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Chó: The Four National Breeds of Vietnamese Doggos

It’s an inarguable fact that dogs are the purest of animals.

Some in the Saigoneer office may disagree with this statement. In fact, the illustrations for this article were created by noted cat people, and these very words were edited by feline fans. 

Nevertheless, I persist.

What other pet is there to excitedly greet you, no matter the situation? Whether you’re returning home from a bad day at work, a horrible traffic jam, or an epic monsoon, they are there wagging their tails and running around as if you’ve been gone for months.

When you’re sick in bed, they’ll snuggle with you, and if you feel like running around, they’ll gamely play. There’s a real reason they are called “man’s best friend.”

Vietnam, however, doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to dogs. As the co-owner of three rambunctious pups, I can attest that things you take for granted elsewhere are difficult here. Dog parks are a largely unknown concept, and a simple walk around the block can be stressful thanks to aggressive strays, bonkers traffic and a number of other obstacles. And there’s the overarching fear in the back of your mind that they could get stolen, either for money or something worse.

Then there is the country’s relationship with dog meat, a fraught can of worms that I won’t open here. 

Instead, I’d like to highlight Vietnam’s four native dog breeds, only one of which — chó Phú Quốc — appears to be widely known. 

First up is chó Bắc Hà, named after the area in Lao Cai Province in the far north that they originated from. Information on this breed in English is limited, but according to Dan Viet, over the centuries they have been raised by members of the H’Mong ethnic group as companions for hunting and working, in addition to serving as guard dogs.

They are large by Vietnam standards, with adults weighing anywhere from 16 to 26 kilograms, and have a thick coat that varies from red to tan or black that is perfect for the harsh winters of the northern mountains. 

In October 2020, a rare, beautiful white chó Bắc Hà named Sói won the Vietnamese Native Breeds Championship Dog Show. His owner told VnExpress that the breed is “graceful, calm and friendly, plus highly vigilant at night, making them great guard dogs.” 

In other words: a good boi.

Photos from yeuthucung.vn, lolipet.com, 24h.com, petacy.com

Next is chó lài, or Indochina dingo. They date back well over 5,000 years, when they were first bred as hunting dogs in mountainous areas of the Indochinese peninsula, including northern Vietnam. 

Remarkably, these dogs were carried on boats as civilizations spread from what is today mainland Southeast Asia across the islands of Indonesia and all the way to Australia. The wild dingos of modern Australia are, therefore, descendants of domesticated dingos originally brought from Indochina. 

Photos from “Chó Lài sông Mã” Facebook

Chó Lài itself can be traced to ancient dog species in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins of southern China, with fossils there dating as far back as 7,000 years ago.

Chó lài itself can be traced to ancient dog species in the Yellow River and Yangtze River basins of southern China, with fossils there dating as far back as 7,000 years ago. 

Vietnam, meanwhile, is home to the oldest known dog remains in mainland Southeast Asia, dating back around 4,000 years ago, while the earliest known dingo remains in Australia are from 3,450 years ago. 

Chó lài, therefore, has a fascinating place in the history of the region, and the modern breed is intelligent and athletic, while also serving as an excellent guard, much like chó Bắc Hà. The dingo is smaller than the latter, weighing at most 15 kilogram, and they look like they are made for the rugged outdoors. 

They are common in Lao Cai and other northwest areas, where they play an important role in the Mong community by herding livestock, going into the forest, and protecting homes. In the past, they were able to go hunting on their own and loyally bring game back to their owners, but in the modern age they are more domesticated.

But whether hunting for squirrels or asleep on the doorstep, they are unquestionably good bois.

The third of Vietnam’s national dog breeds is also native to the northern mountains, and has a close relationship with the H’Mong people who settled there centuries ago. Their genesis is a cross between a wild jackal species and a previous endemic dog species, and this wild DNA means they are resistant to illness and extreme temperatures.

Like the above breeds, the H’Mong trained them to help with hunting, controlling livestock and protecting property, and to this day they are famed for their terrific memory, which allows them to remember difficult mountain and forest routes that they traverse with their owners.

As puppies, they look like tremendously silly goobers, before growing into very athletic adults weighing up to 25 kilograms that have no trouble navigating rugged northern terrain.  

Photos from gamek.vn, petacy.com & hoaipet.com

Last but not least is the most famous of Vietnam’s national dog breeds: chó Phú Quốc, or Phu Quoc Ridgeback. 

Identifiable thanks to the unmistakable strip of raised hair along their spine, these dogs only date back about 400 years, and there is still debate over their origin. 

They are one of three ridgeback dog breeds, with the others being the Rhodesian Ridgeback (from South Africa) and the Thai Ridgeback, with the Vietnamese breed being the smallest. In fact, the genetic appearance of all three breeds remains something of a mystery, given their geographic distance.  

However, they were first classified internationally by the French in the 1800s, and two were brought to Europe in 1897, exposing members of the general public there to this distinct breed for the first time. 

Chó Phú Quốc is so well-known that there is an entire website just for the breed. According to the site, given their home island’s relatively small size, the dogs come from a highly unmixed gene pool, making it difficult for them to reach purebred status.

In fact, only about 700 are registered and recognized by the Vietnam Kennel Club, while they are not recognized by international kennel clubs at all given their rarity. 

Adult ridgebacks weigh from 14 to 18 kilograms and have a svelte, very athletic appearance. They are excellent runners and swimmers and — like Vietnam’s other national breeds — are natural hunters, in addition to being fiercely loyal. 

Photos from dogily.vn, huanluyenchosaigon.com, thucanh.net

Thanks to their rarity, properly bred ridgebacks can cost up to US$10,000 or even more, a fairly astonishing amount considering their heritage.

Taken together, Vietnam’s native dog breeds are as diverse as the country’s geography, with each bringing their own appearance and personality to the table. Whatever their differences, there is one trait they all share: they are good bois.

Graphics by Hannah Hoang, Phan Nhi, Hai Anh, Le Quan Thuan.