Normally when curious foreigners ask us Vietnamese whether it’s true that locals eat dogs and cats, the answer is usually one of two completely opposite attitudes. While we will always confess that people do eat dogs and cats in Vietnam, a lot of people may be very ashamed to admit this reality. Others, however, will answer in a matter-of-fact way as if it were their daily food and ask back, “Have you tried it yet?”
It is true that in some Asian countries people kill cats and dogs for meat, and obviously Vietnam is one of those. And the truth is that not all of these cats and dogs that are killed have been raised from the beginning for the purpose of providing food for humans. A lot of them are kept as pets until they get illegally captured when their owners are not paying attention and sold to restaurants. The “job” of trapping pets from households is sadly quite popular in Vietnam, especially in the northern part of the country where dog and cat meat can be easily found in most every local market. There is even a street in Hanoi famous for its dog meat specialties. It is so well known that whenever anyone mentions dog meat the name of the street, “Nhật Tân”, will immediately come to mind, just as people know exactly where to go to find any other types of local food.
So why do people eat dog and cat meat?
Some people believe that if they eat dog and cat meat at the end of the lunar month, it will erase the bad luck from that month. Some men are actually convinced that dog and cat meat can help enhance their manhood. Others eat dogs or cats simply because they hate them. And funnily enough, a lot of pet owners who claim they love pets also eat cat and dog meat. They think it is fine to eat as long as the dishes are not made from their own pets.
In the countryside the habit of eating dog and cat meat is even more popular. In some remote areas when families have get-togethers or receive guests, instead of going to the market to buy chicken or pork they’ll kill one of their dogs or cats to prepare food. The explanation is that in the countryside dogs are not kept as pets. People just need them to protect their houses from thieves, so dogs can be turned into food at anytime. The same goes for cats. Their mere function is to keep rats away from the kitchens and rice stock.
However, eating dogs and cats is not a national tradition.
This is a stereotype common among foreigners when they think about Vietnamese food, and stereotypes are usually a reflection of false impressions. Obviously, anything bizarre and weird is easy to remember, hence it becomes generalized and turns into a stereotype. Our traditional food includes phở noodle soup, spring rolls, and grilled fish, but never dog or cat meat. It is just some kind of weird food that only a minority of people is in fact eating. Thus, important advice for curious tourists and newly-arrived expats is that if you think trying that “traditional food” is a measurement of how well you understand Vietnam, then you need to fix it as soon as possible. Be warned that many locals (like me) would look at you differently and in a negative way if you ever uttered a word of your “trying new things” experience.
And how to keep your pets alive?
That has been another question of morality for Vietnamese pet owners. One part of the meat supply chain comes from pet thieves. So how should people keep their pets away from threats? The best way is to keep the pets indoors or, in other words, imprison them. For dogs, it is easier as they can be kept inside the house with chains or simply by closing the gates. But for cats, it is more complicated since they can easily jump out of windows or crawl out from roofs. Thus, many Vietnamese families with cats prefer male ones since they are easier to “get fixed” at a very young age. If they don’t go out looking for partners, they have a better chance of staying alive. The cats can never oppose this clever strategy. Their meowing can never reveal if they prefer living an unfulfilled life or one in which they risk being slaughtered in the most barbaric way. Do we, their human owners, have the right to choose that life for them? Maybe we do because the cute cats don’t seem to have their own thinking (and we cannot understand their endless meow-meow anyway). But honestly tell me, if you were a cat that could think and had to choose, would you choose to live such a life?