Down an alleyway in Hanoi, in a restaurant with stained yellow walls and a slowly rotating spit, is a table of men sticking sprigs of lemongrass in salt and eating plate after plate of thit cho.
Though the smell of the meat mixed with fermented shrimp paste can be overwhelming to the unaccustomed, it looks just like slices of grey pork and plates of chipolatas. If it weren’t for the high price and odour – which has a slight tinge of wet dog – customers might not even realise that’s what they were eating.
As the men enjoy their lunch, they appear unconcerned if their local restaurant will stay in business. But there’s a real risk it may not be for much longer – that is, if plans to outlaw the much-maligned meat in Hanoi come to fruition in the coming months.
Back in September 2018, in a bid by the Hanoi People’s Committee to promote what they referred to as a “civilised and modern capital”, Hanoi’s Department of Health announced that dog meat would be off the menu in the city centre by 2021. The director of the city’s Department of Health announced plans for a directive that would “gradually phase out the slaughtering and trading of dog meat” in central Hanoi, in popular tourist areas like Hoan Kiem and Ba Dinh.
Historic and cultural acceptance of the business aside, the ban was generally welcomed by animal lovers and media outlets alike, both internationally and locally. It was seen as the end of an industry rife with animal cruelty and a step to limiting diseases linked to the trade, such as rabies and cholera.
But back at the restaurant, as the men enjoy their meat, it’s evident that this plan has not come to fruition. For now, it seems that measures to combat or ban the trade have not been effective, with dog meat restaurants only shutting down as the result of a lack of business during the pandemic. What’s more, as the pandemic has taken hold, some dog meat restaurants have even cultivated a presence of food delivery apps like GrabFood, according to a report shared with the Globe by animal rights organisation FOUR PAWS.
“When that announcement was made back in 2018 there was so much excitement. Internationally speaking, but also within the Vietnamese community,” explained Katherine Polak, a veterinarian and head of stray animal care at FOUR PAWS.
“But unfortunately, the reality is that we haven’t seen action taken.”
Dog meat farms in Vietnam are almost entirely nonexistent, according to research from FOUR PAWS, with the majority of the industry functioning through small groups stealing pets in the dead of night. Though some families will sell off their old dogs for cash. Theft comes from the south, in Ho Chi Minh City, where dogs aren’t in demand for food, as well as central Vietnam. Dogs are also found to be shipped from China, Cambodia and Thailand. One dog can fetch roughly $6.50 per kilo in raw meat, or as much as about $13 cooked – double the price of pork.
About five million of the animals are eaten across Vietnam each year. Though it’s not just within the Vietnamese capital where diners seek out dog meat, Hanoians take centre stage within the national industry with 2019 statistics from the Hanoi Veterinary Department showing that there are more than 400 businesses trading or slaughtering dogs in the city.
But tastes are changing. One study from 2020 showed that, though 60% of Hanoians have eaten dog meat at least once in their lives, 44% say they wouldn’t eat it again. Now, just 11% of Hanoi’s population eat dog meat regularly, and in Ho Chi Minh City, that number is less than 2%.
While a hunger for dog meat still exists, it appears that popularity is slowing. Whole roads in Hanoi formerly dedicated to selling dog meat, like Au Co and Hoang Hoa Tham, have almost shut down dog meat restaurants completely. Even Hanoi’s Cao Xa Ha ‘dog meat village’ has seen a rapid decrease in business in recent years, with most households going back to selling cakes and noodles.
Bao Tran, Vietnam representative of animal welfare organisation Soi Dog Foundation, says he’s seen a natural phase-out in central Hanoi in the last 10 years, with most restaurants having disappeared from the centre and moved further out.
“It’s almost a generational gap,” Bao said. “It was the last generation that heavily consumed dog meat as a culture.”
The locals claimed that dog meat restaurants were almost non-existent in the past as Hue is quite a Buddhist city, and rejected the consumption of dog meat
Local historian Vu Ngoc Phuong wrote that the dog meat trade first appeared when the Chinese fled to North Vietnam from the Bach Lien Dao rebellion in China between 1796 and 1820, spurred on by famine experienced north of the border. The trend reached only mild popularity before being banned by the French during the French colonial era, with those who couldn’t resist the forbidden food running the risk of jail time.
Business went underground then, with author Ton That Tho writing that, in the 1930s, there were only four or five dog meat restaurants in Hanoi, and none in Saigon. But when the French colonial era ended, the meat sprung back up again in markets, booming in Hanoi in the mid-1990s. But, according to Soi Dog, Hanoi’s dog meat industry has been in slow decline in the decades since.
Tran suspects one driving force behind decreased dog meat consumption could be economic growth. Vietnam’s economy has expanded at a fast clip, averaging around 6-7% per annum since 2000, and even as the government grapples to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay, the country is again aiming for GDP growth of around 6% in 2021.
With prosperity comes a greater education and greater awareness of the quality and source of what people are putting in their mouths, says Tran.
“People just eat better,” he said.
But growing wealth doesn’t evenly distribute throughout the country, and neither does the phase-out of dog meat. The less prosperous parts of Vietnam are actually seeing an increase in dog consumption and theft.
For some 20 years, organisations like FOUR PAWS and Soi Dog have been tracking the business – from a decline in Hanoi and a rise further south, in developing areas like Hue, Nghe An, Tang Hoa and Danang.
As dog meat isn’t officially considered livestock, its consumption and preparation doesn’t fall under any one department’s jurisdiction. Therefore, no department is willing to take responsibility for it, and no studies exist to find out how many restaurants or slaughterhouses now exist in central Vietnam.
However, Tran has observed dog meat restaurants in Hue go from around five to seven outlets to more than thirty in the last five years. He says this number continues to grow.
“The locals claimed that dog meat restaurants were almost non-existent in the past as Hue is quite a Buddhist city, and rejected the consumption of dog meat,” he said. “They said dog meat restaurants grew out of the demand from workers from out of town who arrived to join the construction developments in the city. The same trend has been recognised in Vinh city of Nghe An province.”
One study conducted at the turn of the century by Nir Avieli, a cultural anthropologist from Israel’s Ben Gurion University, noted Hoi An citizens blamed visiting Northern political figures for their growing appetite in the business, having been introduced to dog meat by visiting bureaucrats.
But Avieli notes that, for some, it was also seen as a form of modernity.
“It expressed cosmopolitanism, sophistication, and freedom, as a taste for dog meat indicated that the Hoianese can now freely travel around the country and acquire new exotic tastes,” he wrote.
I don’t know if it’s a problem economically, but I certainly know that our partner in Hoi An is reporting large scale theft. It’s bad normally, but it’s become even worse
Back in the dog meat restaurant in Hanoi, one of the punters explained that, though he has a pet dog at home, he tried not to associate the two. He continued that, to him, eating dog is just like eating any other meat.
“These dogs are farmed, so there is no problem with that,” he added.
Though maybe a comforting thought for consumers like him, it’s unlikely to be true.
Dog snatching has become a lucrative and dangerous business in central Vietnam, mirroring the trade in Hanoi, where, under cover of darkness, groups of young thieves roam the countryside, zapping dogs with homemade stun guns and taking them back to their homes. Articles covering this trend in local media have proliferated over the past five years.
Here, the dog snatchers will bind the dog’s mouths with wire and then ship them off to a trader. The young criminals can catch about 20 dogs per night, selling each for 100-200k VND.
Katherine Polak, a veterinarian and head of stray animal care at FOUR PAWS, explains that her partners have seen rampant pet theft in central Vietnam, specifically in Danang and Hoi An since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know if it’s a problem economically, but I certainly know that our partner in Hoi An is reporting large scale theft. It’s bad normally, but it’s become even worse,” said Polak.
However, if the thieves are caught, the cost can be enormous according to Tran.
“I started reading that, everyday, people were beating up and killing each other over a dog,” Tran said. “I started reading [newspaper] clippings – one week I would find 20 or 30 articles or videos of people snatching dogs, and the owners retaliating, beating them to death and burning their motorbike.”
Some regulation does exist that can be applied to Vietnam’s dog meat industry, with the illegal international import and trans-provincial movement of dogs, for example, a clear violation of the country’s Law on Animal Health. But the unregulated nature of the industry means the required documentation for transporting an animal – often from outside of the country – is never met.
Though meat and poultry used as food must meet slaughter and food safety regulations, dog meat is not included in the list of animals used for human food, and slips through the industry’s loopholes. This, then, leads to an industry rampant with disease as vaccines aren’t administered, required quarantine never takes place, and vaccination certificates and proof of origin are merely fabricated. The sale of meat that has not been certified as fit for human consumption is the final result.
Moreover, the confined cross-country transportation that takes place near wildlife, and a lack of safety regulations, leads to conditions not unlike those suspected to have created the Covid-19 virus. In a letter to the government sent in May 2020 that was shared with the Globe, FOUR PAWS wrote: “The sale of dog and cat meat is often closely intertwined with wildlife, and there is no way to ensure meat sold from animals in these conditions is safe for human consumption.We believe it is only a matter of time before the next deadly zoonotic disease emerges.”
The government is, to a large extent, aware of all of this. In 2019, following the call for the Hanoi phase out a year prior, Ho Chi Minh City’s Food Safety Management Board urged people to stop eating dog meat. They cited links to eggs and larvae that could penetrate the liver, lungs and other organs, even worming their way into the brains and eyes.
Part of the aim for wiping out the dog meat industry has been to effectively rid the country of rabies by this year. Tests carried by the Vietnamese Government and verified by the US’ Center for Disease Control showed that over 3% of dogs tested positive to rabies, a disease that kills more than 70 people in Vietnam each year through exposure, bites or consuming undercooked meat. One early 1990s study in China found that two out of 64 patients contracted rabies by either killing, cooking, or consuming dogs.
Soi Dog have themselves played an integral role in the removal of rabies from many areas in Thailand, where they’re based, by sterilising and vaccinating dogs. Soi Dog founder John Dalley explained: “If the Vietnamese want to eliminate rabies they have to start a vaccination programme from [the start], because that is the very cheapest, most effective method of eliminating rabies.”
But Tran seems hopeful that, rather than the continued existence of restaurants being a sign of the failure of the attempted ban in Hanoi, this is just the beginning. While the necessary measures were never taken back in 2018 to achieve the 2021 goal, it is hoped that a growing awareness around the industry will push action to be taken today, to rid Hanoi of dog meat in the future.
Tran is hopeful. He believes that Hanoi will see an end to dog meat in the city centre by 2024, and added that removing the dog meat trade in Hanoi is essential for change in other parts of the country.
“Everyone thinks Hanoi is the most difficult part of the country to change. But we’re here now, and we’ve been working with them for almost three years. Believe me, something’s going to happen. When it does, there should be a snowball effect. Other cities should follow.”