Earlier this month Stanford University Professor Joel Brinkley created a huge uproar with a piece for the Chicago Tribune, titled: "Despite increasing prosperity, Vietnam's appetites remain unique". In it he basically suggested that Vietnamese are voracious carnivores who have eaten everything in Vietnam that moves; from wild to domestic animals; stripping the country bare, and that in so doing this, he explains, the Vietnamese are somehow more aggressive than their neighbors.
Throughout, his story was full of incorrect observations, assumptions and analysis. Many readers took great offense to the article (many seemed particularly sensitive to comments about dog meat) and accused Brinkley of being racist and unprofessional. I will forgo analysing of his equally offensive defence of the article, or addressing any particular detractor. However, I would like to point out how Mr. Brinkley could have written his article to be more factually correct—although I have no doubt it would still create an uproar among certain overseas Vietnamese and expats regardless.
Brinkley begins by asserting that visitors will not see dogs, rats, birds or squirrels in Vietnam because they have all been eaten. This is of course blatantly untrue. Most urban areas have serious sanitation problems in Vietnam and rats are a veritable plague in some places. Dogs are assuredly popular pets. Indeed however, squirrels and birds are far less common than they used to be, for the very reason he states (as well as the pet trade). Many of the bird species that I commonly saw 10 years ago, even in urban areas, have been completely absent in these places for several years.
Brinkley is correct when he goes on to say that Vietnam, like its neighbors, has a serious problem in trafficking of large mammals, although I would differ with him in the idea that most of these tigers, elephants, bears and rhinos are being trafficked to China—the Vietnamese themselves consume many of these animals. He is also correct that Vietnamese have specifically targeted rhinos (for their horns). He didn’t say this, but I will: that Vietnam has been the primary instigator in a worldwide war on rhinos. Vietnam is directly responsible for poaching of rhino horns in not just Asia but also Africa.
Brinkley mentions that gibbons in Vietnam are near extinction because they have been eaten. This is true. Obviously they are trafficked and eaten (or used in medicine) by a minority of people (it couldn’t be a majority, since there are so few numbers of gibbons left due to all the trafficking and habitat destruction anyway). Even in my province of Binh Thuan, several ethnic minority villages specialize in hunting of what’s left of the province’s monkeys and gibbons.
Brinkley goes on to say that while the Vietnamese have consumed all their wildlife, it’s neighbors have left theirs alone. The truth is a bit more muddy. Vietnam has indeed stripped much of its own wildlife from the country. Cambodia has too—thanks largely to the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge years and poverty afterwards. Thailand, Laos and Myanmar do have a serious problem with wildlife trafficking, however their forests (particularly those in Laos) are indeed much more pristine than Vietnam’s. In the case of Laos and Myanmar this may simply come down to a smaller population to land ratio. In Thailand this may be to the result of a higher level of economic development and more effective wildlife management by the government.
Brinkley is correct that Vietnam’s culture originally derived from China, and its neighbors more from India. He is also correct that Vietnam has had a violent and aggressive history over the long term—Vietnam spent the last 1000 years not just periodically fighting for independence from China, but also continuously attacking the southern Kingdom of Champa, until it was destroyed and eventually conquered by the Vietnamese. However, Brinkley’s suggestion that Vietnam is somehow more aggressive than it’s neighbors, who all fought battles of their own, or that this is somehow linked to excessive animal protein in their diet is nothing more than groundless and silly Vegan pop-psychology. Meat is common in the national diet of all of these countries, regardless of romantically ignorant ideas of their religious history and culture.
Brinkley is correct that dog is a popular food in Vietnam, and that stray dogs do get quickly grabbed up and sent to restaurants and markets. I saw this happen every day myself. I also saw a lot of dogs chopped up in butcher shops in Hanoi and around Sapa on my visits. In fact in some villages I visited in northern Vietnam, dog meat was more commonly eaten than beef—even the pho usually contained thit cho. Nonetheless, many people in Vietnam do keep pet dogs—and don’t eat them either.
Brinkley’s problem was largely a matter of generalizations. Vietnam does indeed have a serious problem with wildlife trafficking, but unfortunately he used anecdotes and extremes out of context, and incorrectly applied them to the whole country. As someone who has spent nearly a decade living in Vietnam, I can assure you that while many ‘unusual animals’ are eaten in Vietnam, the vast majority of people normally stick to things like chicken, duck, beef, pork and seafood… and the occasional frog… maybe a snake… a bucket of snails once in a while… rarely a turtle… in Mui Ne lizards are popular… oh, and fried silk worms or crickets are good… porcupines and bamboo rats do make it on the menu once in a while in rural villages… and there was that time Anthony Bourdain ate (an illegal) mouse deer in Dalat on international cable tv… but yes, the vast majority of people stick to chicken, duck, beef, pork and seafood most of the time.