A grisly surprise lay in store for a traffic policeman when he flagged down for a routine check a dirt-caked truck groaning through the night in Dong Da, on the southern outskirts of Vietnam's capital, Hanoi. Stacked in the back of the truck, hidden under tarpaulin sheets, were wooden crates jammed with thousands upon thousands of cats. They had been smuggled across the border from the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in China, to feed Vietnam's illicit cat-meat trade. Many had not survived the journey.

The stench, according to the policeman who intercepted the three-tonne cargo, was overpowering - but at least the ordeal appeared to be over for the survivors of the journey.

According to the truck driver, the cats had been loaded onto his truck in Vietnam's Quang Ninh province, where a thriving trade in live cats has developed in recent years.

Government officials were drafted in to deal with the surviving cats and prosecute those behind the trade, and animal welfare groups clamoured to offer assistance. French actress-cum-activist Brigitte Bardot reportedly contacted the United States embassy in Hanoi with an offer to fund the rescue of cats bound for dinner tables. But a Post Magazine investigation into the cat-meat trade in Vietnam conducted in the weeks after the high-profile interception in January has found that it appears to have been little more than a token gesture towards tackling the trade.

Cat restaurants are booming and operating freely in Vietnam - even in the heart of Hanoi - despite the consumption of cat meat being illegal. The nation's emerging middle class has a taste for exotic, expensive meats such as cat, which is traditionally viewed as a source of strength and potency and is praised for its delicate taste.

Consequently, thousands of pet cats are snatched every year from homes across Vietnam and the southern provinces of China, where traders have been quick to capitalise on their neighbours' appetite.

Like the dog-meat restaurants Vietnam has long been notorious for, cat restaurants present a harsh and terrifying environment for the animals, which are kept in crowded cages before their slaughter.

The best-known destination for lovers of cat meat is Va town, in Bac Ninh province, an hour's drive from Hanoi.

"I've killed 31 cats this afternoon alone," says the owner of the town's Quy Beo restaurant, grinning. "We've never been busier."

The slaughter takes place in the yard of his smart four-storey home, opposite the restaurant, where traumatised cats hiss and pound their paws against the bars of their tiny, packed cages. The animals are taken out of the cages and put in boiling water, often alive, before being skinned in a rotating machine. They are then cut up with a cleaver and their meat is taken to the kitchen across the road by wheelbarrow

The bones are swept into a pile, and used later to make a broth popular in traditional medicine recipes.

"Everybody wants to eat cat now - it is more delicious and exotic than other kinds of meat," the restaurateur says. "Some people are superstitious and eat it to bring them strength and good fortune.

"Lawyers, policemen and company directors eat it at the start of the lunar month. Factory officials eat it at the beginning of the month. Rich people eat it all month long."

Va is in the heart of Vietnam's developing hi-tech industrial area. As the restaurant owner speaks to us, employees from a nearby Samsung mobile-phone factory pour into the eatery and begin ordering dishes, having been dropped off outside by a company coach.

As he tucks into a bowl of cat meat and noodles, one mid-ranking factory official says, "It's the best meat there is. Cats are particular about what they eat, not like dogs, so the meat is cleaner and better for you inside."

The restaurant's most popular dishes are hot pot with cat meat, which sells for the equivalent of about HK$400 for a meal for seven people - a considerable sum in rural Vietnam, where a standard bowl of soup noodles costs about HK$5 - and noodles with cat meat, at HK$35 a serving.

In a smaller restaurant nearby, owner Nguyen The Tai says the popularity of cat meat has exploded in the seven years he's been operating.

"It's getting more popular because people have more money," he says. "On a good night, we kill five or six cats for our customers. The best cats are aged from two to 2.5 years old and around 2.5kg in weight. We buy live cats for 125,000 dong HK$45 a kilo and sell the meat for 250,000 dong a kilo."

Far from being discreet and out of sight of Vietnam's senior Communist Party officials, cat-meat restaurants are becoming common in the capital. Eight months ago, Ngo Cong Thi opened a cat restaurant with his wife barely 1.5km from the centre of Hanoi - not far from where the truck full of petrified animals would be intercepted.

Ngo says business has been good since the opening night.

"People come from all over to eat here," he says. "One evening, we even had three Australian customers in. They tried the cat hot pot and said it was delicious. More and more people are eating cat, especially policemen, people high up in the army and the directors of big companies. Cat hot pot and stir-fried cat are our most popular dishes."

Ngo keeps his cats in cages on the sloping river bank opposite his restaurant. Baking hot in the summer, the cages are covered with pieces of carpet and bedding to provide shade. Many of the cats he serves have been smuggled from Laos or China through Thai Binh province, where they are traded and then taken by truck to Hanoi, he explains.

"They can move up to 100 tonnes of cats about 50,000 cats a month from Thai Binh to Hanoi," he says. "It's very big business."

In 1998, Phan Van Khai, the then prime minister of Vietnam, issued an order - which has never been revoked - banning the eating of cat meat. The order was described at the time as a "deep, fundamental, long-term measure to restrict the development of rats", a plague of which had threatened crops in the countryside. The order also imposed an outright ban on the hunting of predators including cats, pythons, snakes and owls for food or export. The Vietnamese government said it intended to "protect cats for the good of the whole population".

The decree instructed provincial officials to shut down all cat-meat restaurants and said it was "especially urgent" to tackle the illegal smuggling of cats across borders.

In recent years, however, pesticides have significantly reduced the threat of rats and the ban has been widely ignored. Domestic cats are now a rare sight in Hanoi and northern Vietnam, and residents report having pets snatched at night by meat traders.

Le Duc Chinh, Vietnam coordinator of the Asia Canine Protection Alliance, which campaigns against the eating of cats and dogs, says the problem has been exacerbated by apparent official endorsement.

"Sadly, the people who should be enforcing the law are eating in cat restaurants," he says. "I believe that people will stop eating cat meat only when they stop eating dog meat. The suffering these intelligent animals go through is the same.

"People in Vietnam have money now and they want to try something new. And the army officers and police officers eating it set a bad example. They are educated people, they should stop.

"Cats are being illegally smuggled in terrible conditions across borders and from one country to another to supply this industry. And because cats are small, many more of them have to suffer and die to meet demand."

For the cats which survived the truck journey from the Chinese border in January, there was no salvation. Despite the publicity surrounding the case, all were slaughtered a day after being intercepted in Hanoi, to prevent the spread of disease.

The manner of their death was particularly brutal, according to Le, who investigated the case. A waste-treatment company, contracted to do the job, used a dumper truck to crush the cats in their wooden cages before burying them in the Kieu Ky waste treatment area, near the centre of the capital.

"The cats were buried and covered with lime because of concerns they might spread disease in the capital," he says. "I was appalled and asked them why they did this to the surviving cats, but the officials insisted they were following the law, which says they should destroy animals immediately if they do not have health check certificates."

John Dalley, of the Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation, one of the groups that tried to save the cats, says, "This is a particularly distressing case, not least because a number of organisations offered to help. We had vets on standby ready to fly from Thailand but the Vietnamese authorities refused to give any information, or respond to calls.

"The fact that police intercepted the cats, which were bound for restaurants and slaughterhouses, is commendable, but what followed is not acceptable in any civilised country. We can only hope they did not die in vain, and the authorities will take steps to implement existing laws to end the inhumane trade in dogs, cats and wildlife that are not recognised as livestock in Vietnam.

Dalley adds: "The vast majority of these animals are stolen pets or illegally imported from other countries. The dangers of spreading diseases such as rabies and cholera cannot be overstressed, even if one accepts the cruelty involved in the trade.

"The government of Thailand has recently introduced laws banning the killing for food of animals that are not considered livestock and we hope other nations in Asia will follow their example."

In Vietnam - as the appetite for exotic meat grows in step with the country's prosperity - that hope seems a desperately distant one.

Cat meat markets

Cats and dogs are seen as food rather than pets in some Asian countries and efforts by Western-based pressure groups to end the practice of eating the animals have raised questions over whether it is any worse to eat a cat than it is to consume a pig or a cow.

However, pressure groups say cats and dogs are different to livestock because they are intelligent companions to people, and that the method of killing them - coshing them and then putting them in vats of boiling water to loosen their fur - is unnecessarily cruel.

Cats are eaten in parts of southern China, where the meat is considered a warming winter food, mostly by older people.

A China Daily report from 2012 estimated that four million cats a year are eaten nationwide and said the animal was one of the main ingredients, along with snake and chicken meat, in a traditional dish called "dragon, tiger, chicken", which is said to fortify the body.

It used to be eaten in Japan but that is now considered unacceptable, and it is taken as a tonic in parts of Korea, where it is believed to ease neuralgia and arthritis.

While most Europeans are horrified at the notion of eating cat, the creatures are still devoured in parts of rural Switzerland, where consumption is viewed as a matter of personal ethical choice, and there are recorded cases of feral cats being eaten by Australian Aborigines.

Historically, people in the West were less squeamish. In the Middle Ages, in England, a popular housewarming meal is said to have been a cat roasted slowly on a spit. Cats were also used in traditional medicines of the era.

In Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers (1836), there is an account of pies made from kittens being sold as "meat pies" in London and a British newspaper in 1885 reported a case of a woman convicted of passing off cat meat as rabbit meat.

Cat meat was also reportedly passed off as rabbit and eaten during world war rationing in Europe and jokingly nicknamed "roof rabbit" by customers who suspected that what they had been sold wasn't quite as advertised.

By Simon Parry - The South China Morning Post - June 7, 2015