1. The Thief
No one knows what time Nguyen Dinh Phong left his low concrete home in Nghe An Province, in the heart of Revolutionary Vietnam. The skinny 27-year-old heroin addict had already stolen everything he could from the people he left sleeping at home—his wife, his kids, his aged parents. So he screwed a fake license plate to his motorbike, grabbed a snare pole, and set off into the damp, bug-addled night to score.
The shops lining the road sold all manner of escape, everything from beer to airline tickets. On the night in question, Phong cared most about the dog restaurants that offered delicious, testosterone-soaked nights off from girlfriends, wives, and mothers. Behind their bamboo curtains, guys like him could spend a night in a haze of rice wine and dark, gamey meat dressed up in fresh herbs, a spicy rhizome called galangal, and deeply-funky fermented shrimp paste.
Tonight, Phong hoped they’d offer a quick $20; all he needed was a dog.
He took a muddy district road through the old communal rice paddies still dotted with ancestral graves and past the new factories bringing low-wage jobs to the people who’d served as communism’s most virulent defenders. Along the way, according to a news report describing the events, Phong allegedly picked up a driver who knew his way around the volunteer roadblocks created to enforce a new curfew and keep people like them away.
About a mile from Phong’s home, they found sleepy Hung Dong Commune in a total blackout.
The driver cut off his dim headlight and let the low growl of his engine wake the dogs. They began to bark and howl, just like clockwork.
Phong stared expectantly into the blackness, and snaked the noose deftly around the first mutt that ran up on them. The bike jolted forward, and Phong felt his quarry’s neck snap as its body dragged along the rough road behind him. He yanked the dog’s corpse up into a rice sack and for a moment it must have seemed they’d gotten away with it.
Suddenly, the men stopped in the road as a group of locals appeared in the distance. The driver bolted, leaving Phong holding the dead dog and his snare. He froze and soon found himself being beaten in the dirt by a furious posse. Thieves had bled them of dogs for months, and he was the first they’d ever caught.
Phong’s mother would later hear that her son’s pleas for mercy woke the whole village. Some witnesses told her they stayed indoors while others—no one ever identified exactly who—wandered out to get their licks in. At one point in the madness, someone rushed forward and jammed a pitchfork into her son’s scrawny torso. Shortly before the sun came up, the mob dragged him toward the concrete People’s Committee Building and tied the half-dead young man to the motorbike he rode in on. As they deliberated about what to do with him, someone doused him in gasoline and dropped a match.
The fumes of his burning clothes mercifully rendered Phong unconscious before reducing him to a few charred remains the flames didn’t want.
Police called his mother the following morning to identify her son’s body.
“Luckily, I recognized his hands and his face,” she told me when we met between the bare cracked walls of her home two years ago. Tet had just passed, but the house lacked even basic signs of celebration, like a pot of flowers or a fruit tree.
The authorities happily handed over Phong’s remains so she could give them a proper burial—one that would convince his spirit not to hang around and haunt the place. When she returned to find out who exactly killed him, the town proved far less helpful.
“They considered him trash,” she said. “There was no pity.”
Phong’s family didn’t fare well without him. His father died soon after he did. Then his wife dumped their kids on his stooped 60-year-old mother and took another husband. The police never arrested anyone for his murder, and his children have gone five years without the meager blood money courts here award to orphans of murder and manslaughter. Perhaps for this reason, Phong’s mother remains the only person I met who expressed any interest in who killed him.
“I want to know,” she said, her rust-colored eyes burning into mine. “Go and ask them.”
Newly deputized, I rolled into the town wondering how to ask a stranger if he’d killed a man.
Hung Dong didn’t look like the sort of place where lynchings happen. In fact, it looked like the kind of place where nothing happens—just another cluster of single-story homes and dusty shop fronts facing a road ground to gravel by trucks hauling everything the people make off to cities and ports.
The veteran at the reception desk of the People’s Committee Building offered a knotted, swollen hand then folded his long, acne-scarred face into a smile that would reveal nothing. Without an official letter of introduction from my newspaper and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he could only discuss the lynching of dog thieves unofficially, over rice wine.
“And dog meat?” I asked.
He nodded yes. But today he was too busy. Tomorrow too. And the day after. In an exchange marked by protracted silences, he let me know he’d never be free to speak to me.
At a nearby rice joint, I found a group of men taking post-prandial rips of bitter tobacco from a filthy bamboo bong. The group nodded and laughed when asked if their village beat dog thieves to death. When asked if any among them had participated in such a killing, they all stood up and walked to their motorbikes without answering.
Down the road, in both directions, dogs trotted silently past shuttered dog meat restaurants that had closed until the next full moon. In the meantime, the canine guardians of these restaurants curled up in their doorways, waiting for business to begin.
2. Life, Justice, Meat
I moved to Vietnam in June 2010 to take a job as a sub-editor at a state-owned newspaper. The following month, Phong died, and the garbled brief about his murder left me wondering, generally, about the nature of life, justice, and meat in Vietnam. Those questions grew more pressing as briefs chronicling grizzly, dog-related deaths spread to every corner of the country.
I counted more than 30 bodies in the English-language stories alone. Few people I met seemed troubled by the trend. All the anonymous witnesses and participants ever told reporters was, “Dogs are a part of the house.”
Longer stories came—tear-soaked interviews with bereaved families and breathless tales of thieves who narrowly escaped lynchings. My co-workers dismissed it all as scurrilous and sensational. “That’s just what happens,” one told me, laughing about the whole thing. “The thief gets caught, and so they all want to get their hit in.”
That didn’t seem right, either. Every once in a while, villages would kidnap a policeman to protest the seizure of a cemetery or tear up a factory over China’s incursion into Vietnamese waters. Boys in a northern village once beat up an in-law for wandering into town and chatting up a local girl, and YouTube contains hour of footage of Vietnamese kids getting stomped bloody for trying to steal bicycles or motorbikes. But lynchings weren’t a thing in Vietnam. No village I’d ever heard of conspired to murder a man for burgling a television or karaoke machine.
The line “dogs are part of the house” also didn’t account for why so many people ate them. It didn’t account for how a peaceful community came to snuff out Phong’s life with fire and farm equipment. It didn’t explain what moved people from another nearby village to pour into a road to prevent an ambulance from saving a dying dog thief. It didn’t serve well as the caption to images of charred motorbike frames dangling from telephone poles or horrified, bloodied men kneeling pitifully before crowds, always with the same crude sign hung round their necks—“I am a dog thief.”
The thieves battled the mobs with everything from pepper bombs to the jerry-rigged tasers. Some carried swords. That, in turn, inspired local militias to set up impromptu roadblocks and patrols that created a lot of confusion. Members of at least four of these semi-sanctioned posses ended up in prison for murdering dog thieves both real and imagined. Every once in a while, a tipsy school teacher got the stuffing beaten out of him for getting lost on his way home.
This all felt very remote and removed at the newspaper, where my younger colleagues took pains to denounce dog eating as the stuff of drunk uncles, hayseeds, and—worst of all—Hanoians. When these sophisticates weren’t around, though, drinking buddies whispered invitations to the packed alley full of dog meat restaurants right across the street.
A municipal slaughterhouse inspector I spoke to casually estimated that half the dogs served at those restaurants were stolen from homes. The others, he said while smoking a cigarette in a half-buttoned uniform shirt, were raised by poor families living in outlying settlements that still lacked flushing toilets. His own household, he said, ate dog “almost-never.”
Statements like this quickly became a conundrum. How many people genuinely disliked dog eating and how many thought that’s what foreigners all wanted to hear?
One worldly café owner told me he gave up dog meat because it made him feel bad. “I mean, you’re asking yourself, is this someone’s pet?” he said while we jogged down a major thoroughfare. Dog’s status as a guilty pleasure, he said, renders it a delicacy without a single fancy restaurant. Yeah, I shot back, dog restaurants did all seem sort of seedy and furtive—like adult bookstores or something.
“Right,” he said. “Dog is like porn.”
I knew I’d have to try the stuff one day.
At some point, Western Civilization made an emotional choice to treat dogs like our best friends
In 1959, the spy and poet Vu Bang claimed that a dinner of dog had the power to shake a broken-hearted man out of a suicidal tailspin. Bang closed his 4,500-word ode to canine feasting with the following sermon:
Oh, you can’t listen to what they say!
Eating dog meat is uncivilized, dirty, inhumane…
And what else? And what else?
People say that the dog is “man’s best friend,” that eating dog is barbaric.
So why do Europeans and Americans eat horses?
They say dogs are filthy scavengers.
What about chickens, pigs and fish—how do they eat?
No. Dogs are animals to be eaten. Eating dogs is no different from eating rabbits, deer or cows. What’s more, they’re delicious and nutritious. So no matter what they say, I still believe it’s a delicacy of the Vietnamese people: “so long as our nation remains, dog meat remains.” The future of our culinary culture depends on the preservation of dog meat.
In his acclaimed War-era novel, The Sympathizer, Nguyen Thanh Viet described how Vietnamese refugees resettling in America struggled with the need to hide all this from their newfound countrymen:
While some of us indeed had been known to sup on the brethren of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, we did not do so in the Neandrethalesque way imagined by the average American, with a club, a roast, and some salt, but with a gourmand’s depth of ingenuity and creativity, our chefs able to cook canids seven different virility-enhancing ways, from extracting the marrow to grilling and boiling as well as sausage making, stewing and a few varieties of frying and steaming—yum!
Viet’s characters had plenty of reason to keep mum. At some point, Western Civilization made an emotional choice to treat dogs like our best friends and then quickly began to wield that distinction as a kind of cudgel. Bores in this camp believe that everyone should and will treat dogs the same way Americans do, one day. In the meantime, few among them can resist the temptation to visit Vietnam to construct bizarre anthropological theories about people who like the way these animals taste.
In 2013, a vacationing Stanford professor and nationally syndicated columnist named Joel Brinkley put forward a bizarre theory that attributed Vietnam’s geopolitical “aggression” to the nation’s cuisine. He singled out dog meat consumption as “the most gruesome thing I have ever seen.”
I called him to remind him that he’d won a Pulitzer for covering the Cambodian genocide.
The Stanford Vietnamese Students Association responded by arguing that only a small minority in Vietnam eat dog meat. “We have fought against the stereotypical jokes and rumors surrounding our cultures, but he makes Asian-Americans like us feel like foreigners in our own home,” the students protested in an Op-Ed.
Among Vietnam’s educated urbanites, dogs are considered pets much as they are in the West, and their frequently pure-bred canine companions are kidnapped for jaw-dropping ransoms. A well-documented economy of middlemen currently thrives in Hanoi that can recover your Doberman for a cool $1,000.
Meanwhile, the mutts in the countryside continue to serve their masters as garbage disposals, burglar alarms, and chickens that can take a beating. They aren’t worth enough to rouse the police (or middle-men) but they’re worth just enough to steal. Somehow, they’re also worth enough to warrant homicidal violence that the state either cannot or will not contain.
3. Going to the Source
Two years ago, I quit my job at the newspaper in Saigon and crossed the bomb-pocked former DMZ into Vietnam’s poor middle to find out what the hell was going on in the rest of the country. I zigzagged up a half-built network of dusty interior roadways toward the city of Vinh—a few miles south of where the mob burned the dog thief Nguyen Dinh Phong and a few miles east of the life-sized diorama of Ho Chi Minh’s boyhood home.
Dogs chased me away from poachers’ tents, loggers’ camps, and lonesome ranger stations even as their masters beckoned me in for food and drink. After a month spent in this fashion, the dramatic highlands flattened into dull green fields that disappeared into a wall of wet fog. Soon after crossing into Nghe Tinh, the pugnacious region where Phong and half a dozen others had died rustling dogs, I stumbled into a restaurant that appeared closed.
An ancient mutt named Nít (“kiddo”) had sprawled out in the front doorway, while Hung, his owner, sat drinking rice wine on a wooden bench in back. Hung explained that he wouldn’t begin serving customers for another two weeks because eating dog meat at the start of a lunar calendar cycle is bad luck. At the end, it’s good luck.
After a few more shots, Hung straightened his back and cleared his throat. “There are no dog thieves in revolutionary Vietnam,” he cried, before belting out a line written by Ho Chi Minh in 1969—the year Richard Nixon assumed the reins on half a million U.S. citizens stationed here.
Strike the Americans until they scurry off,
Strike the Saigon puppets until they fall.
Hung repeated the lines again, pounding his fist into the table. After a dramatic pause, he invited me to join him for bitter tea and tobacco.