MIKE IVES 10/ 3/11 09:17 AM ET
HANOI, Vietnam — It was already too late when Nguyen Van Cuong heard a neighbor shout "Thief! Thief!" Two men on a motorbike had snatched up his beloved pet dog "Black" and were whizzing away.
Cuong and the neighbor sprinted in vain as the professional dog thieves hurled bricks, one of them slamming into the head of a bystander and killing him.
Similar fights have erupted across Vietnam between dognappers who sell man's best friend to restaurants and fed-up villagers who have increasingly turned to vigilante justice to pursue culprits because there is little police can do. Mobs have chased down thieves and clubbed them to death – even setting one on fire. But the bandits use everything from bricks to arrows to fend off the villagers and ensure their payday.
"Dog thieves are getting more aggressive – they steal villagers' dogs in broad daylight," said Tran The Thieu, police chief of Hung Dong village in central Nghe An province. "People are very angry to see their dogs stolen and dog thieves are rarely arrested."
Dog meat is a delicacy in Vietnam that's often on the menu at parties, especially in the north. Restaurants specializing in barbecue dog are especially popular at the end of each lunar month when men dine on canine in hopes of purging bad luck.
Dog restaurants in the capital, Hanoi, have boomed as Vietnam has become one of Asia's fastest-developing economies. But as inflation soars, some Vietnamese have looked for creative ways to earn money.
Because dogs typically roam free, they can be easy targets. Live dogs in Hanoi fetch about $2.70 a pound ($6 a kilogram) – a bit more than for live chickens. A 44-pound (20-kilogram) pooch can sell for more than $100 – roughly the monthly salary of an average Vietnamese worker.
It's a good wage for thieves who cruise neighborhoods on motorbikes, snaring pets quicker than a U.S. car thief can hotwire a Cadillac Escalade. Sometimes, they incapacitate the dogs first by shooting them with darts or arrows pulsating with electric current.
Many Vietnamese are of two minds about dogs. They may rely on the animals to protect their homes and often give them names, but don't consider them to be pseudo-family members as in the West. But that doesn't mean they don't care about their pets.
In Nghe An province, police chief Thieu says dog-related violence is escalating. Last June, a dognapper was chased and clubbed to death by a mob who then torched his body, leaving the charred remains as a warning on the roadside. Seven villagers were hurt in other incidents there when they pursued thieves who retaliated with knives, bottles and slings.
Most residents don't even bother calling police.
"Residents say the police just fine these thieves and let them go," Senior Lt. Col. Ho Ba Vo, vice chief investigator in Nghe An, told the newspaper Thanh Nien (Young People). "It's true. A thief only faces criminal charges when the property involved is worth at least 2 million dong (US$97). A dog is much cheaper than that and the thief is only fined for the attempted theft."
There are no charges specific to dognapping, and the typical fine for petty theft ranges from 1 million to 2 million dong ($50 to $100).
In the southern province of Soc Trang, two men turned themselves into police on Sept. 26, a day after fatally shooting a dog owner through the heart with an arrow as he was chasing them.
The lucrative illegal dog trade also crosses borders.
Last month in northern Thailand, police arrested two men trying to smuggle 120 dogs into Vietnam stuffed into bags. In August, 1,800 ailing dogs crammed into cages on a truck also were confiscated in Thailand on their way to Vietnam. Half of them later died, local media reported.
Scruffy medium-sized dogs are commonly seen jammed into wire cages on backs of motorbikes in Vietnam. They are slaughtered, skinned and roasted, and can be seen dangling from wires outside restaurants, tails straight and teeth bared. Dog dishes range from barbecues to soups served with pungent shrimp paste. The meat has gamey taste and a venison-like texture.
The tradition, also popular in parts of China, South Korea and the Philippines, faces resistance from animal advocates.
One former U.S. Embassy worker in Hanoi was so revolted by Vietnam's dog restaurants that he started the California-based nonprofit Kairos Coalition to promote humane treatment of pets. He says more Vietnamese are developing a Western-style love of pets, which may explain why the dog wars have become so heated.
"You are really witnessing the convergence of two trends," said founder Robert Lucius, noting that his group has partnered with Vietnamese animal rights groups and veterinary students. "The old way of the dog meat trade, where animals didn't count for much, is coming up against the new trend of keeping true companion animals that are loved, nurtured and valued for their own sake."
Meanwhile, the Hanoian who recently lost the 15-year-old dog he had raised from a pup, said police told him they apprehended the two men who allegedly threw the brick that killed the 54-year-old bystander.
Cuong said police informed him his animal, identified because of some fur missing on its tail, was sold for 900,000 dong ($45).
"It's very difficult to raise a good and intelligent dog," said Cuong, 54, who estimates he has lost about 10 animals over the years to professional dog thieves. "If I had caught the culprit, I would've beaten him up!"
He epitomizes some of Vietnam's ambivalence toward dogs. Asked if he would ever eat his own dogs, Cuong, who has deep-set eyes and a wispy goatee, shook his head fiercely.
"If I want dog meat," he said, "I go to a restaurant."