“Here, we can sell one for two hundred thousand dong.”
“Wow. In America some sell for five hundred dollars.”
“Yes, but you live with them. Here, people eat them.”
As I snuck back to my Pham Ngu Lao mini-hotel late last night, I was greeted by the barking of an alleyway guard dog. This sort of thing is normal in America, but in Ho Chi Minh City, the emerging presence of dogs over the last several years has been astounding.
I immediately noticed the change in scenery upon landing at Tan Son Nhat airport last month. The dogs were more abundant, more varied, and a lot fatter than I had last remembered them. I wasn’t sure if they were an indicator of the rapid development that had taken place since my last visit or if eating them had become more taboo.
If it can be said that dogs in America are in most cases treated with reverence, then dogs in Vietnam are in most cases treated as utilities. They act as guard dogs or food, and rarely as part of a family. The reason locals seem to fear having their dogs stolen is because a lost dog means lost profit.
A ten kilogram dog is sold at twenty thousand VND per kilo. Take into consideration that two hundred thousand Vietnam dong is easily one fifth of a month’s average salary, and it is no wonder that dogs are important here. But, again, the importance lies not in the emotional but in the financial realm of daily life.
Over a plate of watermelon and Vietnamese coffee, my friend Chanh told me today that dogs who howl too often are killed here. It is thought that dogs who make too many odd sounds bring bad luck to their homes, and in a nation that still weds itself to the value of superstition with regard to income, it is believed to be worth it to rid one’s surroundings of any potential evil.
Given the complete lack of dogs as family members in Vietnam, I can’t help but wonder if canines are nothing more than emotional accessories back home. Some of us in America treat our own dogs with more respect and love than our fellow man, and others go so far as to indulge our pets with toys, trendy outfits, and near-spa treatment.
Premium cuts of American meat usually consumed by humans are often chopped into small bits and fed to dogs, while here in Vietnam the notion of feeding an animal gourmet style meat is quite blasphemous. And while it is absolutley moot to even attempt to place value judgements on which way of life is more appropriate, I do question whether or not animal rights groups back home are a creation of the elite.
In any event, it is at the very least quite jarring to grow up in a culture that values dogs as much as we do in America and then move to a country that enjoys dogs with salt and pepper. You won’t find dog meat near my plate any time soon, but I would be telling a flat out lie if I said that I am not just a little bit curious.