Culinary Adventures in Hanoi
I knew I was getting myself into trouble. I certainly didn’t have to rely on my gut instincts to know that. I just had to look at the situation, really. Here I was, about to head off into the dark back alleys of Hanoi with a couple of unsavory Vietnamese street kids on a quest to find a snake restaurant, and eat the still-beating heart of a bamboo viper. “It make you strong,” I had been promised.
Now, I’m no idiot. I knew these kids were either going to cheat me, rob me, maim me, or kill me. The only question was which one, and when. I mean, they weren’t exactly the most wholesome kids you’d ever seen: they showed up for our little date wired on heroin. They were runaways from some far-off village, and they were savvy, wily, and street-hardened con artists. They knew how to separate travelers from their money like you and I know how to breathe.
I had met Sun (pronounced “soon”) on my first day in Hanoi. I had just settled into my hotel room and started on my wander around the city. I walked the streets for a couple hours, and managed to survive the constant onslaught of both the motorbikes (Hanoi’s street traffic looks like an ant farm in full panic … when one crosses the street, one must be willing to die.) and the postcard sellers.
The postcard sellers are notorious in Hanoi. You read warnings about them in The Book (The Lonely Planet, the traveler’s bible). These kids will get right up in your face, glue themselves to your hip as you walk, and relentlessly shove their postcards and photocopied books (The Quiet American, and other tourist must-reads) in your face until you either fork over your money, or brush them off. No mean feat, that.
I was making my way back towards my hotel, and having fended off what I had thought was my last postcard hawker, I stupidly let my guard down. “Hey, where you from?” I heard. I half-turned, and without thinking said, “San Francisco.” “Ah, I have family in San Francisco … where you live there?” Damn. I was sucked in. He was good, I’ll give him that. Sun was a gaunt, scruffy little 19-year old sporting a dirty yellow t-shirt and an odd tuft of hair jutting out of a mole on the side of his chin. He was easy going and friendly. He smiled with his entire face.
I was eager to meet an English-speaking native; hardly anybody speaks English in Hanoi. I took the opportunity to fire question after question at Sun, plying him for information about Hanoi, Vietnam, the Vietnamese, the American War, you name it. We ended up chatting on the street for a good 20 minutes … and contrary to my standard rules of engagement, I even bought a copy of The Quiet American from him (I really did want to read it).
As we talked, a man strode up to us and started to verbally assault Sun in Vietnamese while gesturing angrily towards me. Sun quickly took me by the arm and shuffled me off down the street as the guy trailed loosely behind us, continuing his relentless barrage. I thought this was all very fascinating, so I stuck with it rather than bailing out … but this kid was clearly doing something wrong. I just didn’t know what – ripping this guy off, or ripping me off.
After offering me some explanations that I didn’t even remotely believe, Sun offered me his services as a tour guide, with the specific goal of taking me to a snake restaurant (“You like snake? I take you to good snake restaurant … you like.”). I told him to meet me in front of my hotel two days later, 7 o’clock. I knew he’d be there: he smelled money.
In Hanoi, they have restaurants that are exclusively dedicated to eating snake. In fact, there’s a whole neighborhood whose dining establishments are entirely snake restaurants. Go figure that one out. As you walk its narrow dirt alleys, you’ll pass restaurant after restaurant whose big glowing yellow signs sport cobra sillouettes. Anyway, if you’re not in the mood for snake, don’t go there, you won’t be happy.
So, two days later, I met Sun outside my hotel. I brought Anna with me, who I had met the previous day on a day trip to Ha Long Bay. Sun showed up with a friend, too. Dang. Dang was decidedly untrustworthy. He was swarthy and shifty, with a scorpion emblazoned on his t-shirt and beady eyes that couldn’t rest on anything for more than 5 seconds. He was constantly checking behind him. He looked seriously dangerous. And I had expected Sun to come alone. This did not bode well.
I quickly checked it with Anna, and she — a tough, street smart New Yorker — agreed to give it a shot anyway. “What the hell,” she shrugged.
We headed out. After the usual histrionic negotiations with mototaxi riders and private cars for hire, we piled into a taxi to take us across the Red River to the snake village, as it was called. In the cab, Anna leaned over and whispered in my ear, “These guys are wired to the gills.” I replied out of the corner of my mouth, “Yeah, I’m guessing heroin. Well … at least they can’t move fast that way.”
I tried my best to remember the taxi’s path, in case we needed to breadcrumb our way out of there, but I was soon lost amongst the myriad of streets, vehicles, animals and vivid lights. The streets got increasingly small. Eventually, the driver pulled to a stop in the middle of a half-destroyed alley, and said something in Vietnamese. Sun explained, “Road too small. We walk now.”
I gave Anna an uneasy glance, which she returned with a shrug, and we trod off behind the boys down an unnervingly dark dirt road. After we made a couple turns, passing what appeared to be mostly darkened houses and apartment buildings, my heart was racing. We were in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t seeing any restaurants at all. We took yet another turn. This was not cool.
My head was on a swivel … I was tensed, waiting for somebody to ambush us from behind. I made a mental note of how quickly I could pull out the knife I had in my daypack, planning for its surreptitious removal under the pretense of getting to my money, and brandishing it in the attacker’s face with a fierce “you want a piece of THIS?!”
We approached a snake restaurant and my heart leapt, thinking we’d arrived. We passed it. And then another. “What’s wrong with these places, guys?” “Not these.” Our turns seemed random, as if they were guessing, or didn’t care much where we went as long as it got us disoriented. I felt like we went full circle at one point, but I wasn’t sure anymore. Shit. This was not good. I glanced over at Anna, and she glared a “what the hell?” at me. I shrugged an “I have no idea” back at her.
After passing at least a half dozen restaurants, Sun walked up to one, seemingly at random, and said “here.” Jesus, thank God. We went in, and as the proprietor met us, I did a quick read on whether Sun really knew him, or if he’d just walked us into any old place. It looked like he knew them, but I couldn’t be sure. Frankly, I wasn’t sure which would be worse. I tried to relax.
The owner, a slight, middle-aged gentleman wearing what appeared to be brown pajamas, walked me over to a set of cages running the length of the far wall. Inside were piles of live snakes. Sun sidled up next to me, smiling, “He want you to pick snake you like.” Hmm. “Um … yeah, listen man, I’m no snake expert … especially when it comes to eating them. Whichever one you recommend is fine by me.” Sun translated for me, and my snakiere (for lack of a better name) reached into the cage with a long metal pole and extracted a 6-foot long snake. I took a step back. Make that three steps.
He grabbed the snake — a bamboo viper, I was to find out later — by the tail and whirled it around in front of me with a dramatic flourish (this, I assumed, was the part of the floor show, included in the price of dinner). The snake was not very happy about the whole thing, and started to wrap itself angrily around his arm, angling its head toward its tormentor. I took another step back.
As if it were an afterthought, he casually grabbed the snake just behind the head and turned it belly up. He picked up a knife from a nearby table, and carefully made a 3-inch long incision along the snake’s neck, starting just below its chin. His assistant, wearing flowered pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, took hold of the tail and raised it above her head as the snakiere held the head over a glass half-filled with rice wine. The clear liquid turned red as the blood drained into the glass.
He then wriggled his forefinger into the incision, and with a concentrated look, popped out the snake’s heart. He dropped it into a shot glass, and added a few drops of the blood and rice wine mixture. He handed me the shot glass. I looked in the glass and saw the heart — looking much like an oyster — thumping away. He made a “drink” gesture at me, and I paused for a moment. “Well … cheers.” (I couldn’t think of what else to say, frankly, and “cheers” seemed as good as anything.) I tossed it back and gulped it down. Everybody smiled happily as I handed the glass back. Everybody but Anna, who smiled at me with absolute incredulity. “I can’t believe you just did that.”
Yeah, me neither.
I was still shaking a bit as we watched the assistant attach the snake by the neck to a clothesline-like wire, then proceed to skin and gut it with an unsettling precision. The fluid of the gallbladder was emptied into another waiting glass, its clear contents turning a nuclear green as it mixed with the bile. I naively assumed this would be discarded but, as I’ve learned: in Vietnam nothing gets discarded. Ever. The Vietnamese have an amazing ability to reuse, recycle and repurpose everything … in fact, it was one of their main tactics for beating the pants off us in the war: they would make supplies and weapons out of the Americans’ cast-off “garbage”, from Coke cans (hand grenades) to tires (sandals) to jeeps (spare parts).
We were ushered upstairs to the dining room, past a bar on which were placed large glass jars filled with fermaldehyde and the carcasses of various animals: cobras, pythons, bamboo vipers, ghekkos, a monkey. Next to these were a couple of angry-looking stuffed monkeys perched in a fake tree. Not stuffed toys … stuffed monkeys. If this was all intended to inspire one’s appetite on the way to the dinner table … well … it kind of missed the mark.
Atmosphere: 2 stars.
We settled in at the table, and I looked around to see a beautifully appointed, spacious dining room, entirely devoid of customers. Before I could even make a joke of it, a waitress appeared bearing two glasses — one filled with the blood, and the other filled with the fluorescent green gallbladder fluid — and four shot glasses. Oh, great … cocktails.
Sun and Dang pulled thirstily on their water glasses, drinking deeply. They were coming down from their highs. Anna shifted her eyes nervously between the shot glasses and my face, and I gave her a sarcastic smile. It was like being at a cocktail party in Hell. “Care for a drink?” We each took a shot of the blood, its smooth saltiness cut slightly by the vinegary rice wine. “Not bad. For blood.” The gallbladder fluid, on the other hand, belonged in the cupboard under the sink, alongside the Drain-O. It tasted like ass.
What then unfolded before us still boggles my mind. We were presented with an 11-course meal for four out of that one snake. No part of that animal ever hit the garbage pail; we ate everything: skin, bones, meat, organs, eyes, fluids. We had soup, salad, several stir-fries, egg rolls, and a serving of broiled filet. And each dish was outstanding; it was easily the best meal I had on my travels. By a longshot.
We ate eagerly, my previous nerves having stoked my hunger to the point of ravenousness. I watched Sun and Dang eat hungrily; this was probably the best meal they’d had in a while, and they might not be seeing another for some time to come. Finally, our myriad of little plates emptied and our glasses drained, we sat back in our chairs, satiated, and lazily picked at our teeth with toothpicks. Delicious. Filling.
Food: 5 stars.
I had been told by various locals I’d met that eating the heart of a snake gives you great strength (they would all clench their fists and flex their biceps at me: “make strong … grrr.”). Well, I would need my strength for what was to come.
Sun disappeared downstairs to discuss the bill with the proprietors (they didn’t speak any English), and returned to tell us the amount we owed. 800,000 dong. WHAT!? That (around $50) was about triple what I had expected, and thus was about double what I had in my pocket. Nobody carries around 800,000 dong with them in Vietnam … it just doesn’t happen. And credit cards are a completely foreign concept. I was being had, and I had no idea where I was, or how to get out of there without these kids’ help. I was screwed.
Flash forward through what would turn out to be a long litany of explanations, arguments and recriminations, pleas, eye-rolling and histrionics, and we all find ourselves sitting on the sidewalk in front of one of the few ATM machines in Hanoi. Sun’s expecting me to fork over 400,000 dong to him, but instead I’m telling him the deal: “Listen, man, here’s what I’m going to do. I know you’re full of s**t, you know you’re full of s**t, and Anna here knows you’re full of s**t. I paid the restaurant for the fair value of that meal (half what he had claimed), and I consider that a done deal. Now, I’m going to give you some extra cash as payment for your services as a tour guide and translator. But don’t bulls**t me, bud. The meal did not cost that much, and you know it. Take this, and be happy with it.” I held 200,000 dong (about $12) in my hands. It was a lot of money to him, and it wouldn’t make too bad a dent in my wallet, or my sense of fairness.
About this point, Dang went nuts. I mean, completely bezerker nuts. He ranted and raved in the street in front of us, eyes bulging, arms flailing, spitting and screaming the word “Americans” interspersed with an impressively vicious vocabulary of expletives. I started to get really nervous. For all I knew, my countrymen might have wiped out a whole branch of his family tree back in the day … in fact, it was highly likely. And I was standing between this kid and his next fix, which is about the equivalent of standing between a mother bear and her cub.
Anna leaned over to me and, keeping her eyes pinned on Dang, whispered carefully out of the corner of her mouth, “This guy has killed people.” Keeping my eye on him, I replied, “Yes, I think you’re right.”
I looked at Sun, pressed the money into his hand, and made to stand up. Dang suddenly went into high gear nutball. I grabbed Anna’s hand, and started walking away — fast — with the guys trailing behind, Dang still railing wildly. “Anna? See that taxi up there on the corner? Run for it. Now!”
… and we ran like hell, making it to the taxi and taking off (“DRIVE!! ANYWHERE!! JUST GO!!”) before the kids could reach the car.
So in the end, I had a good meal, with good friends, and managed to get out without having my neck sliced open like that poor bastard snake. Not a bad night on the town, all in all.