Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Of Dog Meat and Joel Brinkley

(This post is dedicated to Stanford Professor Joe Brinkley who in February wrote a rather bizarre column pontificating why Vietnamese eat dog. I've deliberately decided not to include graphic photos and details.)

“Walking your dinner?” two long-time Vietnamese American friends said when they saw me walking my dog, Dee Dee.
Dee Dee at about two.
It was a Vietnamese in-joke, a pretty funny one, if I may add. However, on that day, I couldn’t laugh, couldn’t even manage a response other than a sheepish nervous grin.

Dog meat consumption somehow has been associated with Vietnamese people, but not as I remembered growing up in the Mekong Delta region of southern Việt Nam. It still carries negative connotations. The perception towards those who eat dog borderlines xenophobia.

"I'm going to call for the dog catcher if you don't stop crying" was a commonly-heard threat to get a child to stop crying, and it worked for this was no ordinary dog catcher. He was catching dogs for meat. Furthermore, he was 'bắc kỳ,' a northern Việt Nam native who was 'different.' He wasn't one of 'us.'

A good part of my childhood was spent in Rạch Sỏi, Kiên Giang Province, a relatively large Mekong Delta coastal town with a good mix of ethnic Chinese and Khmer or Cambodian people. This is my mother’s side of the family. I was born in Tân Châu, An Giang Province, my father's side of the family, not far from the Cambodian border.

The main highway from An Giang to Kiên Giang passes by a town called Tân Hiệp, about twenty minutes from Rạch Sỏi.

Unlike elsewhere in the entire Mekong Delta region, Tân Hiệp’s residents were predominately bắc kỳ, and Catholics. And without fail, each and every time the bus stopped in Tân Hiệp, it was pointed out that the people in this town ate dog.

And that became the stereotype about northerners eating dog.

Tân Hiệp has one of the biggest Catholic dioceses in Việt Nam
It may not be apparent to outsiders, but the cultural divide, and the associated misgivings, between northerners and southerners can be quite a gulf. It was further widened by the years the country was divided, compounded by Catholics versus Buddhists tension during President Ngô Đình Diệm administration (1955–1963).

When Việt Nam was partitioned into two halves in 1954, for fear of retribution and persecution, partly fanned by US-engineered propaganda, nearly one million northerners, 85% Catholics, migrated south to join the now US-backed regime under President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hence those who settled in Tân Hiệp were known as 'bắc kỳ ông Diệm,' Mr. Diệm’s northerners or 'bắc kỳ 54,' northerners who migrated south in 1954. 

The typical dog catcher in the towns and villages neighboring Tân Hiệp was a man with a bamboo shoulder pole and two burlap bags. He either caught the dogs, often rabid and/or sick, that people no longer wanted or bought them from those who were desperate for money.

He was seen as a sinister outsider trading in cruelty who occasionally performed a thankless job of removing dangerous dogs. How the dogs were butchered and consumed were subject of many bizarre stories full of xenophobic conjecture.

Culinary historian Erica J. Peters, in her Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, wrote that “dog meat was eaten on occasion by some Vietnamese, but much less often than one would think from the extent to which the French identified being Vietnamese with eating dog meat.”

According to The Guardian’s Kate Hodal no one knows exactly when the Vietnamese started eating dog, but its consumption – primarily in the north – underlines a long tradition.

Unlike the bountiful Mekong Delta, northern Việt Nam is less fertile whose winter could be bitterly cold, and even snows on occasions. Southerners often surmised that northerners resorted to eating dog out of the need for protein in their diet and a desire for variety.

When the victorious communist north united the country in April, 1975, libraries sprung up everywhere; free books were given out, partly as an effort to indoctrinate formerly capitalist southerners, but also to reacquaint southerners with their estranged northern cousins.

I took to the libraries like a duck to water, reading anything and everything I could get my hand on. I remember reading about the living conditions in northern Việt Nam during the brutal Japanese occupation, especially in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Between 400,000 to two million died of starvation. It was known as the Vietnamese Famine of 1945.

There were many stories of Hanoi residents fighting with each other over crumbs tossed to the sidewalks by Japanese soldiers and French colonialists. All the dogs were eaten, even the starving ones with nothing left but skin and bones.

Subsequently, I read many more stories of harsh winters and failed-crop years when dogs became the main course in northern Việt NamDog meat consumption may have been borne out of necessity, but has devolved into a delicacy, often consumed exclusively by men during drinking binges.

"Operation Passage to Freedom"
Northern Viet Nam's Refugees Boarding US Navy Ship in Haiphong, 1954
(Photo: Wikipedia)
After 1975 my family moved to a rural village outside Rạch Giá to work as farmers in order to avoid the watchful eyes of the new communist government because my father was a member of the old regime. One of the neighbors gave me a beige and white puppy as a welcome gift. We named her Kina, an 'American'-sounding name because of an uncle who had raised three German Shepherds, and a few other purebreds, given to him by his American military advisers. They all had non-Vietnamese names.

I loved that dog. We had quite a bit of land where rabbits and other livestock were raised, which Kina loved to chase as a puppy. She also loved to go hunting field rats, which we ate. (Second part to this post will be on field rat consumption.)

The monsoonal flooding season of 1978 was particularly severe, partly due to the excessive damming of the tributaries that flood water used to escape to the South China Sea. The prolonged inundation of the land wiped out not only the crops and fruit trees, but also the livestock for there was no dry land for them to shelter.

We were at the edge of starvation, forced to cut down to one solid meal a day. Other meals were essentially watery rice porridge, complimented with fish and sweet potatoes from previous year’s harvest. Towards the end we even ran out of sweet potatoes.

Early one day, my dad told me we would have to get rid of my beloved Kina because we could barely feed ourselves. I protested to no avail, but understood their decision. Worst of all, I had to lure her onto the canoe so we could take her to an army garrison nearby to sell.

The soldiers were national army regulars (bộ đội chính quy) who were sent there in preparation for the invasion of Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge. They were northerners.

I cried all the way home and many days afterward. I was about 13.

To this day I can’t bear reading any stories about dog meat consumption, and the reason why I couldn't laugh at my friends’ funny crack upon seeing me walking my now-12-year old mutt, Dee Dee. You might say I’m still traumatized by that experience.

Dee Dee, who is now 12, with Dumpling, the cat.
PS: Some time later my father was invited to a village chief's party where dog meat was served. Both my mother and I anxiously wanted to know what it tasted like. His response was "Everything tastes better with garlic and lemongrass. Besides, I was too drunk."


  1. About 40 years ago, a buddy from Hong Kong described how his father's friend would visit every Sunday and he'd be followed by packs of dogs barking and nipping at his legs. His legs were covered with bites. The friend was particularly fond of dog meat. My friend was convinced the dogs could smell what his friend ate.

    1. That's a good one. Or that his father's friend had 'that' look that only the dogs could sense.

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