to stop eating it, they would need to be much more persuasive.

Nothing to do with being civilized

Not all scholars agree. Sociologist Trinh Hoa Binh thinks most people just wouldn’t listen.

“It is hard for people to give up on their favorite dish,” he said, adding that eating dog meat has already become one of Vietnam’s culinary identities.

Binh also rejected the notion that Vietnam’s dog meat consumption debate is about “being civilized.” He saw it simply as a cultural difference.

“People from Laos or Thailand... they don’t eat dog meat not because they are more civilized than we are, but because our cultural values are simply different,” he said.

Kangaroos are regarded as Australia’s national symbol, yet people eat them all the time, he noted.

“We should tell people and businesses to not kill dogs and cats ‘brutally,’ and preferably not in public. But we shouldn’t tell people to stop eating dog meat outright. If the meat is cooked properly, food is still food,” Binh said.

Tran Huu Son, vice president of Vietnam’s Folklore Association, agreed with Binh. He said eating dog meat was simply a part of the country’s culture.

“People need to differentiate their feelings towards animals raised as pets and animals raised as food,” he felt.

Imminent ban

Amidst the debate rages, Hanoi authorities are taking the next step. The city now plans to ban the selling of dog meat within its inner districts, like Hoan Kiem, Ba Dinh or Hai Ba Trung.

“The ban is expected to go into effect starting 2021. Since the inner districts garner a lot of international tourists, they are prioritized first,” Nguyen Ngoc Son, head of the city’s Animal Health Department, said Thursday.

In the outer districts, more time would be needed to apply the ban, with residents’ habit of consuming dog meat an obstacle, he said.

He further said that the decision was taken after authorities noticed a shift in Hanoians’ perception regarding dog meat consumption.

“I’ve done surveys myself and found that many students and office workers are letting go of their dog-eating habit,” Son said.

He said the habit was changing not only because several countries and international institutions rejected it, but also because the meat could carry infectious diseases. Moreover, dog meat contains “too much protein,” which is bad for human health, he claimed.

According to official statistics, Hanoi currently has over 1,000 shops where dogs and cats are sold as food, but just 15 where they are sold as pets.

It is also estimated that the city has approximately 500,000 dogs and cats raised at homes. Most of them, 87 percent, are kept for “housekeeping purposes,” while the rest are bred to be sold or consumed as food.

The Vietnamese market consumes an estimated five million dogs per year, second only to China, which eats roughly 20 million.

It has been reported that many of the dogs eaten are stolen pets sold to small, unregulated abattoirs and killed in brutal ways.

Dog theft is rarely treated as a criminal offense in Vietnam, unless they are valued at more than VND2 million (approximately $100).

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