HANOI – Signs at two patio cafés here in my walkable patch of Tay Ho District have caught my eyes. Perhaps they are signs of change.
First, I noticed some curious words scrawled on a white-board lunch menu: a dish that featured “false dog meat.” Hmm. Is this for people who tried thit cho (dog meat) and liked it – but now feel guilty about the real thing? And what sort of meat is it really? Thit meo (cat meat)? Thit chuot (rat meat)?
Around the corner, my curiosity was piqued by a sign that said Dodo Coffee Store above a line drawing of two dogs.
Dodo, I have since learned, is the name of a Golden Retriever who belongs to Nguyen Minh Ngoc, the proprietor of what, to my knowledge, might be Vietnam’s first café that expressly caters to people accompanied by their pooches. Ngoc said she opened her place because so many cafés did not welcome Dodo.
Perhaps there are pooch-friendly bistros. But certainly there are more places with a thit cho theme.
The Vietnamese taste for dog meat is a source of culture clash. At times the criticism is over the top. A couple of years ago, an American journalist with impressive credentials embarrassed himself by penning an infamous, bizarre essay that conflated the Vietnamese appetite with an “aggressive” culture that resulted in a history or warfare – as though it was Vietnam that invaded China, Japan, France and the U.S. over the years.
While I have no interest in sampling dog meat, be it true or false, I don’t begrudge the culinary tastes of countries. Ngoc says that she often hears Vietnamese who argue that there is no moral difference between eating chicken or beef and eating dog or cat.
Yet it also seems clear that Ngoc is among a growing number of Vietnamese, probably numbering in the millions, who would agree with the sign that appeared at a recent dog show in Hanoi: “Dogs are friends, not food.”
My wife took two of our three children to the show in part because the kids really want a pet puppy to call their own. When I was growing up, our family included a dachshund named Heidi and later a mutt named Fanny. I was perhaps five or six years old when I woke up to discover that Heidi was giving birth to a litter in the box just a few feet from my bed. Our pets were more than just playmates; they helped us understand life in various ways.
Ngoc said her family always had dogs, cats and song birds as pets. If one takes a purely utilitarian view of potential sources of protein, it seems obvious that dogs and cats provide psychic benefits to homo sapiens that most creatures simply can’t provide. Perhaps it’s possible to cuddle with chicken, steer or halibut, but how many people actually do it? Have you ever heard of a “watchcow”? How many chickens can fetch a Frisbee? A friend of mine who was going through a tough time once told me how his dogs were his only source of uncritical devotion.
The Asia Canine Protection Alliance, founded in May 2013, is pushing for change, calling attention to the commercial trafficking of dogs as meat from Thailand to Vietnam. As Vietnam grows more affluent, more Vietnamese are keeping dogs as pets. Sometimes dozens show up at a small park in Tay Ho on a weekend day. There are also satisfying news reports about how criminals caught stealing dogs are sometimes getting a taste of street justice. Dine on dog if you must, but a crime is a crime.
Dodo, the café, is doing its part. Now Dodo the dog counts Domi the Dalmatian as a friend. Ngoc said she traveled 200 kilometers and paid three million dong for Domi, having witnessed how she was cooped up indoors and hearing plans to butcher the dog. They’ve been joined by Qiu Qiu, a grey-eyed husky whose owner had planned to abandon him to the streets when he left Hanoi. Ngoc keeps some poodles on the premises as well. Sometimes she has to lock up the males if a mature female shows up, because dogs do have a way of being dogs.
We’re looking forward to the day when we’ll walk our pooch down to meet Dodo and the gang.