Hey, you know what everyone does in Hanoi? Eats shit tons of dog. All the time. If you don't believe me, come here, get up early and watch the salivating packs of humans gather at dawn to chase strays through the streets. Most of the time they don't even bother to kill the dog before they start tearing away at its flesh. If they do, it's because the kids aren't quite as adept at eating live prey as the adults are. And that's totally fine, these things take time – just like how, in this country, not all children are born with the ability to keep down jellied eels, hotwire SR Novas and enslave a fifth of the world's population, all while pissed on Stella and wearing a monocle.
Dog eating in Vietnam isn't just a stereotype. It dates back thousands of years and seems to be a present from the Chinese. It’s mainly eaten in the north of the country and is believed to bring good luck and male virility. Rather ominously, no one has been able to tell me precisely what breed is eaten since I moved here, which might explain the large number of “dog-nappings” that take place in Hanoi.
The streets are full of men sporting chipped-teeth and NY Yankees caps, all urging you to try their restaurant’s tasty "thit chó". Others have portable stalls with the dead canines revolving on a spit. I've yet to work up the courage or become desensitised enough to take a trip down "Dog Street," which I imagine looks something like Crufts would after a terrorist attack.
I know that eating dog is the norm here, much as it's the norm in the UK to eat Rustlers burgers. I love dogs and have been surrounded by them since I was a baby. But after a few weeks of speaking to locals, co-workers and fellow Westerners, the barrier was starting to crumble. I wanted to feel like more than a tourist in Hanoi and I saw no point in remaining a conscientious objector.
So, one Friday after a couple of Bia Hanois, my American friend and I set off in search of canine cuisine. The search didn't take long. Within a couple of minutes, we were being led to the side of a central Hoan Kiem restaurant, where we found a live dog laid out on the table.
At least I thought it was still alive.
It was only as I neared the head that I realised something was amiss. As in missing. Half of its rib cage was missing. Out sprung an animated chef, dancing some kind of crazed knife dance with jazz hands. Evading this guy and working our way round to the head, I was amazed to see that all its teeth were present and it still looked lifelike – just with a slightly darker coat. I later discovered this is because there isn’t any preparation or oven basting – the dogs are just cooked whole with a blowtorch.
By now, the momentary machismo of ordering dog had been quickly supplanted by a strong feeling of dread. This wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience. As I eyed the mountain of cold, unappetising dog carcass towering in front of me, my thoughts returned to poor Digby (my aunt's dog) and every other canine I’d stroked/cuddled in my life. Sorry, guys. I was about to betray all of you.
I reached hesitantly for my drink, but by now a dozen pairs of eyes were fixed on my trembling hand, willing it to grab the nearby chopsticks. Twenty-two years of Westernisation was no match for this unbearable peer pressure I felt. It would be easy to draw this out, but ultimately what happened is that I succumbed, I shut my eyes and slipped a slimy piece of dog into my mouth.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer chewiness. Ten gabbers on MDMA couldn't work up the gum power between them to gnaw through a chunk of this stuff in less than two minutes. What had started as a harmless foray into local tradition had quickly become a living nightmare where I was choking on an ever-lasting gobstopper of guilt. Lassie, Wellard from Eastenders, my ex’s adorable puppy Boris, the Tatler dachshund, your boys took one hell of a beating.
While it was torture for my jaw, the taste wasn't nearly as bad – just unremarkable. The texture was awful though: semi-hard wood glue peppered with pieces of reinforced concrete. The closest taste description I can muster is a disconcertingly vague hybrid of turkey and pork. It's what school dinners would taste like if Channel Four had passed on Jamie Oliver and chosen instead a goat with pica syndrome.
As if reading my mind, the waiter suggested adding some spice by mixing the meat with his “special sauce”. I was ready for any kind of flavour at this point. Then I found out his special sauce was fermented shrimp paste, which tasted like a medieval prostitute’s gusset. I immediately regretted my decision.
Having managed eight or nine chunks of the clammy canine flesh, I uncovered the cold sausages made of dog's blood below – “doggy black pudding”, as our waiter excitedly exclaimed. One bite of this and I was done. Absolutely, unequivocally, eternally fucking done.
I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I felt pride after trying dog, but what I felt wasn't exactly shame, either. Clearly it’s a taboo in the West, but it wasn't hard to remind myself how commonplace it is in Vietnam as soon as I walked out of the restaurant and was confronted with more delicious little doggies being pushed around on carts.
The price, for anyone who’s interested, was only £6 for the two of us. They cost a lot more alive, which can probably be explained by the fact that they're a lot more fun climbing over your stomach than up through it and out of your mouth.
Follow Jak on Twitter: @JakPhillips
More weird stuff we've put in our mouths:
Watch - Filipino Blood Stew