In the searing heat of a late autumn morning in northern Vietnam, Nguyen Trong Minh grins as he leans back in a wicker chair outside his home and draws smoke from a large bamboo bong. Yesterday was a good day, he says. He sent nearly 400 dogs to their deaths.

His son and daughter play happily in the yard, oblivious to the noxious stench coming from a filthy caged enclosure behind them, in which 30 emaciated and traumatised dogs huddle and yelp.

"They've just arrived and they'll be next to go," Minh says, gesturing with his thumb towards the dogs. "In a few days' time, I'll have another 300 dogs ready for the restaurants in Hanoi. Times have been hard lately but business is still pretty good."

As he speaks, the pitiful howling of caged dogs being readied for slaughter echoes around Son Dong while a steady convoy of trucks and motorbikes with cages on the back rumble across the village's potholed tracks.

Minh is one of more than 40 dog traders in Son Dong, which lies 160km south of the capital, in Thanh Hoa province. It is the epicentre of Vietnam's massive dog-meat industry, which devours an estimated five million animals a year. For thousands of dogs, the village's miserable, unwashed pens represent the penultimate stop on a long and tortuous road to death.

Here, the terrified animals are kept for days. They have rice forcibly pumped into their stomachs - some suffocate in the process - to increase their weight before they are stuffed back in cages and trucked to restaurants and slaughterhouses, and sold for about HK$24 a kilogram.

When they arrive at a restaurant, each dog is beaten on the head with a metal bar and then has its throat cut before being put, often still conscious, into a barrel of boiling water. Finally, it is skinned in a revolving drum.

The dog-meat trade has made Son Dong stinking rich, literally. Most dog traders have two homes - one for business amid the canine squalor and a second, opulent, three-storey house on the quiet side of the village, where they relax with their families at night.

And despite pressure from animal welfare groups, Vietnam's voracious appetite for dog is growing, with scores of new restaurants serving the meat in Hanoi. Dog meat, however, is becoming harder for the industry to source.

Criminal gangs involved in drugs, timber smuggling and human trafficking once ran rampant - and lucrative - operations which saw dogs snatched and caged in the forests of northern Thailand before being sneaked in their hundreds across the Mekong river into Laos and then Vietnam. However, a crackdown on cross-border smuggling last year, in response to concerns about the spread of rabies, has curbed the trade.

Furthermore, this month, partly in response to international pressure - including an online petition launched last month by British comedian Ricky Gervais and actress Judi Dench that has so far attracted 850,000 signatures - Thailand passed the country's first animal welfare law. It introduces penalties for animal abuse and represents the first steps towards what campaigners hope will be a ban on the dog-meat trade.

With foreign supplies now almost non-existent, demand for dogs within Vietnam is booming, driving a surge in dog snatching and triggering violent - and sometimes fatal - clashes between snatchers and villagers.

In August, two suspected dog thieves, aged 31 and 41, were beaten to death after being caught trying to sell stolen animals to restaurants in Vietnam's central Quang Tri province, according to state media reports.

A year earlier, two dog thieves in Tan Thanh, in southern Vietnam, were reportedly chased and beaten by villagers. One died and the other was seriously injured.

Estimates in state media put the number of dog snatchers killed by angry locals in Vietnam in the past two years as high as 20, with scores more badly injured. But demand for dog meat is so high, and the rewards so lucrative, that the thefts continue.

Thieves often use makeshift stun guns, which are connected to their motorcycle batteries, to knock out a pet dog. They then lasso the animal and hurry it away on the back of their motorbike.

Stolen pets are sold to traders for the equivalent of less than HK$100 each and smuggled across provincial borders from as far south as Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, 1,600km away, where dog meat is most popular and the price is highest.

"It is a horrendously cruel trade," says Le Duc Chinh, Vietnam coordinator of the Asia Canine Protection Alliance. "Five to 10 dogs are crammed into tiny cages too small for even one person to fit inside. They travel for days with no food or drink and many die on the way.

"On top of the cruelty, there is a very big risk of spreading rabies and other diseases."

What matters much more than the spread of disease and animal welfare in Son Dong, however, is profit. Between puffs on his bong, Minh, 33, grumbles that he is not making as much money as he did before the border trade from Laos and Thailand was halted last year.

"In those days, we would have 700 dogs at a time in this compound," he says. "You should have heard the noise they made when the compound was full. We would take 1,000 dogs to Hanoi in each lorry journey.

"The people who were in the business early on in those days are the ones who made the most money. They are the ones with the biggest houses in the village. Now we have to go much further to find dogs and work harder to make our money."

Pham Tuan My, 58, a grandfather of 15 who has been trading dogs in Son Dong for more than 10 years, says: "I don't want my grandchildren to follow me [into this trade]. It isn't a good business to be in anymore.

"Since they shut the borders to us, we have to get our dogs from all around Vietnam and they have to travel a long, long way. It makes everything more expensive. The government should make it easier for us."

The traders in Son Dong all insist they do not handle stolen pets and that they buy from people breeding dogs for meat. But, Chinh points out, unless it still has its collar on, there is no way of telling if a dog is stolen when it arrives.

Chinh's group, supported by the Soi Dog Foundation, which led the fight against the dog-meat trade in Thailand and produced the celebrity video appeal, now plans a similar campaign in Vietnam.

The experience of animal welfare groups in Thailand suggests there could be a long, hard fight ahead. Although dog meat is not popular in restaurants in Thailand, the illicit trade in meat and skin is huge. Since the crackdown on cross-border trade to Laos and Vietnam, gangs have taken to smuggling more meat across Thailand's northern border to China.

A raid conducted by police on an illegal tanner in Sakon Nakhon province, northeast Thailand, last month found scores of dead dogs on the floor and strung up to be skinned. Meat and skin (dog scrotum is used to make golfing gloves) were being sold both domestically and overseas.

One dog-meat trader in northern Thailand is said by investigators to have started breeding and slaughtering weeks-old puppies, which are then sold as single delicacies to diners in China and Vietnam.

While Thailand's first animal cruelty law is seen as a positive step towards ending this practice, the Soi Dog Foundation and other groups are disappointed that the legislation does not specifically outlaw the eating of dog meat or keeping animals in narrow confinement.

In Vietnam, such legislation remains a long way off. One of the paradoxes in Hanoi is that while the number of dog restaurants continues to rise, pet ownership is also increasing. Dogs can be pampered and spoilt or fried and eaten within a few feet of each other.

At the popular Nha Hang dog restaurant, in Tam Trinh, 50 animals are chopped up every day, at the front of the restaurant, before diners' eyes, to make dishes of boiled and stir-fried dog meat that are sold for between HK$50 and HK$100 each.

Twenty metres away, on the same side of the street, is a dog grooming and accessories centre, with expensive leather collars and leads hanging outside, catering to owners who take their chihuahuas and poodles for early morning strolls around Hoan Kiem Lake.

"That's just the way it is in Hanoi," says the owner of the grooming centre, Vu Van Vuong, with a shrug. "They have their business and I have mine. We don't interfere with each other."

"I eat [dog] once a month with my male friends," says Duc, a 43-year-old businessman eating in another Hanoi restaurant, his cheeks flushed from the rounds of drinks he and his acquaintances washed their meals down with. "It's traditional and brings you strength and good fortune.

"I have a pet at home but these are a different kind of dog. They are bred to be eaten."

Duc adds, however, that attitudes are changing.

"There used to be many big dog restaurants in the West Lake area but many of them have closed down because the owners do not want to run dog-meat restaurants anymore.

"They made their fortune from selling dog meat. They bought their big houses, they got rich and then they decided it was time to get out of the business. I hear it was because they felt guilty for killing so many of man's best friends."

John Dalley, founder of the Soi Dog Foundation, says, "Many Vietnamese people are Buddhists and eating dog is bad karma for them, so a lot of them do want to get out of the industry.

"There are ludicrous beliefs in Vietnam, where the peak season for eating dog meat is winter and [many] believe it is a 'warming' meat. Young men believe it will make them virile and powerful. All of it is a load of rubbish but people believe these things.

"People say it is a long tradition but it isn't. It was only introduced during the war years in the last century, at times of famine. Chinese military advisers suggested it and it stuck. There is no long tradition of eating dogs in Vietnam except among one or two hill tribes."

Even in Son Dong, dogs are kept as pets. Minh says he keeps three at his family home, on the smart side of the village.

"We chose some of the clever, good-looking dogs that came to us and we kept them," he says.

Does he feel any pity for the dogs that are sent to be eaten in the capital's restaurants?

"I don't feel anything for them. It's just what happens. A dog isn't smart enough to know anything about it."

It could take years for attitudes to change in Vietnam. But, perhaps sensing the problems ahead for the dog-meat industry, another villager - farmer's wife Pham Thi Thu, 50 - has hit on a solution that will horrify animal lovers. She has given up trading in dogs and instead sells cats to speciality restaurants in Hanoi.

"There are three or four of us doing the same thing," she says, cheerfully, as her husband skins and chops up a cat for the family's dinner. "We sell 70 to 80 cats a month for 70,000 dong (HK$25) each or more. We send them by bus so transport costs are much lower."

The dog-meat business is getting increasingly difficult, she says, and cats are less problematic.

"Vietnamese people see cats as baby tigers," she says. "They taste better than dog and the meat is good for your health, especially your bones and your blood.

"It is a good business."

Red Door News Hong Kong

The video appeal and global petition to stop the dog-meat trade in Thailand can be viewed at savedogs.soidog.org

 

Mission improbable

In a jungle clearing in northern Thailand in the inky blackness of night, an investigator and two police officers crouch beside a pile of cages containing more than 500 dogs as a gang of heavily armed men move through the trees to surround them.

Outnumbered and cornered after tracking down the illicit cargo of animals before it is smuggled overseas, the trio look likely to pay a heavy price for meddling in the lucrative dog-meat trade.

In a desperate gamble, one of the police officers jumps to his feet and pulls out his revolver. Firing into the air, he runs around the clearing shouting instructions to imaginary colleagues to fool the gang into thinking other officers are hidden in the undergrowth.

The ploy works. The gunmen retreat, giving the trio just enough time for reinforcements to arrive, as their tormentors melt back into the jungle.

Dozens of such adrenaline-fuelled confrontations involving police and investigators from British-run charity Soi Dog Foundation have happened in recent years, as they fight to crack down on Thailand's rampant dog-meat trade, reckoned to be worth nearly HK$250 million a year.

Mrs Ha - a married woman in her late 40s whose identity is being withheld because of the risk of her being targeted by smuggling gangs - is the foundation's chief investigator and has helped to secure dozens of arrests. Her efforts are focused in the lawless Tha Rae area of northern Thailand, where stolen dogs are collected and smuggled across rivers and land borders to Laos and then Vietnam and China.

It was in the jungle near Tha Rae that Mrs Ha found herself surrounded by the armed gang last May.

"Of course, I'm scared about what might happen to me but I can't give up and I'm going to carry on with this fight," she says. "The dog-meat trade has deep roots in Thailand. It has been here for a long time and powerful, dangerous people run the business. It will not stop easily."

As part of the foundation's campaign, which has had a major impact on the dog-smuggling trade in Thailand, giant posters paid for by overseas donors have been put up across the northern stretch of the country, offering rewards of HK$2,400 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of dog smugglers.

The Soi Dog Foundation also pays bonuses to police officers who take part in operations.

"You might argue it's immoral to pay rewards to police officers," says John Dalley, the foundation's founder. "But I look on this as a war and we have to do what we can to stop it. It is proving effective and it's worth it if we can stop this trade."

The war against the dog-meat gangs is driven by a small but determined group of people, including the indomitable Mrs Ha, who insists she has no intention of giving up her fight against the gangsters.

What makes her want to expose herself to such danger?

"It's the pain in the eyes of the dogs we rescue from the cages," she says. "No animal should ever have to suffer that kind of brutality."

Simon Parry