On Eating Dog in Việt Nam

When readers see that “dog meat” is the topic here, I imagine the first reaction, after “ugh”, will be moral indignation. Let me address this first: I choose not to eat dog, but on an intellectual level, I am not for or against the eating of dog. We either eat meat or we abstain.

Brigitte Bardot, protesting the eating of dogs in Korea, told an interviewer that “Cows are grown to be eaten, dogs are not.” However, in Việt Nam, Korea, and a few other places, some dogs are grown to be eaten. And isn’t a cow as valuable a life form as a dog? I feel just as awful about eating a crab after watching it waving its claws around and hearing it breathe little bubbles. I sometimes eat crab, but I hate to be the one to plunge it live into boiling water. I also try to keep my crabs as cold as possible so that they’ll be practically dormant when I cook them, in the hope that they’ll feel less pain.

For me, the biggest line crossed is the often inhumane conditions in which kitchen-bound dogs are raised, transported and prepared. This especially applies to the ones on the black market which, in Việt Nam, come from Laos, Cambodia or from the neighbor’s yard. The proliferation of dognappers is a huge problem in some areas. Not only do people lose their beloved pets but the dog thieves seem to be becoming more brazen and aggressive, leading to the loss of human lives as well as those of the dogs. They often use electric shocks to incapacitate the dogs before capturing them, but sometimes use poisoned meat, which could endanger the health of the people who will be eating it. (Dog meat has also been implicated in a few cases of rabies and cholera in humans, though the cases were not conclusive, as other factors may have been present.)

In his article “Wok the Dog:What’s wrong with eating man’s best friend?” (Slate, Jan. 16, 2002), William Saletan said that “South Korean lawmakers are proposing to legalize, license, and regulate the industry. But guess who’s trying to stop them? The same attack-dog activists who complain about the cruelty of the old methods (of killing the dogs).” He further points out that if anti-dog-meat activists got their way, the ban on consumption of dog meat would result in “keeping the industry underground, unsafe, and inhumane.” So which is more barbaric? Accepting that some people of another culture might view dogs as nutrition and that regulation of the industry might at least bring about more humane treatment of the animals, or insisting on outlawing the practice across the board, thus encouraging black-market trade and the much worse conditions that would come with it?

As I said, I choose not to eat them. I grew up with dogs as pets. However, I’ve sampled dog meat twice. The first time, it was “dog in seven ways” with bia hơi, a beer brewed fresh daily that is popular all over the country.  Although I feel that eating any meat is the same on a moral level, I still felt weird about it, so I didn’t eat much, though I did try each dish. The meat was tougher in some dishes and less so in others. The second time, a year later, I only ate two bites, enough to please my hosts. By that time, I’d read several articles in local newspapers about the horrific ways the dogs are treated, so I was really turned off.

Many Vietnamese are very much against eating dog meat. More do not eat it than do. Women and children generally don’t. It is mainly a dish to eat while drinking beer or rice-based alcohol; not at all something that appears on the family dinner table. That said, it does appear on the table for certain festive occasions in some villages.

A friend who grew up in Sài Gòn recalls her father feeding her dog meat while he was drinking with a group of men. She was only five years old. She became nauseous afterwards. She doesn’t know what caused the illness, but remembers the ferocious scolding her mother gave her father for telling her to eat dog.

A friend from Huế avoids dog meat at all costs. He says it makes him violent, and it does. I can vouch for this. It was the first time I sampled the meat. I tagged along with him and some others to a dog meat specialty restaurant. Neither he nor I had known that this was the destination until we were seated. He likes dogs as pets, and two good-natured dogs share his family home. He ate very little and drank a lot, which was his way of dealing with the situation. I think he only had six bites at most. Afterwards, we went to another drinking establishment, where we had a wider variety of mồi(drinking food). By this time, however, my friend was already too far gone to be much interested in eating. Normally a gentle, soft-spoken person, he picked a nasty fight with his best friend, who had simply told him he should eat something.

We all got up to drag him across the street, away from the roadside beer joint. This made him even angrier, and we all took punches. The next day, he apologized to everyone, saying it was the dog meat that made him so violent. While this may sound like a good excuse for a belligerent drunk, I believed him. Because of the guilt and repulsion he felt over eating a few bites, he drank a lot. Because he had eaten so little, the alcohol affected him worse than it might have otherwise. He was angry with himself and the world for having felt obliged to eat dog. His anger and frustration erupted. That was the last time he ever ate dog and he swears he never will again. His buddies told me he had reacted the same way twice in the past, and that normally he drinks little and is never violent.

The second time I ate this meat was with Hiếu, a friend from Tây Ninh province who has lived in the U.S. for years. We were both in Sài Gòn at the same time, so he invited me along to visit the family of one of his close friends. They showed us the rooms where we would spend the night, and then we ate dinner with them. Afterwards, Hiếu’s friend announced that he had a special treat for us. He ducked out, returning moments later with a bulging bag that emitted wondrous odours of grilled meat.

“Chó ta”, he said.  Literally “our dog”, he meant local Vietnamese dog as opposed to dog from Laos, Thailand or elsewhere. “This is the best kind. They are treated well and the meat is more tender.”

“Yellow dog is best,” said Hiếu, “but some people think that black dog is better.” “Oh, we have a saying to remind us which is better,” said his friend. “Nhất bạch, nhì vàng and so on: white is best, yellow is second.”

As I listened, I thought about the reaction of my buddy in Huế, and all the articles I’d read. I really wasn’t keen on doing a taste-test. My host pushed me to take the first bite. “You are the guest of honour,” he said, “so you should have the first piece.” He filled our beer glasses with Sài Gòn Red and dropped in some ice. “Cheers,” he said, placing a second morsel beside the first one on my plate. I nibbled one and drank some beer. I’d had a minor stomach cramp since eating some guava at an isolated bus station earlier in the day, and now it grew a little worse. My body was offering me the perfect excuse, so I told them I had a stomach ache and wanted to lie down.

Dog meat is consumed all over the country, but it has its biggest following in Hà Nội.  Nhật Tân street and others in the Tây Hồ district feature a number of popular dog meat restaurants often heaving with customers, mostly men, as this protein-rich meat is also considered to be a tonic for the male libido. The restaurants are usually empty during the first half of the lunar month and crowded during the second half, since eating the meat at this time is said to bring good luck and end runs of bad luck. In Hà Nội and Sài Gòn, whole roasted beasts  displayed outside the restaurants make them easy to find.

In Huế it isn’t so popular, perhaps in part due to the high percentage of Buddhists. The places that serve it are much less obvious; one has to look out for the signs announcing “thịt chó”.

Thịt chó goes by several other names, all euphemisms. “Thịt cầy” simply means dog meat for eating, the same way we say “beef” when we talk about cow meat. The dog as an animal is called con chó, while a dog raised for eating might be called con cầy. In the Vietnamese equivalent to pig Latin (nói lái) , the tones are switched and the word order reversed, to become “cây còn”. The literal translation for this is “(there are) still trees”, but if you see these two words on a restaurant sign, it’s not because the owners were trying to choose a romantic name. It’s because they serve dog. The Vietnamese language lends itself well to the popular tradition of wordplay and takes the euphemism even further by translating “still trees” into Sino-Vietnamese for yet another, more obscure euphemism for this controversial meat. For those who speak Vietnamese:  Con cầy là cây còn là mộc tồn.  (“mộc” meaning “wood” and “tồn” meaning “still”.) Yet another word play results in the meaning “Western chess”.

I’ve often heard other expats talk about “When in Rome…” and how we should at least try dog meat once while we are in a country where people eat it. Listening to them, one would think dog meat is a major dish in the Vietnamese culinary  tradition but I wonder what percent of the Vietnamese population actually eats thịt cầy. The majority of the people I know well do not eat it. Of the ones who do, most say that while they can eat it if necessary, they don’t like to. I’ve only met a few who said they really like the meat. Even in Hà Nội where thịt cầy is more popular, several women told me they only eat it to keep their boyfriends company, because the other option is to stay home.

For those who are still reading and who may be curious, dog is often prepared and eaten with galangal, fermented shrimp paste, or lemon grass. Dog in Seven Ways is one of the most common presentations in which adepts enjoy this meat. Though the menu varies according to region and restaurant, a typical selection might be as follows:

Canh Chó Xáo Măng  –   Dog and bamboo soup

Rựa Mận – Steamed dog with lemon grass, served with  lá mơ, a furry green leaf with a purple underside. The meat is rolled in the leaf and dipped in mắm tôm, a fermented shrimp paste

Chó Riềng Mẻ Mắm Tôm – Steamed dog with galangal, rice vinegar and fermented shrimp paste

Thịt Chó Hấp /  Luộc – Steamed or boiled dog meat

Chả Nướng – Grilled dog sausage

Dồi Chó – Very dark sausage, served in slices

Sườn Xào Sả Ớt – Sautéed ribs with lemongrass and chili

And me? I don’t plan to eat it again.

Further reading:

David Cornish recently posted The real deal with eating dog on his blog, Realeyezation. He writes about how he had sworn it was the one dish he would never try. In the end, he did try it, but it was an experience he neither enjoyed, nor cares to repeat, which is how I felt too.

Marine fights Vietnam’s dog-meat tradition – by Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times,December 13, 2010:  http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/13/local/la-me-marine-veggie-20101213

The Morality of Eating Dog – on Hà Nội Scratchpad: http://hanoiscratchpad.blogspot.ca/2010/01/morality-of-eating-dog.html

Wok the Dog: What’s Wrong with Eating Man’s Best Friend? http://www.slate.com/id/2060840/

Asia’s Dog Meat Trade: A Look Inside a Seedy World – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/01/asias-dog-meat-trade-a-lo_n_375249.html

http://news.yahoo.com/dognappers-spark-deadly-violence-across-vietnam-090441619.html

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About Chris Galvin

Chris Galvin is a Canadian writer, editor and photographer dividing her time between Canada and Viet Nam. Her essay Flood Season was a finalist for the 2012 Best of the Net prize, and Discovering Hến Rice in Central Việt Nam won third place (shared) and a Readers’ Choice Award in the 2015 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest. Her work has appeared in various anthologies and literary journals, including Descant, Asian Cha, PRISM International, Room, and others. She has written in Vietnamese and English for Vietnam Tourism Review/Kham Pha Du Lich Vietnam Magazine, Travellive, and Du Lich Giai Tri. Chris is currently looking for a home for her recently completed manuscript, Breakfast Under the Bodhi Tree, a book about living, eating, and tour-guiding in Viet Nam.
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19 Responses to On Eating Dog in Việt Nam

  1. Very informative article, Chris. Isn’t it cultural, really, which animals are suitable for eating and which are not? Cows are not to be eaten in India, right, and for Muslims, pork is anathema. Cows and chickens are not always slaughtered humanely right here in the US. In my view, to each his or her own!

  2. D. D. Syrdal says:

    I think this is especially hard for Westerners to understand since dogs have largely been pets for us since the dawn of recorded history, although I’m sure there are plenty of instances of even Western cultures eating dog when nothing else was available. As for whether or not regulating the industry will have any real effect on how the dogs are treated, I think we can look to our own slaughterhouses here in the US that are periodically infiltrated by PETA members who return with abhorrent and shocking videos of how horrifically the animals are treated in our own ‘regulated’ industry. Unless there’s real funding and manpower to police the industry simply ‘legalizing’ it will have little effect on how the animals themselves are treated.

    I don’t eat ham for the same reason. The idea of eating a pig, which are known to be very intelligent, disturbs me. I don’t eat lobster or crab mostly because I’m seriously allergic, but the idea of boiling them alive horrifies me. Actually about the only meat I eat anymore is chicken or turkey, which I haven’t been able to break myself of.

    And I’d suggest making sure your friend eats something before heading out drinking in future 😉 One of my sisters gets violent like that when she drinks, it’s an allergy to alcohol.

    • chris says:

      You bring up an excellent point about some not-so-humane practices in Western countries, under regulated conditions. A lot of people don’t eat chicken after having seen documentaries about the conditions they are raised in. And what about foie gras, which as of today is no longer legal in California, but still is in many other places?

  3. Really interesting. I’m a vegetarian and have been for 15 years but in the Arctic I have sampled fish (raw and cooked) when offered so as not to offend. Animal cruelty is abhorrent globally. It was fascinating to hear from someone with first hand knowledge that the practice cannot just be explained as being “cultural”. Thanks. 🙂

    • chris says:

      Thanks for your comments, Kathryn. “Animal cruelty is abhorrent globally” — yes, it is, and as D.D. and Adriene mentioned, we should recognize that this inhumane treatment exists in our own countries before we criticize others.

  4. J.A. Pak says:

    Hey, I feel terrible eating pig meat.

  5. Very balanced and challenging post. I have always made the choice not to eat dog meat, but am absolutely prepared to admit that this is purely for sentimental and irrational reasons. The same goes for eating turtle.
    I agree that the main problem is the way the meat is sourced – I have seen dog nappers at work both in Saigon and in Quang Tri, and many people I know have lost a beloved family pet under mysterious conditions.
    And glad you brought up the connections with “macho” behaviours – it is my observation that the consumption of dog meat – in Ho Chi Minh City at least – is tied up with ideas of masculinity and connected to beliefs about traditional medicine.

    • chris says:

      It seems that the consumption of a number of the more unusual meats is connected with ideas of masculinity and beliefs about traditional medicine, and not just in S.E. Asia. Sadly, many of these meats come from endangered animals as well.

  6. A very informative article Chris. I can’t eat chicken if I see it being cut in front of me, I am a vegetarian who eats chicken if it is in nuggets or patties form, minus the body parts. I am squeamish and want to turn pure veg, your article has got me thinking seriously about it. I can’t imagine eating dogs, I have a 8 year old Dalmatian, Sparky, at home.

  7. Quirina says:

    A very interesting article, Chris, well written (as usual) and I like the way you approach the topic from all angles. It is interesting how people impose a judgement on the practices in another culture. There is nothing wrong with raising meat to eat it, whether it is dog, horse, cow or pig. Due to my own cultural bias I would also prefer not to eat dog meat. And regardless of my creed I would always advocate humane methods of raising the animals and slaughtering them. Homo sapiens was not really supposed to be a vegetarian (and I am not so sure if we were meant to eat carnivores either). I also enjoyed your linguistic exposé of the nuances of words through their articulation or pronounciation. 🙂

  8. marousia says:

    Interesting article – I like the way you frame your argument

  9. Thanh Hiền says:

    Like your “open-minded” – thinking in this acticle 😉

  10. I always struggle with English and till today wish I can be more articulate. Glad I’ve read this Chris. I can now better express myself when people ask my thought about eating dogs and all those exotic animals found in Vietnam. “I choose not to eat dog, but on an intellectual level, I am not for or against the eating of dog” – is how I’ll answer and exactly how I always feel about ‘strange’ food.

    How does one deal with eating Balut, the egg embryo? You find it disgusting but you do eat chicken? What the hell? Eating the ‘adult’ is less disgusting than eating the ‘baby’?

    In the end it’s all about choices. I’ll never eat a rabbit. But if I’m ever stuck in a remote island full of rabbits, I’ll eat them all day long.

    Btw, I have a disgusting shot of dog meat being sold on the street in Vietnam. Be warned(!!!): http://www.Vietnam720.info/blogs/2010/6/8/vietnam-dog-meat.html

  11. chris says:

    That’s a pretty articulate response, and a great comment. Thanks! Feel free to use the phrase as often as you like. I think the thing people find most disturbing about your photo is that the heads and feet are shown. For people who didn’t grow up with it, even fish with their heads on can be disturbing. (Fine with me, I get to eat those two tender morsels from the fish’s cheeks.)

  12. hehe, thank you Chris for the compliment.

    PS: Please do more blogs compare to poems :p

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