Dogs in Vietnam

“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.

Juice

Day by day I am realizing just how much I have changed in the last several years. When I met Thu, a friend who I became acquainted with four years ago during my first study abroad trip to Vietnam, for lunch today, I did not laugh as much as I used to laugh. I did not inappropriately crack jokes about how we would marry someday or try to make her blush as I used to. And it wasn’t because we have become any less amicable with one another or because she’s an engaged woman, but because I had no energy for it.

All I could think to talk about was our jobs, how everything with the School for International Training has changed, and what my plans are for the next several months. Thu asked about my love life, as the locals are so wont to do, and as usual, I dodged the question by simply stating that I doubt I’ll be getting married any time soon.

I’m not the same person I used to be in Vietnam. I came here in 2004 a student with very little responsibility outside of doing well in my classes and playing as hard as humanly possible. For the first time in my life I did not need a job or worry about where money would come from—the program took care of everything for me.

Now, however, I am a big boy, whose life is filled with responsibilities like running a business and paying rent, managing clients in the United States and other countries, and thinking about the future over a sweet and sour glass of juice in the heart of District 1.

Juice (45 Mac Thi Buoi, D1) brings back fond memories. I used to meet the old gang here during our independent study time and plan out our shenanigans for the upcoming nights in Ho Chi Minh City. The rattling of dishware, the sounds of Massive Attack and Eminem, and the international clientele all bring me to a place of both nostalgia and hope. It would be nice to relive those memories.

I wonder if a part of me refuses to act the role of a child because it brings back moments that I cannot have back. Sure, I can go to the Caravelle Hotel gym or stay out until three o’clock in the morning doing things that I probably should not be doing in Vietnam, but it wouldn’t feel the same without my wingmen. Being wild with friends makes memories. Doing it alone just makes me frustrated and crotchety.

I’ll be meeting Thu again for lunch tomorrow. I should promise myself now that when we meet, I will tell a joke that will make her blush or say something that I wish I could take back, just for old time’s sake.

Trà Sữa Trân Châu

Lately I’ve been drinking milk tea (trà sữa trân châu) almost daily because I have no strong appetite for anything else.  I partly blame Khau, one of the Bich Duyen staff members, for my new reliance on the sugary sweet drink.

It began when I introduced her to the Thai tea from Con Voi Bac restaurant.  She had never tasted Thai milk tea before and didn’t like it very much at all on her first try.  She told me that trà sữa trân châu was much better and much cheaper than the Thai tea, so I let her buy me a cup.

I didn’t know whether I would end up with a bootleg version of the bubble tea that I came to love in Houston’s Chinatown or if I would get the real deal. I should have remembered the bubble tea that I purchased in Ha Noi three years back and how delicious it was. The tra sua tran chau that Khau bought for me was no exception

So now I’m stuck with a terrible appetite for actual food and an addiction to Vietnamese coffee, Thai tea, and tra sua tran chau.  I don’t even feel like eating pizza or Thai food these days but they end up the default meals when I’m not in the mood for Vietnamese food.

Unfortunately, although I’ve been eating my fair share of really delicious home-cooked Vietnamese food lately, I have had to essentially force myself to eat it.  When I was in Houston I used to eat Vietnamese food at least twice a week, and even though I am in Vietnam, I probably haven’t increased my intake of the cuisine by that much.

I really should ditch the pizza, Thai food, and western menus sooner than later.  Although, a part of me wants to indulge myself as much as possible because next week I will be moving to Can Tho.  There I won’t have the food temptations of the big city surrounding me, so I’ll have no choice but to eat Vietnamese food every day.  But I promise that you’ll hear no complaints from me about that.

Monkeys in Vietnam

As I was returning on foot to Bich Duyen last week, I noticed a xiclo driver staring up into the sky and repeatedly throwing a small piece of fruit into the air. It appeared that each new toss brought on new laughter from the man as if he and God were playing catch. I was wrong.

It wasn’t Heaven who this man was throwing fruit to but a small monkey, chained by the neck to the second floor balcony of another small hotel in the area. I cannot rightly say why but at the very moment that I glanced up and locked eyes with the small animal, a great sense of grief went through my heart.

The monkey’s hands were just like mine, only smaller, and his eyes and facial expressions were so human that I could not help but feel connected to him. I am not an animal activist, a vegetarian, or particularly moved by the sight of goldfish in a small tank, but at that moment I felt a million pounds of frustration for the monkey, whose outstretched hands fought with all of their might to secure the small piece of suspended fruit.

Enterprise 184

I took this photo three years ago at Enterprise 184 in Mui Ca Mau. I was reminded of it when I saw the monkey on the balcony and wondered if he had at any point in his life lived in the wilderness like the baby above.

It’s astounding how my perception of the monkeys from 2005 was one of revulsion and fear. They stole pieces of my group’s luggage, food from our dinner table, and kept up quite a racket. Big as I may be, the monkeys at Enterprise 184 looked as though they wanted to start a fight with me. I laugh about it now, but I was truly terrified at the time.

To be honest, I don’t even like animals that much, but when I see them chained by the neck I feel a little queasy, especially if it is an animal that looks so much like a human in chains.