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Kate Costigan / © Culture Trip
Kate Costigan / © Culture Trip

Friends Not Food: The Rise in Vietnam's Pet Dog Ownership

Picture of Sam Roth
Updated: 26 January 2018

Fuelled in no small part by globalisation and a roaring economy, in Vietnam, dogs are increasingly making the leap from the dinner table to the foot of the bed. As Vietnam’s middle class has grown and more families have found disposable income, the number of four-legged friends barking from balconies along tiny alleyways has skyrocketed.

dog jumping

Kate Costigan / © Culture Trip

The younger generations in particular, consumed by social media and all things Western, have turned their backs on the dog meat traditions of the past at an incredible rate. In Vietnam’s largest cities it can be tough to find anyone below the age of 25 who will admit to having even once consumed the dish.

“I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City for 7 years. More people own dogs now than ever before. I would never eat one, I don’t know anybody my age who would,” said Tran Ngan, a Siberian Husky owner.

The past

Dog meat has a long history in Vietnam. Consumed in stews or grilled with lemongrass for as long as anyone can remember, it has been a dietary staple throughout the country. While it’s always been more popular in the north, it’s not uncommon to see the yellow carcasses of canines sprawled across chopping blocks in some of Ho Chi Minh City’s more traditional neighbourhoods.

Around Hanoi, dog meat is still consumed en masse at high-end restaurants and street carts with plastic stools alike. Some believe it has great health benefits, others just enjoy the taste. According to the Asian Canine Protection Alliance, in 2014 an estimated 5 million dogs were consumed across Vietnam. There were some 30,000 licenced and unlicenced slaughterhouses countrywide.

However, strangely enough these animals have long been revered in this narrow stretch of land as well.

Believed to expel evil spirits and bring good fortune, the dog has played an important role in the spiritual life of many Vietnamese. Stone statues of our canine friends grace the front steps of homes and temples from Can Tho to Hai Giang. So while fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters have chowed down on Lassie, Toto’s been out front guarding the door.

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Kate Costigan / © Culture Trip

The present

Vietnam didn’t really open up to the world until the 1990s, yet today in some corners of the country it can be difficult to find any signs of the past. The middle class has ballooned, and now more than a third of the country has access to the Internet. The economy is growing at more than 6% a year, and the large metropolises are becoming more globalised each day.

As foreign investment has arrived, so too has foreign culture. Expats and their furry friends have poured into the country at a stunning rate. Today, Vietnam is arguably the single best country in the world to be an ESL teacher. Combine this with the fact that the younger generations of Vietnamese spend hours on their iPhones, flooding their minds with Western culture as they peer into the digital lives of the rich and famous, and you’ve got a recipe for more canine companionship. Selena Gomez wouldn’t eat her dog. Bieber wouldn’t either.

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Kate Costigan / © Culture Trip

In a sign of changing attitudes across the country, various groups have been established to help rescue discarded dogs with the hope that they don’t end up on the chopping block as well. One of the most well known, Animal Rescue Care, has earned tens of thousands of likes on social media and has rescued thousands of animals. Three years ago the first annual Vietnam Animal Welfare Conference was held in Saigon’s Continental Hotel. Furthermore, while statistics on pet ownership throughout the country are not readily available, the dramatic increase in licenced pet stores suggests the number is clearly on the rise. They first opened in 2006 in Ho Chi Minh City. Today there are nearly 100. Revenue from the sale of pet food is projected to grow by more than 12% annually through 2021.

The future

Dog meat will remain on menus throughout the country. The disheartening sight of trucks overflowing with whimpering hounds as they funnel across the Laos border will continue. However, as the presence of Western culture and use of social media continue to proliferate throughout Vietnam, these ghastly images will only become more disapproved of. Pet ownership will continue to rise, and dogs and their feline friends will be treated better and more humanely.

Of course, there will be potholes and speed bumps along the way. In some Western areas, dog-napping and the subsequent ransoming of pets have already become commonplace. The lives of all dogs in Vietnam may not yet be great, but it’s abundantly clear that things are looking up.