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In Hanoi, appreciation of a dog can be ominous
By Martha Ann Overland

When my dog goes for his morning walk through the city's congested streets, he literally stops traffic. It is not his size alone, although he does tower over the local stubby-legged dogs; it's that you just don't see a great many pure white wolf look-alikes in Hanoi.As stunned passers-by whip out their mobile phone cameras, I am invariably asked: "Bao nhieu kilo?" Living in a place where dogs are sold by the kilo, I get nervous when people want to know how much he weighs. Maybe it's an innocent question. But when people rub their stomachs when I tell them 45 kilograms, or 99 pounds, I'm pretty sure I know exactly what they mean.
Whatever breed they own, expatriates living in Vietnam will tell you that keeping a pet here is a challenge. The notion of animals as companions is a relatively new one. Dogs, and even cats, are often chained up or kept in steel cages. In a poor country, the idea that pets would have their own food and their own doctors is not only strange, it is obscene. Andrea Law, a Canadian who teaches at the United Nations International School, said the fact that she walks her Vietnamese mixed-breed dog on a leash made her an oddity in her neighborhood. "Dogs are either for eating or guarding the house," Law said. "Walking my dog is like someone walking their chicken."

Whether the pets of expats actually end up on the wrong side of a dipping sauce depends upon whom you talk to. Vietnamese who are aware of foreigners' feelings toward their four-legged friends will often downplay the popularity of "thit cho." They insist that only the squat, brown dogs bred for eating wind up on the dinner table. But others say any breed is fair game. In fact, the novelty factor of eating a foreign dog means it can fetch a higher price. Buster the boxer vanished from outside his house a year ago. "He was the most disobedient, naughty, and insensible dog we had ever had," said Kate de Ruty, a clothing designer from Australia, as her eyes welled up. For weeks the family hunted for him in the back alleys, the markets and the string of nearby restaurants. They plastered the neighborhood with his photograph and offered a reward. De Ruty's Vietnamese neighbors whispered what she was not willing to admit to herself. "I feel stupid," said de Ruty, who believes she let down her three sons, who are still mourning Buster. "I'm angry that I didn't do more to protect him."

Keeping pets safe here requires constant vigilance, said Christine Keusch, a Vietnamese-French businesswoman. Keusch had three dogs die in her arms. She claimed that all were poisoned deliberately. So when her surviving dog had a litter of 11 puppies, and although many people wanted them, she kept nearly all of them. Caring for them is now practically a second full-time job. Of course, it is easy to accuse expatriates of being overly sentimental about their animals. Foreigners eat their share of doe-eyed cows and adorable piglets. But whimpering puppies in a cage on the back of a bicycle on the way to the restaurants is too much for even the most hardened expats, said Terina Brown, a British citizen whose family has also lived in Uganda and Bangladesh. "The children convince themselves that they're going to a good home," she said. "They really want to believe there is a happy ending."

But Vietnam is changing and so are ideas about keeping animals. Twenty years ago, the country could not feed its people, let alone pamper pets. With a booming economy and incomes on the rise, more and more Vietnamese have begun to keep animals as pets and as status symbols. Imported dog and cat food, and even chew toys, can be found in stores. Veterinary clinics have opened up in Vietnam's largest cities. The problem with the clinics is that Vietnam has no veterinary schools, only agricultural universities with livestock departments. So at best, the care is uneven and occasionally disturbing. When Daniel Rocher's cat Yin Yang had both back legs broken, the first vet wrapped the bleeding limbs in newspaper. The second vet bound the legs with wire; they then became infected. "The third one came and said the only solution is to cut the legs and make small wheels," said Rocher, a Frenchman who has worked in Vietnam as a marketing consultant for more than a decade. "I was horrified and he said, 'Don't worry,' it will be a cheap price.' " In the end, the three operations it took to save Yin Yang's life and legs were anything but cheap. "You know, we French never talk about money," Rocher said. But when pressed, he confessed: "I ashamed that in a country where people earn $50 a month, I paid $2,000 for this cat."

Mai Gautier remembers the case well. Mai, a Vietnamese who runs Asvelis, one of the few clinics in the country staffed by visiting foreign veterinarians, said treating Yin Yang was made more difficult because bureaucratic regulations prevent her clinic from importing the equipment needed to provide the most basic services. "No vet in Hanoi has a radiograph machine," Mai said. "I have to take them to a human clinic." Most Vietnamese consider this an astonishing waste of money, Mai said. Yet a small but increasing number of the clinic's clients are Vietnamese.
Donald Berger, a Canadian chef who manages the Vine Group of restaurants, said the changes in local incomes and attitudes would improve the care of all pets as more services arrive and, eventually, bring an end to eating dogs. In the decade he has lived in Vietnam, Berger, the owner of a Great Dane and a Dalmatian, has noticed that young people are losing their taste for thit cho. "It is a generational thing," Berger said. "They now have the means to have dogs as luxuries, and the money to take care of them. The next generation won't want to be seen as eating dogs, especially as they begin to see them as pets."


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