A few weeks ago I drove through a town in northern Vietnam that sold local milk products. As someone who grew up on a dairy farm but who is now lactose-intolerant, it felt somewhat surreal to watch my Vietnamese travel companions happily slurp down freshly made goats’ milk yogurt while I stood and watched. . . but ultimately this all made me wonder about the history of the dairy industry in that region.

Clearly dairy farms are not a “traditional Vietnamese” industry, and therefore, it must be the case that this is an industry that was introduced during the colonial period, but I was curious to know some of the details about the actual history of the introduction of the dairy industry into Vietnam.

a cow

Well, I still do not know how the dairy industry came to be established in Vietnam, but a quick search of the digitized materials at the French National Library brought up a fascinating report from 1931 entitled The Protection and Improvement of Livestock in Indochina (Le Protection et l’emélioration du bétail en Indochine).

The author of this report introduces to readers the kinds of cattle that were present in the different regions of French Indochina at that time, and ultimately determines that the best cows for beef, and the best region for raising them, was in the mountains surrounding the Red River Delta.

However, there was a problem: this region was inhabited by people who the author claimed were “lazy” – the Muong, Man, Meo and Tho – and therefore this author felt that some kind of incentive would have to be put in place for these people to raise cattle for beef.

The author of this report, however, argued that this was possible. The key was to open communications between this remote region and more populous areas. This contact would “excite lust” (excitent la convoitise) for products in cities, and the people of the mountainous regions would therefore logically conclude that in order to get the money that they needed to purchase produces from the cities, they should raise more beef cattle. . .

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I am not sure if this suggestion was ever acted upon, but this and other ideas in this report shine light on an aspect of the past that has not received much attention – the role of animals in human history, and more specifically, the complex ways in which animals and humans are part of a common past.

“Animal history” is a relatively new field of historical research, and there are various approaches to studying the role of animals in the past.

The British historian of colonial Burma, Jonathan Saha, has compiled a fabulous reading list on animal history, and he also maintains a blog on “beasts, Burma and British imperialism.” For anyone wishing to think more about how animals and humans have together created the world we live in, Jonathan Saha’s blog and scholarship is the place to start.