Searching for the dog-thief murderers

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 21st issue of our print edition, Vietweek)

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  Dogs wait to be slaughtered for sale as food in Duong Noi Village in Hanoi. Duong Noi is well known as a dog-meat village, where hundreds of the animals are killed every day for sale as popular traditional food. Photo: Reuters
For the past four years, I have edited bizarre and chilling briefs about mob justice throughout the country. All of them seemed so strange, random and unwarranted. Soon, I was addicted to these stories and tried to imagine how they had unfolded.
Take, for example, the 2011 story about a small hamlet in Yen Thanh District, Nghe An Province, that beat the stuffing out of a high-school teacher who got lost on his way home.
The man’s assailants believed he had come to their village in search of a dog to steal.
Today, dog thieving and the violence it engenders have spread to all corners of the country. There doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do to stop it.
Last year, in the northern province of Bac Giang, police arrested 13 people accused of beating a pair of dog thieves, both of whom died of their injuries. All 13 confessed to the crime.
Then things got interesting.
Hundreds of neighbors signed confessions claiming that they had all played an equal part in the same crime. A Party unit was later summoned to investigate claims that the people who confessed to the crime had done so after police handcuffed them to bars and deprived them of sleep, food and the right to use the toilet.
Throughout all of this nastiness, violent tales from Nghe An continued to cross my desk: stories about whole villages preventing police and ambulance workers from reaching battered thieves clinging to life.
At the center of each of these tales of murder and mayhem was a dog.
Which presented something of a quandary.
Dogs in Vietnam seemed more tolerated than loved by their owners. I have never met anyone who included a dog in his family portrait or dressed one up in clothes or spoke to it like a person.
In fact, no one I’ve met here really allowed a dog to spend more than a few seconds lingering in their presence without shushing it away.
And that’s why I decided to end my tour of the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Vinh, the capital of Nghe An, where police once saved the life of a young dog rustler by convincing a waiting mob that they had already beaten him to death. The young man had taken a five-year-old girl hostage and spent hours pleading with the mob to forgive him. They only let police leave with the thief after they placed his body in a sack covered in fake blood.
On my first day in town, I crossed a steel bridge back into Ha Tinh Province’s Nghi Xuan District, where I’d heard dog thieving was rampant. There I met a mercurial Hanoian selling fresh dog meat in the shadow of an ornate cathedral. He invited me to his home for beer and pork stew and described how he had spent that morning shopping for his own dog.
Thieves has snatched the animal the previous evening, taken it to Vinh’s central market and dumped it into a large lobster tank full of similar canines for sale. The creature now sat hunched in a cage on the front steps, not far from where a butchered canine torso sat waiting for a buyer.
He paid US$50 to get it back, but balked at the idea that he would beat anyone to death for stealing it.
Who would do something like that?
“Only people over there,” he said, gesturing vaguely down the road and beyond.
And that pretty much captured the spirit of every conversation that I would have about dog thief murdering.
Like every single restaurant, butcher shop and market stall owner I would speak to, he insisted that he has never, ever purchased a stolen dog from anyone.
“If I did,” he insisted nonsensically, “I would go to jail.”
Later that night, I got drunk, sang karaoke and ate a fantastic dinner with a family that lost their patriarch to a pair of dog thieves armed with a slingshot. “I don’t want to talk about the old story,” the dead man’s son-in-law said.
In the ensuing days, I scoured the rural district of Nghi Loc for the families of dead dog thieves. All seemed resigned to the fact that they would never find out who killed their children. In noodle shops and cafes, locals spoke proudly of beating and burning such people to death. At people’s committee buildings, officials simply denied that such things ever happened or refused to speak about the matter without an official letter authorizing such a conversation.
To make things murkier, I spent a good three days in the Vinh market watching a really nice family pull dogs out of an iron cage with pinchers, bash them over the head, slit their throats, scald the fur off their bodies and singe their flesh with a blowtorch. By the end of a few days, the once-chilling sound of doggie death throes had become mundane and irritating.
I’d hoped to find an illicit supply of stolen dogs coming into the market. Instead, the dogs seemed to arrive either in trucks travelling in from Laos or in cages strapped to the motorbikes of poor ladies who raise them for money.
Western dog-eating detractors generally hang a great deal of sinister superstition on the Vietnamese who consume dog. I had my own reservations about the meat. But, when I tasted it during an all-male party held in a dog meat stall on International Women’s Day, I realized that people eat dog because it tastes really, really good. Properly prepared, it lands on the tongue as something between smoked duck and filet mignon.
As we all know, once people learn to like something that tastes or feels good, it’s damn near impossible to convince them to unlike it.
Nevertheless, in August, a super-vague and toothless memorandum was signed in Hanoi between the Asia Canine Protection Alliance and the government, nominally aimed at curbing Southeast Asian dog trafficking in the interest of public health.
If Hanoi actually has any intention of pursuing that memo, the inevitable result would likely mean more stolen pets and more weird rural violence.
Animal regulators in Ho Chi Minh City have long noted that every effort to implement regulations (like those in place for chicken and pork) managing the slaughter and sale of dog meat have failed, leading to rural rabies outbreaks and urban cholera flare ups.
So here’s an idea for all you aspiring businesspeople out there: create a network of sanitary, humane dog farms here in Vietnam that satisfies demand both locally and abroad. The meat is already purchased at a premium, so why not make this country the only source of high-end canine meat in Asia?
The alternative, it would seem, is more bad news.

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