by Joel Brinkley

You don't have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where'd they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone -- though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world's greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities -- like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale -- their fur removed but otherwise intact -- ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, "are perilously close to extinction" -- all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west -- Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar -- have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state's origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries -- two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state's aggressive tendencies -- and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It's considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn't eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You'll actually bring on bad luck.

Now, however, tradition is clashing with modernity -- and the law has changed with it. Thirty years ago, it was illegal to keep a pet dog. The government held the view that dog meat was a nutritional priority that couldn't be ignored. That point of view still pertains, though the government repealed the law years ago.

In fact, still today, driving down the highway it's not unusual to see a flatbed truck hauling dogs curled up in little stacked cages, six cages high, eight deep, off to market -- similar to the way chickens are transported to slaughterhouses in the west.

But now, Vietnam is a rapidly prospering state; more than half the population was born after the Vietnam War (which they call the American war). Per capita income is about $3,400, which may not seem like a lot but is higher than in most neighboring states. And as the middle class grows, so does Western influence -- picked up from television, movies, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

With that has come a new desire among some to keep pets. So now you do see an occasional dog here and there, lounging on the front porch of someone's home -- but under the watchful eye of its owner. Even now, as Vietnam rapidly modernizes and matures, if the dog wanders too far from home, someone will grab it and then serve dog for dinner.

Visiting Vietnam, many Western visitors despair. As one Western blogger put it: "I can quite honestly say it's the most gruesome thing I have ever seen."

I could not agree more.





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