I have just come back from Vietnam, where I have seen many amazing things, including Ho Chi Minh himself.
What’s left of Uncle Ho (his mummified corpse) reposes on display in a gargantuan, graceless mausoleum in the centre of Hanoi. I saw other amazing things — pagodas, sacred caves, water buffalo placidly plodding through rice paddies, sylphlike sampans, graceful as eyelashes, skimming the surface of canals and rivers …
But I think the most amazing thing I saw was in Ho Chi Minh City — the motorbikes. Motorbikes are to the Vietnamese today what the automobile was to North Americans in the 1950s. Times ten.
In Saigon alone (nobody other than government flunkies call it Ho Chi Minh City) there are four million motorbikes. That is not a misprint. Four million. Virtually every Saigon family owns at least one. It functions as the family station wagon does for us. Again — times ten.
It is not uncommon to see a family of five on one motorbike, the youngest wedged between the handlebars, the rest hanging on anyway they can. It is also not uncommon to see motorbikes carrying multiple bags of animal feed, freakishly high tiers of lumber, a refrigerator (I’m not making this up), 20-foot stepladders, butchered hogs, mattresses, aluminum doors, toilet bowls …
And — Culture Shock 101 — crates stuffed with live animals, including puppies.
Saw this myself from a bus outside Hue — a little Honda putt-putting along, one rider, with a dozen wooden crates full of what looked like Akitas or Huskies, weaned, maybe three months old, lashed down and teetering behind him.
And you just know they weren’t heading for the Hanoi Obedience and Agility Dog Trials.
Unpalatable fact: South East Asians eat dog — or some of them do. It’s an old tradition bound up with beliefs about the merits of dog meat as an energy booster and an aphrodisiac.
The natives are aware that canine entrees on the menu would make tourists nervous if not hysterical, so you don’t see escalope de poodle or barbecued border collie advertised but if you go to an obscure Thai or Vietnamese restaurant that caters to locals you might come across a dish called, ironically enough ‘pad krapaw’.
That’s um, stir-fried dog meat with basil leaves.
Eating dog meat is, I’m delighted to report, a disappearing feature of Southeast Asian life. It’s a cuisine phenomenon mostly restricted to working class clientele. Kids in school are being taught that it’s not cool to eat pets — and in any case it’s relatively expensive, dogs being rarer than carp or chickens.
Did I try it? Get serious. I’m a bourgeois North American geezer. I’m so reactionary I seldom even buy sushi — unless I’m fishing and I run out of bait.
Besides, I knew if I indulged I would have to avoid eye contact forever with a Bearded Collie and a Golden Retriever/Border Collie cross back home.
Still I didn’t raise a fuss when I saw unfamiliar, possibly pooch-oriented entrees on the odd South East Asian menus. Wouldn’t do for me as a Canadian to get too holier-than-thou over animal cruelty. I remember two other times when I saw cages of animals crammed together and stacked in tiers.
In one case the cages were stuffed with battery hens on a ‘factory farm’ in southern Ontario; the other time was a barnyard crammed with tiny, windowless plastic cubes on a farm near Vancouver. The cubes were the only home that veal calves, brusquely separated from their mamas, would ever know.
South East Asians can’t teach North Americans much about cruelty to animals.
Arthur Black is a humour columnist who lives on Saltspring Island