A Cultural Feast – Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

A Cultural Feast
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

I found a monkey under my table at breakfast this morning. I wasn’t sure if this was normal or not so I tried to ignore it, but kept thinking of that movie “Outbreak.” I was digging for my camera when the owner of the cafe hustled over, grabbed it by the neck, and dragged it screaming and clawing into the restaurant. I have no idea if it was his pet or tonight’s special.

I’m in Bangkok, and it’s not just my breakfast that’s unusual. The word “intense” comes to mind when attempting to sum up my surroundings. “Total sensory overload” wouldn’t be an exaggeration either. Just crossing the street here is an adventure. Hundreds of bicycles, tuk tuks and motorcycles dart around in every direction like a colony of ants under attack. It’s not uncommon to see four people and a half dozen chickens zip by on a moped. There are also random nameless vehicles, as the locals can turn almost any animate or inanimate object into a mode of transportation. One guy wearing a conical hat and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt drove by on what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow.

It has been approximately six weeks since I left my apartment in San Francisco for a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. I’ve traipsed through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and will be heading south in a few days for Malaysia and Singapore. From the beginning of this adventure, my agenda has been to avoid agendas, but one thing I’ve made an effort to do is indulge in exotic cuisine. I’m not a food connoisseur by any means and my culinary skills reside at a fourth grade level (although I make a 5-star tuna-melt). Yet, in efforts to immerse myself into these provocative cultures, experimenting with the local chow has been essential. Plus, I just enjoy trying unusual food, and in Southeast Asia the possibilities are endless. While fried monkey is not on my wish list, my exploration has gone way beyond putting ketchup on eggs.

It’s important to note that exotic food exploration can be risky business. I learned this the hard way in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, otherwise known as Saigon. I was at dinner with some seasoned Australian travelers when my temperature began skyrocketing and stomach cramped up. They told me, based on my symptoms, that they thought I had eaten dog, not an uncommon dish in Vietnam. (Hopefully none of you work for the ASPCA.) All I know is that I was shivering violently in 95+ degree heat by the time I got back to my hotel room. It’s definitely unnerving being ill in a developing country so far from home. It was an eerie feeling of complete helplessness I’m not anxious to repeat. I lay incapacitated and miserable in my squalid hotel room watching MTV Asia with a fever, migraine and knife-edge stomach cramps. I emerged a beaten man three days later but it was a good week before I was able to fully retain any liquids or solids.

I had another meal with interesting side effects at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was called “Happy Pizza” and was fairly nondescript in appearance. The unique thing about the pizza is that dope is one of the toppings offered. If you request your pizza “happy” they sprinkle some pot on it. “Very happy” is major league. I stuck with “happy” to be safe since I was out of my element. My mistake was the hash brownie I ate for dessert. Fortunately, I made it back to my hotel before the brownie kicked my ass. I locked my door as I began to feel my demise, as I knew I would soon be defenseless…and pathetic. For the next 48-hours I was catatonic on my bed in a pool of warm sweat staring at the ceiling. My only contact with the outside world was the Khmer hotel manager who came the next morning to tell me I had missed my bus. She keyed into my room when I didn’t respond to numerous knocks. She was wearing a bright green bathrobe and jabbered loudly in unintelligible broken English. She was freaking me out. I never moved off the bed. I just mumbled incoherently and stared at her with hollow eyes. I was glad when she left.

More often than not, my dining experiences were outstanding and didn’t demand fistfuls of Tums or two to three days of sleep. But there was one meal in particular I’ll never forget, and most probably never repeat.

It was my last night in Hanoi, and I made friends with a couple of twenty-something Vietnamese guys at a bar near my hotel. Their names were Honda and Hung, and were students at a local university. They told me they were headed to a place outside the city called Lat village to eat snake and invited me along. I accepted, and offered to pay for gas in exchange for a ride on the back of one of their mopeds.

About 30 minutes later we pulled into a quiet alley and stopped in front of a small, decrepit building. My driver, Hung, smiled and pointed to a faded, wooden sign with a large, black snake which was coiled as if ready to strike. We walked in and were greeted by an old, dark-skinned Vietnamese man with deep, proud wrinkles. He was wearing what looked like a medieval nightgown with large, white buttons running down the length of the front. He sat us at a small oak table in the entranceway, served us green tea, and just stood silently off to the side, observing us as we drank.

When we finished our tea, the old man collected our cups and motioned for us to follow him. He slowly led us through a dingy room with a bare mattress and some tattered clothes on the floor, and into what appeared to be his living room. There, against the wall in the middle of the room, was a huge wire cage the size of a garden shed. Inside the cage was a murky, kidney-shaped pond dug into the floor, surrounded by small rocks and rotting logs. There was a thin tree in one corner and branches strewn about. Piles of leaves and dirt covered the remainder of the floor except for a rusty, children’s bicycle leaning against the far side. The old man unhooked the latch on the cage door, strolled inside, and closed it behind him. As Honda, Hung and I peered in we noticed just one snake that lay motionless on the ground near the pond. The old man walked directly to this snake, casually picked it up, and began examining it closely. Then, he suddenly threw the snake to the ground behind him with a look of disgust (apparently dead) and gave us a nonchalant “shit happens” shrug.

For the next few minutes the old man made his way around the cage poking with a stick beside rocks, under leaves and behind logs. As he did, snakes began popping up everywhere. There were dozens of them. Almost every branch or rock he moved would reveal a new snake, which would coil up and hiss, and quickly slither off to a new hiding place. Hung leaned over to me and said they were all King Cobras, and extremely poisonous. He said you could tell by their black and white markings and by the way they flare their necks into an oval shape when they’re angered. I wouldn’t have gone in that cage wearing a suit of armor, while the old man seemed perfectly at ease in his worn sandals and thin pajamas.

A short while later, the old man tossed his stick to the floor and started grabbing the cobras by the tail with his bare hands. One by one he would hold them up in front of the cage to show us, and then casually toss them to the floor behind him. Even with the chicken wire between us, Honda, Hung and I would jerk back every time the old man thrust a snake in our direction. Honda told me he was presenting us cobras to choose for dinner.

We eventually agreed on a nice, healthy looking 6.5 foot cobra, which the old man shoved roughly into a burlap sack and slung over his shoulder. He then led us up a narrow staircase to a small dining room where a table had already been set. The dining room was a rat-hole. Four ugly, wooden chairs with worn, purple cushions stood around a faded, pine table. Crappy chipped plates and cheap, plastic cups cast shadows on a white painted wall, now gray and peeling with neglect. The room had a severely cracked, cement floor and just one small open window facing an alley. The only decoration was a large, poorly framed poster of a mustached Marlboro Man cowboy from the early seventies with “Come to Where the Flavor Is” written underneath.

As soon as we were all seated, the old man simply dumped the cobra out of the burlap sack onto the floor in front of us. It almost immediately slithered across the floor towards me and I jumped up in a panic to seek cover behind my chair. Call me a prick, but if the old man hadn’t caught it by the tail, I would have grabbed my 5 foot friend Hung and used him as a human shield.

The old man started taunting the cobra, which hissed angrily and sprang at him several times. (I secretly hoped the snake would nail him since it would have made this a better story.) After narrowly escaping its fangs several times, the old man cleverly whirled around behind the snake, grabbed it by the tail, and started swinging it around in circles over our heads. Then suddenly, he whipped the snake violently to the ground and cracked its head loudly against the cement floor.

As I exchanged dumbfounded glances with Honda and Hung, the old man pulled a long, serrated knife out of his belt. Holding the cobra by the head, he shoved the tip of the blade into the snake about two inches below its neck. Then slowly, he slid the knife down through the snake’s skin leaving a 1.5 to 2 foot long incision. He slid the knife back into his belt, and using his hands, noisily pried the cobra open, exposing its organs. He then took our three, clear plastic cups off the table and put them in a row on the floor in front of him. Still holding the snake up vertically by the head, he began squeezing it so that the blood flowed down its body and off its tail into the glasses. Once each glass was about half full, he dug his hand into the snake, tore out one of its organs (not sure which) and squeezed what looked like bile into each of the cups. He then picked up the glasses, put one in front of each of us, and made a drinking gesture with his blood-soaked hand. We sat silently for a moment peering into our glasses. The cringe on my face was beginning to hurt my cheeks. Honda, Hung and I shared a few skeptical glances, some nervous laughter…and we drank. It was thick. It was warm. It was nasty.

The old man smiled with approval as we finished our blood. Then without warning, he crammed his beefy mitt back into the snake’s carcass, this time, deeper than the last. Then, with a vile sucking noise, he ripped out the snake’s heart, and casually plopped it into an empty glass in the middle of the table. Honda, Hung and I stared at it in amazement and disgust as it continued beating in the glass.

The old man disappeared with what was left of the cobra and came back a few minutes later with beer. We proceeded to drink heavily and laugh incredulously about the unusual dinner preparations and the snake heart still beating in the middle of the table.

For the next two hours the old man would keep reappearing with a different snake dish, all surprisingly good. It began with stir-fried snake meat and vegetables. Next came snake egg-drop soup and snake egg rolls, followed by snake chowder with the cobra’s backbones floating on top. We had crushed snake ribs fried with ginger and served on rice crackers, which had the consistency of bacon bits. And finally, deep-fried snakeskin which tasted a bit like fried pork rinds, if you’ve ever had the pleasure. Over all, it was one of the best meals I had on my trip so far, and nice to know none of the cobra went to waste.

When there was no food left, the old man came back upstairs and we asked for the bill. To our surprise, he shook his head, smiled, and pointed to the cobra’s heart, which was still slowly beating in the glass on the table. He then made the same drinking gesture he had given us when we forced down the blood. Honda, Hung and I sat silently for several seconds, alarmed and confused. The old man then leaned over the table and slowly slid the heart in front of Hung who was sitting in the middle. The room went silent. Honda and I glanced across the table at each other in quiet celebration as Hung stared miserably at the heart. Then suddenly, Hung stood up and snatched the cup off the table. He took a deep breath, gave each of us a courageous look…and tossed the cup, with heart, out the open window, and ran like a son of a bitch past the old man and down the stairs. Honda, the old man and I exchanged looks of astonishment, and then burst into laughter.

After Honda and I finished our beer, we paid and thanked the old man and made our way downstairs. We paused to gaze into the deceivingly empty cobra cage, sauntered through the old man’s bedroom, and stumbled out on to the street. The air was still thick, but much cooler than in the stuffy dining room. It felt like walking out of a movie theater after two hours of intense fiction. We found Hung leaning against his moped looking ashamed but amused, and made our way back to Hanoi.

The cobra was my last meal in Vietnam before heading back to Bangkok. I’m now sitting in a small, grubby restaurant overlooking the Chao Phraya River. I just finished lunch. I couldn’t read the menu and the owners didn’t speak any English, so I just motioned for them to bring whatever they liked. I started with a bowl of “not quite sure,” followed by a plate of “no idea,” with a side of “not a clue.” The only thing I’m sure of are the Rolaids waiting for me back at my hotel. I just hope I see that monkey hiding under someone’s table on the way.

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