HANOI--For dog owners in Vietnam, the end of each lunar calendar month is a time for extra vigilance: for this is when dognappers are most active.
Dog meat features on menus across the country, and stealing dogs is big business. Eating canine meat is said to purge bad luck.
But dog owners are fighting back, and even willing to risk their lives to save their beloved pets.
A spate of recent high-profile incidents has led to calls for stricter punishments against dog thieves.
In late October, Nguyen Trung Hieu heard his dog cry out.
He rushed to see two men who had arrived on a motorcycle whisk his dog away. The animal had been tied up in the yard of Nguyen's three-story home in Bac Ninh, a district 40 kilometers northeast of downtown Hanoi whose streets are lined with elegant mansions.
As a member of a local administrative body, Nguyen, 30, was a pillar of the community. The men fired shots at Nguyen, hitting him in the waist and mortally wounding him.
"Everything occurred in the blink of an eye," said a neighbor, who was doing morning exercises in his own yard at the time. "There was nothing I could do."
The neighbor said thieves had snatched two large dogs from his own property during the past three years. He said one dog had cost him $1,000 (94,300 yen).
On that occasion, he said four men arrived on two motorbikes and grabbed the animal before he was able to react.
Many local residents keep guard dogs, but thefts continue.
Stolen dogs often end up in restaurants. Others apparently are sold as pets.
Large dogs fetch more than $100 per head, according to news reports and other sources.
Thus, it takes the sale of only two large dogs to reap more than the average monthly wage of $150.
The neighbor eventually decided to padlock his dog cage and move it to a secluded location away from the street--even though it meant less space for his Labrador retriever.
Residents across Vietnam are running out of patience at the escalation of incidents carried out by professional thieves.
On the same morning that Nguyen Trung Hieu was slain in Bac Ninh, a 23-year-old thief was caught in the act in Nghi Loc, Nghe An province, 250 km to the south. The man was physically assaulted by neighbors and ended up in a hospital with severe injuries. The motorbike he had been riding was doused in kerosene and set on fire.
Last June, residents in Nghe An province caught a pair of dog thieves red-handed and beat them up so severely that one of the men died.
Three months later, a stranger was mistaken for a dog thief and subjected to physical abuse by residents.
A video uploaded on the Internet showed the image of a man forced on his knees on a street with his hands tied behind him and surrounded by local residents. A sheet of paper hanging from his neck said in Vietnamese: "I am a dog thief. Please beat me."
"Use of excessive violence constitutes a crime, even if the target is a thief," said one bewildered police officer.
Observers say the violent reactions to dognappers is the result of the light punishments that are generally handed out by courts.
A person who steals a dog, and in doing so kills the owner and is charged with manslaughter, can face imprisonment of 10 or more years. But the mere theft of a dog is typically written off with a modest fine.
Quality key, says owner of dog meat restaurant
Vietnam's rapid economic growth has led to a sharp increase in the number of households that keep dogs and cats as pets.
At one traditional marketplace outside Hanoi, caged puppies were on sale as pets alongside a table displaying the meat of slaughtered canines.
"We have never used a stolen dog," said Nguyen Thi Minh, the 50-year-old owner of a famous dog meat restaurant in the Nhat Tan district of northern Hanoi.
Eating dog meat was the "in" thing when the restaurant opened in 1993. Nguyen said she had dozens of competitors in the neighborhood in those days.
But rising land prices have caused many dog restaurants to close or relocate, she said.
Nguyen said her shop buys dog meat from expert dealers at about 470 yen per kilogram, although meat from stolen dogs is likely available for around 300 yen per kg.
She said using good meat and hiring good cooks to maintain quality has been key to remaining in operation for the past 20 years.
She said her clientele grows during the second half of each lunar calendar month, when eating dog meat is said to shed bad luck. Nguyen's restaurant sometimes buys up to 50 dogs a day during these busy periods.
On one recent evening, customers feasted in her restaurant on a variety of dog meat dishes: boiled meat, sausages and tail soup.
"This gives me energy," said one diner.
Dog meat cooked with charcoal may be a little bit smelly, but customers said it goes well with alcohol. Locals also enjoy dipping their dog meat in "mam tom," a traditional sauce made from fermented shrimps, or rolling it in fragrant leaves.
Dog meat is certainly not as popular as it once was.
Still, plenty of young women were seen feasting in Nguyen Thi Minh's restaurant.
Early February was the riskiest time for dogs in Vietnam this year, as that period fell on both the end of a lunar calendar month and the end of a lunar calendar year.
By Manabu Sasaki
The Asahi Shimbun AJW
12 February 2013
A Labrador retriever is kept in a padlocked cage in a residential district of Bac Ninh, northeast of Hanoi, following a spate of dog thefts. (Photo by Manabu Sasaki)