Is It Food? Episode 8

While I was off leveling up my underwater skillz, Justin was busy gallivanting around the countryside surrounding Nha Trang. He hooked up with a guy with a motorcycle who took him to jump off a waterfall, visit an island inhabited by little monkeys on little bicycles*, and do whatever else they did. When I came home Justin said he knew a place where we could eat some snake and asked if I wanted to go. Oh boy, did I!!

*True story.

Charlie, the guy with the motorcycle, and his “brother,” on another motorcycle, were part of the unofficial group of tour operators in Vietnam called Easy Riders. I always thought this reference to American culture was extraordinarily hilarious, as was Charlie*. I think anybody with a motorbike and free time can call themselves an Easy Rider, providing the seasoned, already accepted members don’t decide to beat the uppity out of you. This means the quality of any particular guy is entirely dependent upon that guy. We sure lucked out with these ones.

*Charlie introducing himself, verbatim: “I’m Charlie. VIET CONG! VIET CONG! Hahahaha!!!”

After a twenty minute ride to the edge of the city, our chauffeurs turned onto a bumpy, unlit dirt road. The buildings were quickly replaced by fields of impenetrable tall grass and slapped together shacks. We’d finally found the fabled “real Vietnam,” you guys! We pulled up to the restaurant (or house or shed or whatever) where this shit was going to go down and Charlie negotiated the deal. We purchased a pound of snakes to eat between the four of us, and besides the dishes made from the meat, we would also get to drink the blood. Because that’s what happens in Vietnam, sometimes. The rest may get a little graphic, gentle reader, so if you’re squeamish and want to skip the rest just know I’ll lose all respect for you forever.

The restaurant man pulled a few snakes, freshly caught, naturally, out of a box and brought them over to our table. He gripped them all in a big bunch, cut off their heads with a scissors, and squeezed their blood into a shot glass. His wife came and took the corpses away to make us some tasty yum-yums. Restaurant Man mixed the blood into a bottle of rice vodka which turned it a fluorescent red. We had to wait a bit for any teeny blood creatures to die, because it’s safety first in this part of the world*. It tasted exactly like vodka (strong vodka) and looked like this

this is the creepiest vampire angle I could manage

this is the creepiest vampire angle I could manage

*No, it’s really not. I’d say safety usually comes in solidly at third to last.

Restaurant Wife made snake rolls wrapped in some type of leaves, minced snake with basil served with rice crackers, and fried snake skeletons. The rolls were OK, the meat dip was pretty good, and the bones were crunchy and disturbing. Although our Easy Riders shared the vodka, probably the least wise item for the motor vehicle operators, Justin and I basically had to tackle the food by ourselves. Half a pound of snake makes a lot of food. The whole smorgasbord cost us each a whopping $5.25. That’s Vietnam, baby.

Kinda drunk and full of snake, we went home to sleep it off. Snake blood is alleged to make one strong and virile, but the only thing that happened to us was that Justin felt icky for the next few days. I was a hardened road eater, being on Episode 8 by now and all, and as such suffered no ill effects. Even so, I braved almost certain parasites and dyspepsia just for the hell of it. Because that happens to me, sometimes.

No, I’m not dead. Yes, I’ll finish the blog. Well, no, I don’t think Inception was that hard to follow. Maybe you’re just a little dumb?

I’ve been back in America for a month now, organizing my life to move halfway across the country and appeasing people who want to talk to me in person for some reason. Before that, blogging got hard behind the Great Firewall of China, then I got really lazy in Japan, and I’ve stayed lazy since then. But not for long! I will for sure finish this stupid thing, even if it takes me another year. In the meantime, please enjoy this story of me eating something gross. Love, Ira.

CouchSurfing Nha Trang

After a fun time at a CouchSurfing meetup I had taken Justin to back in Saigon, we had our first joint surfing experience in Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a beach town and a popular place in Vietnam for scuba diving. Our host, Richard, owned two dive shops, both with rooms above them for employees and surfers. The rooms were basic, but there were always people hanging around in the bar downstairs. Couchsurfing is never really about the couch, anyway. We never actually met any real, paying guests, and I kinda doubt there ever were any. Even so, Richard made out pretty well in the deal since most surfers went on some type of dive trip with the company. This wasn’t a requirement, of course, just a happy side effect of CSer laziness. I was no exception and signed up for a course to get my advanced rating. The course didn’t really have any new material to learn, only more experience on some of the trickier skills, so the 30 second commute in the mornings was a much more important factor than comparison shopping, checking company ratings, or, you know, caring too much about quality.

It turned out the boat, the instructors, and especially the included food were of fine quality. The scenery and wildlife weren’t nearly as good as on Phi Phi, but I had been kinda suspicious that the stupendousness of Phi Phi might have ruined me for the rest of the world. No turtles? No seahorses? No sharks? What a waste! The course itself was easy and fun. One of the dives that was new had us diving to 30 meters, which, if you don’t know, is pretty goddamn deep. The other was exercises in buoyancy control. This involved floating upside down, running along the bottom, and swimming through hoops forwards and backwards. Training for the Vietnamese Underwater Circus was fun, but I still would have liked a chance to laugh at turtles doing funny turtle things.

I made my first diving purchase in Nha Trang, as well. I have pretty wide feet and usually need the widest footwear people make. Fins are no exception. Most dive outfits don’t have wide fins because there aren’t enough bigfoot freaks to be worth it. Any prolonged use of borrowed fins can result in…uncomfortable side effects. My first dive course ended in misery and bandages. With big chucks of my pinky toes missing by the end of the first day in Nha Trang, I was pretty motivated to do something about it. Solution: SOCKS!!! Thick neoprene diving socks, to be specific. I don’t know if you guys have bought socks before, but I’m pretty sure none of you have ever felt MAXIMUM HAPPINESS while doing it. During the second day of diving my feet felt like they were wrapped in fluffy clouds. It was the most worthwhile $15 I’ve spent in my entire life.

When I wasn’t diving we walked to a wat one afternoon. It was regular. We walked around the market. That was regular. It was really, really hot. Despite the reprieve in Dalat, that was unfortunately regular, too. On the bright side, breathing underwater, which is a pretty badass thing, is quickly becoming regular. TURTLES: still unsatisfyingly irregular.

Most non-Asian people look absolutely ridiculous in rice farmer hats. Juan could have pulled it off

Dalat is in a mountainous region in Vietnam, which means the weather isn’t hot as balls* like the rest of the country. The climate allows the area to grow a lot of produce, including coffee, and makes me want to photoshop a rice farmer hat onto a picture of Juan Valdez.

*Yes, this is, indeed, the technical definition. Any good climatologist would totally back me up on this one.

We spent our first day seeing what there is to see around town. Dalat has a bustling market that’s decently large, although not exactly remarkable after months in Asia and South America. The lake just outside the center of town would have been nice, with swan-shaped paddle boats laden with Vietnamese honeymooners drifting around, if it hadn’t been filled with more construction equipment than water. We spent a few hours and a few miles trying to find a cable car over a reservoir that I’m now pretty sure didn’t exist. The cable car, that is….although I never saw this alleged “reservoir,” either. Not too exciting, all together, but we enjoyed Dalat for it’s relaxing pace, interesting atmosphere, and not making us stupidly sweaty.

The second day we went on a hike, one of the main reasons backpackers stop in Dalat. We chose a day hike that seemed to have a little bit of everything. The route was mostly through an evergreen forest, which was a nice change of pace. Pine trees, you guys! The place looked like the Pacific Northwest, or what I imagine the Pacific Northwest looks like having seen The River Wild a couple of times. Intermittent along the way were coffee plantations. Every culture manages to invent alcohol in some form, but some stuff helps you out and ferments all by itself. Whoever figured out that raw coffee beans could be turned into such deliciousness deserves the Nobel Peace Prize or something. They’ll give those to just about anybody, right?

The hike wasn’t very difficult, a typical mountain trail with a few rickety rope bridges here and there. At least, it wouldn’t have been difficult if we had done it like normal people. Our guide must have had a hot date that night because we kept up a fast pace the entire day. This dude could pioneer speed hiking as a competitive sport. At one point we took a “shortcut” down a slippery dirt slope with probably a 60 degree gradient. Seriously, unnecessary. There were only the two of us on the trip, the obviously uber-athletic Team America, so the guide must have assumed we could handle it. We could, naturally, but even Justin the Tall Bastard was tired when we finished. Even though the weather was nice, after such a hard pace we were stoked at the end of the trail to get to swim in the very refreshing Tiger Falls, soothingly tiger free.

Since we had seen where coffee comes from I made it a point to actually drink some back in town. Vietnamese style coffee is made by putting the grounds in a metal canister with a perforated bottom that sits on top of your cup. You drink it with sweetened condensed milk, just like every other drink in southeast Asia, and it can be very strong. Now that I think about it, it might have been a better idea to have the coffee before the hike. We might have been able to keep up with Speedy Gonzales Trung more easily if we had been jacked up on caffeine and sugar.

The only thing cooler than buying bananas from some Vietnamese kid in a boat? Buying bananas from some Vietnamese kid in a boat wearing a POWER RANGERS T-SHIRT!!

There are a few popular trips to do out of Ho Chi Minh City. We chose two, one that I had been planning to do for weeks. That one, of course, turned out to be the worst tour of the trip to date. Because that’s just how life screws you, sometimes.

The first, OK tour started with a stop at a Caodai temple. Caodaism is a weird mish-mash of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Christianity. The followers wear color-coded robes and the temple is decorated in over-the-top pastels, making their services look like a rainbow exploded. The strict old lady guards that keep the spectators in line only added to my confusion of whether or not it was all just a joke.

no religion really makes sense, but most aren't so flamboyant about it

no religion really makes sense, but most aren't so flamboyant about it

The main aim of this tour was the Cu Chi tunnels. This huge network of tunnels was used by the Viet Cong as a base of operations, including during the Tet Offensive, and to survive American bombing. We watched a “documentary” video to start, featuring such heroes as the mild-mannered village girl who received a medal for killing some certain high number of Americans. I’m sure she pinned it on her sash right next to her Needlepoint and Assisting the Elderly badges. We also saw examples of the homemade weapons and booby traps little Suzy Sniper up there used to impale or bludgeon her enemies when the going got tough. It was all very effective, and the Viet Cong’s Surprise Holes of Killing made Cu Chi one of the bloodiest areas in the country.

The tunnels themselves had numerous camouflaged entrances and booby traps. They were pitch black, confusing, and too small for the steak-and-potatoes-eating Americans to negotiate. All together the area was a meat grinder. The tunnels are enlarged a little now for the tourists to fit, there are intermittent lights installed, and they claim all the traps are dismantled. I wasn’t particularly curious about adventuring off into the dark to find that last part out for myself. Incidentally, after being subjected to the hell that was the silver mine in Potosi, crouching through things was a breeze.

On the first day of the awful tour we were herded from one souvenir buying opportunity to another. Chopstick boxes, stuff made from honey, coconut candy, heroin, orphans, you name it. We got a few breaks in the form of a boat ride and fifteen or so minutes bicycling around some nothing of a town, but the rest of the time we were either stuck on the bus or boat or being pumped for cash.

The second day we actually got to see the thing I had been looking forward to, the Cai Rang floating market. Cai Rang is one of the biggest floating markets in southeast Asia. People from all over the Mekong delta sail their goods there to sell, sometimes living on their boats for days. This was the only bit of the tour that was worthwhile.

bananas are soooo last season? Do you have anything in a citrus?

bananas are soooo last season? Do you have anything in a citrus?

The last waste of time stop was a visit to a rice noodle factory. This was at least moderately interesting and much less worthless than anything from the first day. Overall, the two days were one bright spot shining out from a big, steamy pile of tour poop.

During both excursions we had the most fun laughing at the guides. The guide on the first tour was clearly having a good time. He made frequent off-color jokes which no one seemed to appreciate as much as we did. Well, the guide laughed at them, too. After lunch his sister hitched a ride to school and, amid the sibling banter, we (that’s the guide, Justin, and me) helped her cheat on her English homework. During the informational speech on the ride home the guide downed a beer, and when it was all gone looked longingly at the empty can, said, “I love you, beer,” and kissed it. This dude is now unshakably at the top of my Tour Guide Hall of Fame.

The guide on the second, shitty tour, on the other hand, was completely opposite. This dude was totalitarian and uptight, getting frustrated when he thought he wasn’t being understood.

Guide: Now we are going by the riber. You know “riber”?
Tour Group: …..(uninterested silence)
G: That’s r-i-v-e-r. You know?
TG: …..
G: R-i-v-e-r. You know “riber”?
TG: …..
G: R-I-
Me: YES! We speak English, we know “river”!
G: We will stop for runch in one hour. You know “runch”?
M: (facepalm)

He would also repeat himself whenever he thought people weren’t paying attention, which, if you’ve ever been on an organized tour, is nearly all the time. And also yell at anyone who asked a question about something he’d already mentioned, which, if you’ve ever been on an organized tour, happens nearly all the time. After two days of Nazi Guide I, too, was ready to make out with a can of beer or three.

In the sub-sub-basement is a light-up dance floor, disco balls, and racks of polyester suits. That part is rated for 10 kilotons of DISCO FEVER!

Ho Chi Minh City was the capital of the American-friendly South Vietnam back when there were two Vietnams. It was called Saigon back then, but they renamed it after Uncle Ho* post-reunification. The city is still referred to as Saigon sometimes, Ho Chi Minh City sometimes, or even HCMC for efficiency. I’ll try to call it something different each time, just to confuse you guys.

*The Vietnamese love Ho Chi Minh so much you almost have to call him uncle, even if there’s clearly no relation.

Ho Ch Minh, in a country and a sub-continent known for motorbikes, is known for motorbikes. There are 4 million motorbikes in a city of 7 million people and all of them are on the road during rush hours. You can stand on a main thoroughfare for hours and never see a break in the flow of traffic. Ocassionally, you have to stop watching and actually cross the street. To accomplish this all you have to do is step out confidently whenever you want and walk at a slow, steady, deliberate pace. That way you’re easy to predict and the motorbikes can lead you, like hunting villagers from a helicopter*, and break around you. It’s not as freaky as it sounds, and looks like this


*Too soon?

To start understanding Saigon’s and Vietnam’s history we went to the War Remnants Museum. Exhibits include graphic explanations (with color photos!) of the effects of Agent Orange; a collection of guns, grenades, tanks, planes, and other weapons used by the imperialist Americans in their war of aggression; photos and diagrams of how the cowardly foreign invaders were repelled by the heroic armies of the North; and international displays of support and solidarity for the righteous and benevolent North Vietnamese Army. There was no propaganda in this museum whatsoever. No, sir, totally fair and balanced.

Next we went to the Reunification Palace, formerly the Independence Palace. This was where the seat of the Saigon government was and underwent the most inverse naming process possible after the South’s surrender. I was really looking forward to this one, not for the history but the interior design. The areas where the business of government were conducted look like a typical office building, if a little dated. But the presidential living quarters? Those are a time capsule straight from the ’70s. Most state palaces go for more of a classical feel, sticking to design elements that can withstand the test of time. Not in Vietnam. They said, “Fuck you, style and class!” and went contemporary all the way. The effect is hilaaaarious.

that's one groovy romper room

that’s one groovy romper room

The best part, though, is in the basement. Down there, in two levels capable of withstanding .5 and 1 ton blasts, is a series of operations rooms filled with antique electronics equipment and office furniture.

you can almost see the pocket-protectored clerks intercepting ciphered Morse code and cursing when the reel-to-reel jams up

you can almost see the pocket-protectored clerks intercepting ciphered Morse code and cursing when the reel-to-reel jams up

If you can’t understand why this stuff made me giggle with glee, then you just don’t get me, man. Incidentally, Old Job still has plenty of those heavy metal desks in use. Those things are tanks.

For an experience not related to conflict we went to a water puppet show one evening. Fun! Water puppetry was invented in rice farming country, which is often underwater, basically for lack of any other entertainment. The puppeteers stand behind a barrier and manipulate the controls underwater where you can’t see them. Technologically it was very impressive. The stories and gags were a little corny and everything was mundanely water themed, but I guess wagons and mountain lions might look out of place. I liked it and thought it was interesting and artistic.

While we were walking around doing all this stuff we witnessed a guy on the street making an unusual version of something not so unusual. If you wander around enough markets in southeast Asia you will undoubtedly stumble across bottles of alcohol with dead animals inside. I’ve tried snake and scorpion whiskey in Laos, and Justin claims he’s had tiger penis whiskey in Thailand. As far as I can tell they never taste any different than normal alcohol, and no perceived benefit short of full Superman powers is worth stealing another dude’s junk. On the sidewalk in HCMC we watched this guy fill a two gallon jar with snakes, disemboweled lizards, and even a whole crow, fill it with alcohol, and sell it to another guy. It was interesting to see the stuff made wholesale, and to see who the hell buys it. Interesting, and disturbing. I don’t understand why the Vietnamese are so bent out of shape about Agent Orange. Have they seen where their booze comes from?

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