March 28, 2001 -- It's been almost a year since floods wiped out most of the rats in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. But now, they're back.
And some locals are glad. So glad that they might even be salivating.
If they are, they're probably savoring the possibilities: rat sour soup, fried rat, curried rat, grilled rat.
A Banner Harvest
In the rice-farming Delta, rats are the scourge of crops — but they're also a popular source of protein in many rural areas.
So bars and restaurants were found wanting last winter, when floods hit the region and lasted for months, nearly wiping out the rat population.
But no shortage lasts for long, considering how quickly the rodents reproduce — and farmers have once again begun bringing tons of rodent meat for sale to bars and restaurants.
"This year they caught the rats in larger numbers," said an information assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi who gave his name only as Thuc.
Three tons were being brought to market daily in the southern province of Bac Lieu, Reuters quoted the Tuoi Tre Chu Nhat (Youth Sunday) magazine as saying.
The report quoted the province's Agriculture and Rural Development Service as saying up to 270,000 rats had been caught on 84,000 acres of rice fields in the province so far this year.
A good cut of rat meat can cost as much a $2 a kilo, or roughly 91 cents a pound..
The expensive ones are light brown with a fat, wide belly, said Thuc, who has never eaten rat, but has seen them for sale in the countryside. The dark brown ones are cheaper.
There's great variety, he said. "Some rats are as big as a brick; others are only as big as a cell phone."
Rats are popular in rural Vietnam, not only because farmers have few sources of protein, but because they're regarded as "good meat."
"They just eat rice in the fields and they are not contaminated with disease," Thuc said. "[Farmers say] it is as good as chicken."
Plus, the meat is said to have some medicinal properties. Some farmers believe the meat can relieve backache when cooked in soup with vegetables and herbs.
Notwithstanding profit motives or health benefits though, farmers have to catch the rats because they destroy crops.
To catch the rats, farmers use dogs and cats, or place traps — but the most common way is to use electricity: the farmers place a live wire around the rice field, and when the rats run across the wire, they die.
It's more much efficient, said Thuc. You "go to sleep and the next morning [you] catch 30 kilo of rats in the rice field."
The only problem is accidental electrocution. Thuc says he has heard of at least 10 deaths a year from farmers or their neighbors stepping on the wires.
Tentative Start to a Trend?
In the past, farmers just ate the rats that they caught, "but recently business-minded people began establishing rat meat restaurants," Thuc said.
It's a trend that hasn't exactly taken off in the city, though. Although rat restaurants have crept out of the countryside, people have only begun eating at them out of curiosity, Thuc said.
There have been some concerns that unscrupulous restaurateurs were mixing the city rats with their cleaner country cousins.