Monday, 23 December 2013

Snakes on a Plate

01/28/2012 - My eyes shot open from the nap I thought would become a coma. Disoriented, with no concept of time, I only knew the sun had gone down. Squinting and working to hold myself up, I slowly felt my way down the bright, vacant corridor. I made it to the door on the end, on the other side, an exuberant mob laced with liquor. Oddly being on the sober side of the crowd, I found myself a computer and contemplated dinner.
Snake Liver & Skin Stir-fry
             Through the foggy emptiness in my head, I heard a voice calling my name. I vaguely heard the Hanoi Backpackers Hostels announcement for the snake village tour, which would take care of dinner and my urge to devour some reptilian flesh. Two birds stoned at once.  Having some prep time for the night ahead, I grabbed a couple beers to begin priming my stomach.
Snakes Bones & Spices
             The nine of us pile into a van and flew down the streets of Hanoi. Suddenly he relaxes on the gas through some seedy roads passing sign after sign advertising a ‘tasting menu’ of snake.  Coming to a jarring halt, I assume we have arrived and not the only ones drinking. Greeted by the manager, she showed us to the holding facility of these fascinating, yet surprising delicious reptiles. As we approached, the handler lost his hand in a burlap sack to reveal two, three foot long ‘house’ snakes. Not sure of the actual species, I thought of it as a house wine. The other option on the more visual list was the daunting spitting cobra. It has a subtle hint of venom. Watching the handler antagonize the cobra into strike position, which led to squealing, I was holding a house snake as it glided up my arm and around my shoulders. I love snakes, but not wanting any nibbling on my ear I had it removed as we were shown to our intimate dining area. A low, long table ringed with cushions, in a dimly lit open pavilion encompassed by ponds and garden.
             Three house snakes were on offer (any more was just a little extra, and cobras about 10 dollars), for our warm fresh hors d’oeuvres. I had my hand up before our guide finished talking claiming one. Only two others decided to join in on the fun. The snake handler remaining almost completely in the shadows brought with him a burlap sack and a tray with two glasses of rice whiskey. Jumping up to take that first bite, this is what I came for! Pulling my victim out of the sack, he directed me to the whereabouts of the necessary incision and handed over the blade. Shocked that I got to do the knife work, without hesitation I put blade to flesh. While draining the some blood into the rice whiskey, he pulled the still beating heart from its resting place exposing it to all the elements. Getting the go ahead, I went for it, embracing my animalistic side, I placed my teeth around it and ripped it out. Still beating on my tongue, for a few seconds, I could feel blood running down my chin and adrenaline pumping through my veins. Swallowing it whole, I chased it with some bloody rice whiskey. In some sense it was like an oyster, open it up, eat the sweet, fresh morsel of flesh chased with its natural liquor. The stomach was sliced open next to drain the bile into the second glass of rice whiskey. The blood was apparently a male aphrodisiac, and the bile, female.
                After the opening festivities to our six course meal, cushions were taken and snakes blood shots were poured. Watching most hesitantly drink, I slammed mine back, personally thinking the blood made the rice whiskey taste better. I was more concerned about the bile, everyone knows it tastes horrid coming up. It was stirred, turning the whiskey a murky grey. To say the least it was memorable. It was bitter, pungent and choked down by all. As the shot glasses were thrown down, so was our first course, and the rules explained. As each course is presented to us, before a chopstick touches the plate another shot must be absorbed. Down the hatch, I just wanted to dive in. Snake meatballs were first, followed by springrolls. There was no distinguishable flavour telling me this was snake, but none the less bite-size crispy, deep-fried delights. Two more shots, two more dishes, and a little more my style. Liver and skin stir-fry and a plate of what was described as the bones crushed up with spices and dried chilies. Served with a rice cracker, it was similar to an Egyptian or Middle Eastern dukkah. Large plates of rice topped with the bone mixture were dropped next, which worked out well soaking up some of the rice whiskey. To finish off the meal, the grand finale was plates of snake ribs. A part I never put much thought into thinking they had. It was a miniscule amount of meat, but with a sticky glaze, finger licking!
                Walking away from a meal of many firsts, with a sense of accomplishment, striking off another edible adventure with quite the buzz, I felt I was missing something. My last night in Hanoi, I returned to the village of snakes and finished my quest by eating the heart of a cobra. As they pulled the teeth out to prevent it from spitting at me, I went for it...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Hanoi - A week I'll never forget, if I could only remember.

01/24/2012 – “Hold on sir.” As the customs official looks curiously at my passport and waves over some more suits. Oh shit, I’ve been red flagged. They’re talking and pointing at me, now they’re walking this way. I can see the door, should I run for it.
                Okay, so really my passport was just damaged. They were deciding on whether or not it was fit for travel and if I should be allowed entrance into Vietnam. He steps back in his booth, stamps and I’m in! As I’m waiting for my bag, my name is announced to report to the luggage desk. I thought they changed their minds, I advanced with caution. Expecting to be shown to departures, I received better news, not to say good though. My bag apparently didn’t make the plane change in Bangkok. I could deal with this, so I gave them a description. If it was found they would deliver it to my hotel. Here’s the catch, for that to work out, you need to know where you’re going! I took their number and left, just wanted to get outside.
                Second guessing wanting to be outside, it was much colder in Hanoi than I expected. I thought Vietnam, South-East Asia = sandals, sunburns. I was wrong indeed, it wasn’t Canadian winter cold by any means, but it was far from warm. Sharing a cab with someone I met on the plane into the Old Quarter (backpacker district), they had a bed booked at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. Turns out extra beds were available and for less than ten dollars a day, I think so. They even called the airport for me, to more easily communicate.
                Arriving on the second day of Tet (Vietnamese New Year), I had no idea of its significance. One of the few public holidays, just about everything was closed, other than a handful of restaurants, bars and shops. Not quite sure of my course of action, I bunkered down for a couple days awaiting the reunion with my belongings. A few of us walked the streets, eating, drinking, eating and drinking, a complete debauchery of the senses. Beer was or par with the cost of water, they make my decisions for me, and a bowl of pho was about the same.
                “Hey, are you Jason Mullin?”
                “Umm, yeah, I think so.” As I barely opened my eyes.
                “We leave in ten minutes for Halong Bay, are you coming?” It was an employee rounding up all the slackers. I managed to roll out of bed, pack my stuff which was returned late my second day when I booked this overnight ‘cruise’. While brushing the polluted taste out of my mouth, I realized my chin was caked in blood. Washing it off, vague memories flooded my foggy brain of being convinced, which most likely was not difficult, to do the worm. Of course I went for it, only to split my chin open on the floor. Not having much feeling and a reasonably successful worm, I think, other than the chin spitting, I just held a napkin to it and continued on. I saw the wound and had an angel/devil experience. One telling me I should probably get stitches, then thankfully he was silenced and I was reminded I forgot travel insurance and had a bus to catch.
                Four hours of what I have to consider sleep on a stool in the aisle of the bus is all I get. Another day, another drink! According to rumor, it’s about to begin again when we board the junk boat, drunk overindulgence.
                Out on open water, maneuvering through the thousands of limestone islands and junk boats, I walked around the boat mystified by the haze that hung over the bay all day. Once being shown our cabins, most of us grabbed a couple roadies for the kayak, and from this moment on the buffalo rule was in effect. Paddling into a tunnel taking us through one of the monoliths, we stopped to explore a small grotto, whose mouth opened just above the turquoise water. Finishing at a fishing village, we got a ride back to our boat and dinner was ready. While we ate another boat crept up and was tied to ours. Not that everyone wasn’t well on their way, it was time to load up and jump ship. Double fisting, I split a bottle of rum with a couple others and a forty person game of Kings ensued. The night got blurry quickly, and then I heard the mass wake-up call at 7:30. Running off last night’s fumes, I drank my way through breakfast to keep me going until the bus back to Hanoi, where I could slip into unconsciousness.
                Back in the Old Quarter, dreading the moment the bus stopped, I felt and I’m sure looked no better than a grotesque pile of gauno, but I wasn’t alone.  Staggering to the hostel desk, I booked another tour for the following day going to Tam Coc, which was a couple hour boat ride through more limestone caves, then headed for an enormous bowl of pho ga. A Vietnamese noodle soup with chicken (pho bo – beef). Every time I play with the condiments, to find the perfect balance of spice, salt, sweet and sour, that would be debated by the whole country. While walking back, planning a night of recovery, I was intercepted by a friend I met and learned of their departure the next day. This only meant one thing, cheap Hanoi vodka from the street to kick back into high gear.
                Keeping it tamer than previous nights, I managed to get my befouled self up for a much needed but undesired breakfast, before pushing through the day. Getting back in the early evening, I finally justified some time for a nap. Surprisingly rejuvenated when I awoke, I was also starving. Deciding what’s for dinner, the snake village tour was being announced. This is a whole other story, but to say the least, it was a hooch filled dinner party.
                It was my sixth day in Hanoi now and before I kept drinking myself in circles, I bought a sleeper train ticket south for the following night. Keeping in touch with a friend I had met on my jungle trek a couple weeks prior, he had close relations to the Vietnam Friendship Village. Eagerly, I accepted his offer to see their welcoming doors. The Vietnam Friendship Village provides medical care, physical therapy and education to the young and elderly with a range of illnesses. Run by volunteers, their dedication is unparalleled. Due to the holiday most of the residents went home to be with their families, but we were shown some of the rooms where they stayed and learned. The playground they tried so hard to maintain and the very necessary football field (real football, European football). What amazed me the most was the garden and the small farm, making the community as self sustaining as possible.
                The following day was one of the staff’s only real days off where a sort of pilgrimage took place. Taking us with them, we hiked up at least two thousand irregular steps to a striking monument, proudly overlooking the surrounding stunning countryside. Afterwards we joined them for a bountiful family style feast. Being a guest, they graciously served me, refilling my bowl constantly. It was difficult to get explanations of the dishes we ate, but one described to me as a small seabird, was roasted and glazed. Amongst many toasts of vodka and beer a head was offered up to me, I think as a joke, thinking I wouldn’t eat it as they chuckled. About the size of a timbit, one bite, beak, bones and brains, down the hatch. The skull cracked open to a savory explosion as the brain burst. Do you remember gushers? Same idea.
Buddha's hand at the market
                After an unforgettable meal and experience with the Vietnam Friendship Village, I was driven back to the Old Quarter hoping I would return again. Sitting around the hostel, getting ready for the train, I was asked if I would make up the final person for the snake tour. Well I had a train to catch at 10:00pm, and the tour returned around 9:30. Sure, why not, cutting it close but that snake was good!
                Managing to get on the train with a bit of a sideways shuffle and some rice whiskey I took to-go, I had a few more to Hanoi and woke up in Hue.