HO CHI MINH CITY -- Hanoi plans to ban the trade in dog and cat meat in central districts from 2021, but locals say the practice is an integral part of Vietnamese culture and should not be regulated.
Hanoi announced earlier this month that the slaughter and consumption of what many consider to be pets are off-putting for tourists and expatriates and do not present a "modern" image of the capital.
Local district authorities have been urged recently to launch campaigns aimed at getting people to stop eating dog and cat meat, warning of the risks of contracting diseases, including potentially deadly rabies and leptospirosis that could be passed on from infected animals. Hanoi also plans to close down all dog meat restaurants in the city center over the next three years.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 vendors and restaurants in Hanoi alone offer dog and cat meat.
By Nikkei Asian Review's estimates, on the assumption that around 5 million dogs and cats in Vietnam are slaughtered each year for consumption, the annual trade for live animals in the country is worth around 2 billion dong ($85,400).
Animal rights activists and pet lovers have come out in support of the city's plans, but they also pointed out that such action should have been taken years ago. Meanwhile, staunch lovers of dog and cat cuisine are up in arms and they say that Hanoi is trying to root out a vital part of Vietnamese culture and its plans are hard to police.
Indeed, the consumption of dog and cat meat is embedded in Vietnamese history, in part due to a famine at the end of World War II and also as superstition. The situation was exacerbated by a drought that wiped out crops and the subsequent Vietnam War.
Aside from the prospect of starvation, Vietnamese also believe that eating dog meat at the end of the month will wipe out any bad luck suffered in the weeks before. Conversely, eating cat meat at the start of a month is believed to bring good luck.
Among the dogs slaughtered each year, many are stolen pets or had been raised as guard dogs to protect homes or other properties.
In 2012, villagers in the central province of Quang Tri beat to death two young men who they accused of stealing their dogs for sale to restaurants. Prosecutors were subsequently unable to convict anyone as every villager admitted to the killing in a show of solidarity. But two years later, 10 village men were charged, each receiving a prison sentence of two or three years.
Animal welfare activists in the country used the 2012 case to try to persuade consumers to stop the habit, but to little avail. These activists also point to the fact that preparation of such meat is highly unhygienic because the trade is unregulated, unlike that for other meat such as pork and beef.
Yet, many households slaughter a dog or a cat at home to cook a variety of dishes when they hold family gatherings.
Hanoi resident Hung Nguyen said that the ban is impossible to implement, because dog and cat meat are among the favorite dishes of many locals. He said he dines at a dog meat restaurant with friends at least once month.
His village of Duong Noi has around 20 dog meat vendors that slaughter some 50 animals each day. That number of animals is about half of what it was five years ago, as the younger generation are more sensitive to the global perception of the consumption of dogs and cats. They also have a much wider choice.
The market should be decided by demand, rather than on the decision of a city authority or at the objection of activists, he added.
Tran Thi Lan, an owner of a dog meat restaurant in downtown Hanoi, said local customers bring their friends from other countries to try dog meat at her place. But she said: "I will close the shop if no one eats dog meat anymore."