There’s no way to sugarcoat the truth: Vietnam is a harsh place when it comes to animal welfare — even and especially for pets. For one, there’s a longstanding tradition of consuming cat and dog meat in northern Vietnam: about 6.3% of the Vietnamese population consumes cats and dogs. And some locales, including the tourist destination Hoi An, have begun to crack down on this practice, but demand still remains. It’s an all too common sight in Saigon: kidnappers appearing on streets at odd hours to snatch up family pets, whisking them away in sacks to be sold on the black market.
At the time this article was written, my own dog had been kidnapped twice (though I was luckily able to get him back by paying VND12 million). Even worse, there is a myth that tells the more an animal suffers before it dies, the tastier its meat, which has contributed to cruel and inhumane methods. The Vietnamese government has tried to address the issue: in April 2021, Vietnam passed a new law where beating and torturing domesticated animals, including four-legged mammals like dogs and cats and two-legged avian species like chickens and ducks, could result in fines between VND1 million and VND3 million. Despite all of the effort to ensure animals are treated more humanely, activists on the ground say things have not yet improved.
For instance, during the strictest and longest lockdown period in Ho Chi Minh city, the internet exploded with a story of 15 dogs and one cat being killed in Khanh Hung Commune’s quarantine zone after owners detected with COVID-19. Few weeks later, a five-minute clip recorded the scene of a young man setting his own cat on fire in Hanoi, calmly leaving while the cat tried to escape the fire and ran into people's houses nearby. Millions of viewers — including animal welfare organizations — had invoked wrath and revulsion on social media.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of people here in Vietnam who work hard to initiate and facilitate care, advocacy and awareness for animals in need. With a boundless love for animals, Tran Uyen Nhu and her husband Nguyen Quoc Khanh together established Saigon Time Rescue Station, where they create a new chance at life for thousands of Vietnam’s dogs, cats and other animals being abandoned on the streets.
When love becomes a life-saving mission
Talking to Vietcetera about the motivation to set up Saigon Time rescue station, Tran shares that her love for animals prompted her to find a way to join the dog and cat rescue team. “It all started when I went to rescue an old dog called Mon on East West Avenue seven years ago, and I still feel how heart-breaking it was seeing his cleft jaw, amputated ears and tail. There wasn’t anyone who wanted to adopt Mon, so I opened the station to take care of him.”
Meanwhile, Nguyen Quoc Khanh (31 years old), Tran's husband, used to be afraid of dogs. However, Tran’s compassion for abandoned animals helped him dismiss this fear and he became more and more in love with animals. During their 12 years together, he always accompanied his girlfriend in rescuing and taking care of the animals. “He’s always the tougher one in teaching the animals so that they won’t be spoiled, while I’m the one who spoiled them with hugs and kisses,” Tran laughs.
Initially, Tran’s dog rescue station was based in her house in district 6, which could only accommodate nearly 40 cats and 20 dogs. Now, the team expanded to six people and Tran rented a 500m^2 house as far as Binh Chanh, where they adopted 350 animals. Up to now, Saigon Time has rescued a total of up to 1500 animals, including dogs, cats, turtles, chickens, birds and even pigs.
Postponing their wedding to save “the kids”
Animal rescue operation is no easy job. Besides a compassion for animals, a rescue team must be equipped with knowledge and treatment of basic sickness in animals to reduce some medical expenses. Another must-do is sterilizing the animals to prevent them from fighting and uncontrolled reproduction.” Tran also recommends rescue organizations to not buy animals from slaughterhouses because “it will benefit and keep them in business instead of stopping them.”
“The nature of this job is I have to be taking care of the animals at the station every day, I know that no one will be able to work long-term with us. During Tet holiday, I only spent 15 minutes eating with my family and then I had to go straight back to ‘my kids’,” says Tran. “The next difficulty is financing, because every month we have to spend VND80 to 100 million, and that’s not accounting for the medical expenses when one gets sick.”
Most of the cases Saigon Time rescued are old, weak, seriously ill pets, ruthlessly being tied in nylon bags and thrown on the street by owners. “It’s really heart-breaking every time seeing abandoned pets. Newly rescued pets tend to be aggressive, and it takes a lot of time and effort for them to open up. I have to feed them, talk to them and even let them bite me so they can get familiar with me. There was one time when a dog got panicked, he jumped up and bit me in the face. The bite was so severe that I had to sew 38 stitches,” Tran reflects while pointing at the scar on the marionette line.
“I wanted to give up so many times,” said Tran. “The first time I thought about it was when an old dog that I really love couldn’t make it because I didn’t know how to cure him. The second time was last year when me and my husband were about to hold a wedding and all of a sudden, all the kids turned sick. We had to postpone the wedding, using up all the savings for treatment for the kids,” Tran says. “There were these kinds of thoughts in my mind, “was it worth it for all of these sacrifices?”
“But seeing the animals that almost died on the cold ground now laying on my arms or running around in happiness is the one thing that keeps me helping abandoned and injured animals on the streets despite all the hardships and objections,” Nhu says in happiness, “Many children that I rescued are now healthy and mentally stable, some are in good hands at new home or sent abroad.”
Savings hundreds of abandoned pets from F0 owners
When Ho Chi Minh City implemented Directive 16, Tran and Nguyen weren’t unable to travel between the 2 stations to take care of the animals. Coupled with financial difficulty, Tran fell into stress. In the end, both husband and wife decided that one person would stay at the station in District 6, the other would be on duty 24/24 in Binh Chanh. Lacking expenses, Tran decided to call for sponsors from social media and borrowed from friends.
"Many F0 owners who are quarantined cannot take care of their pets, so we went to help immediately after receiving the news. But when they got home, they wanted to throw the pets away because they were afraid that their pets would carry the virus. No matter how much I tried to convince, test, and disinfect the animals, they didn’t accept."
"Me and my husband once planned to have a baby. But then I thought, “how would I be able to take care of the animals properly if I had given birth?.” I told that to my husband and we’ve agreed not to have kids. We will be living like this for the rest of our lives to take care of the animals,” Tran laughs.
If you want to know more about Tran and Nguyen’s heart-touching journey or are thinking of adopting a pet, follow Saigon Time on Facebook.