It was a beautiful spring day in Hanoi, but hotter than hell. Springtime in Hanoi tends to be that way. My friend Dustin and I found ourselves with a day off due to yet another screw up with our volunteer teaching schedule at Hanoi High School. Instead of pointing it out, we decided to skip school and spend the day “playing tourist” in the Old Quarter. Dustin was only scheduled to be in Hanoi for 2 weeks and hadn’t even explored. I felt a duty to show him around.
A Cultural Thing
We wandered over to the bus stop near our house and lingered with the crowd, waiting for the bus to take us into downtown to the Old Quarter tourist district. Dustin makes friends easily and soon was “chatting” (more like gestures and sign language) with an older Vietnamese woman. She asked him a question and he looked in my direction and laughed. I understand very little Vietnamese but I immediately understood the question – yet again – “Is that your mother?” (Ahhhhhhh!!!!)
Vietnamese people are not shy about asking personal questions. It’s culturally acceptable to ask a woman “How old are you?” and “Are you married?” after first meeting. I got used to that and even began to expect it. The other dreaded question I hated even more – “Is that your mother?” Living and traveling with a bunch of mostly 20-somethings, that question came up way too often and made me want to scream. Or cry.
But back to the food story…
Dustin and I wandered around the Old Quarter and I showed him some of my favorite hang-outs. I had been in Hanoi for about 2 months and had found some interesting spots. We did a little bargaining with the Nike shoe vendor, walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, had egg coffee at my secret cafe, and visited some small temples.
Happy Hour Horror
By mid-afternoon (it was 5:00 somewhere) we were sweating, tired, and very thirsty so we grabbed a plastic stool at the first street side bar we found. There was a group of very “happy”, very friendly local people sitting at the adjoining table, excited to be joined by a couple of adventurous Americans.
Dustin and I ordered ice cold beers and toasted to a day of playing hooky from school. The friendly folks at the next table toasted us too and offered up some local rice wine. It would have been rude to decline, so we had a few small cups of their home brew. It was disgustingly strong and barely drinkable, but we sipped slowly and developed a cultural bond. We didn’t share a language but at least we could share a drink!
Seeing how open and adventurous we were, they began sharing the small plates of food that covered their table. Dustin was starving (and adventurous) so he grabbed some chopsticks and dug in to a plate of unidentifiable stuff. As soon as the “stuff” touched his tongue he knew. He tried to hide his horror from our new friends but he couldn’t hide it from me; it was something truly disturbing. “I think I just ate dog” he whispered in a panicked voice. It would’ve been rude to spit it out so he washed it down with what was left of his beer. The taste lingered, so he chugged more deadly rice wine, anything to wash that taste out of his mouth and the image out of his mind!
I politely declined their offers of “mystery-food” with visions of my childhood dog, Fluffy, dancing in my head. We chugged our remaining beer and got the heck outta there, Dustin still feeling a little disgusted at the thought if what he’d just accidentally done.
A Cultural Thing?
Eating dog is fairly common in Vietnam, even our next door neighbors were seen preparing this “delicacy” on their patio in full view of a house full of horrified Western volunteers. On a weekend getaway to Ninh Binh we noticed motorbikes carrying crates of live puppies, probably not going to the pet store. It’s not on the typical restaurant menus and until that day with Dustin I had never encountered a plate full of the stuff.
“It’s a cultural thing…” most people say. I’ve eaten snake in Taiwan and some snake-lovers would probably be horrified. Many vegetarians abstain from all animal products out of respect for all life. Even some Taiwanese farmers refuse to eat beef out of respect for the animals that help them work the farm; they feel a connection.
But for some reason, eating dog is more personal for most Westerners, especially Americans who are so attached to their pets they become “family”. Fluffy has been gone for many years, but I’d like to think she’s proud that most people are horrified at the thought of eating her species.
What would you have done? Have you ever accidentally eaten something that horrified you?