The origin story of my Vietnamese dog, Spinach

“We were living in Vietnam and we found her at the butcher’s,” is how I always start the story. 

I had spent a decade living in more cities than I had fingers. My dream dog was the allusive missing piece in my nomadic life. In my early 30s my biological clock was racing across its dials in need of something to nurture. But our lives were here and there, apartment towers and cycling our weekends away on the outskirts of Beijing, and indeed eventually leaving China on bikes bound for almost every country in Southeast Asia, finding ourselves back in the Taiwanese countryside, and by sheer surprise whiplashed into new ventures in Saigon, Vietnam, to be our last stop.

“Got her at the butcher’s,” is typically followed by a reply of silence, and I wait for a follow up, which is my dark way to poke at the preconceptions that Vietnamese people eat dogs. Truthfully though, the butcher had an extra pup in his litter and Spinach was not fated to the table. But, there are dog meat restaurants in Vietnam, indeed, one down the street from us…a German Shepard if I recall was on the banner. Dog meat restaurants are on the decline for reasons you can guess, the traditional taste is now abhorrent to the younger generation of dog owners that see dogs as members of the family. 

That is not to say that being a dog in Saigon is a good hand to be dealt. Being hit by scooter is a reality, being mangled by another dog, being covered in fleas, ticks, worms, fighting for scraps, being abused by random old ladies trying to sweep their stoop, all are realities. If you are lucky enough to be prized and adored by a good human, it is not unheard of to be dog-napped and held for ransom. In the best and most likely case scenario you are loved by a human somewhere and that loving human puts a fresh black coat of permanent marker eyebrows on you weekly (see photo).

My husband, Michael, had become chummy with the meat seller and had told this man about our great disappointments trying to find a dog in the city. We’d pass the city puppy sellers on our daily bicycle commute. Shady, but simple operations would include a dispassionate man in bath sandals at a busy Saigon intersection selling very cute, suspiciously inactive puppies, with their little paws zip-tied to the tops of kennels on the back of his motorcycle. The sad puppies! How could I save them all? Hopeless in finding a city dog, we spent our weekends cycling the countryside in the more rural neighboring province, a ferry ride across the container ship-festooned Soai Rap river.

With our bikes aboard, nose to nose with everyone on their scooters, it never failed to excite to arrive from the manic exurbs to the other side, rolling tropics, palm mangroves, red clay roads going in an over small farming and aqua-culture communities coursed by small foot paths which we rolled our bike tires down. 

Rolling up onto many homesteads with many barking pups, we would ask ourselves, “Should we buy a dog off of these villagers?” I looked around at all this wide-open perfection, with water buffalo milling about, and dogs free to live in packs, rodents to chase into the rice grass heaps, and concluded that to remove any one of these country dogs, if you could catch and train one, and take them to our concrete city life was a great disservice to the free animals of world. And so, I completely gave up. Another foreign country to learn to navigate, another year without a dog, a dream deferred. 

And then Michael said, “There is a dog at the butcher’s.”

There she was lethargic, meek, in a wet instant noddle box. I picked her up, my heart felt heavy for this little pathetic creature, barely four weeks old, far away from her dog mom’s nipple and puppy siblings. I brought her to my face and we met eyes as you are supposed to do, assessing our rightness for each other. She was terribly floppy and vacant at the time, and I was afraid she was fated to illness. She was not energetic.

How the weight of it, years of living in Asia and guarding my own heart clouded saying “yes” to her. Will I die of heartache if she seizes and dies in front of me just like my Beijing rabbit? I had been burned once over by these sick, inbred market pets before. I put her down in the box and said, “She’s not the one. She’s not my Spinach.” 

I went home to deliberate and pace about our open courtyard house, over the cold, hard tiles. I remember the undoing of expectations that I built in my head over the years. I thought my dream dog had to look a certain way, act a certain way. How had I become so attached to a fixed vision? Somewhere I caught a whiff of possibility. What you truly want finds you because it wants you too, and so you’re energetically magnetized to each other, despite your rational mind.

“Let’s go get her!” 

Scooping her up and off to a world bigger than a box, she’s since been on nearly every adventure permissible. In her first year, we traipsed her around to be pet by the kids on the market street, stowed her  in our bike basket off to the city, and across the river into the temples and row boats of the countryside. We even took her to the famed Vietnamese island of dogs, Phu Quoc Island, where dogs are free to claim territory and roam in packs all across the beaches and villages. That dog island paradise is where I had my first morning sickness confirming my pregnancy with my son. Dog and then babies, everything was beyond good and right with the world, pregnant with possibilities, such is that time in one’s life.

Co-workers warned me that to take a Phu Quoc dog out of Vietnam meant we might subject the dog to death by homesickness. Risking everything, I clung to her as we voyaged back the states after many years of living abroad, and I call her my favorite souvenir. Running gleefully down the trails to me and through these great North American open-spaces, I do say she has defied the spell of deadly homesickness and she rather likes it here.

All photos by Hannah Pierce-Carlson

Boat photo by Michael Julius

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