I Almost Ate Cobra
“Hey Dong,” I said, waving him over. “They have snake here.”
There it was on the menu, stuck between Bamboo Garlic Chicken and Steamed River Fish: Fried Snake.
Dong took in the selection, barely nodding his head.
“Can you please order it for me? I want to try it.”
“Hmmm…,” he mused, sucking on his lips.
“Fried snake, see?” I said, pointing to the entry. “I’d really like to have some.”
“I’ll pay extra, I don’t mind.”
“This snake… this snake no good.” He paused and sized me up, like a manager considering taking on a young boxer, or a hardened sergeant eyeing a new recruit.
“I wouldn’t mind trying it.” I looked across the table to Sam, who shrugged in mild encouragement, as if to say, ‘go for it, dude.’
“You want the snake, yes?” Dong asked, in his impenetrable Vietnamese accent, dropping nearly all the consonants from the words bouncing out of his mouth.
“Yes,” I had now totally convinced myself. “I want to eat some snake.”
“Hmmmm…Okay…okay. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I take you good snake. This snake no good,” he said, waving the menu away. “Tomorrow I take you cobra. Good for strong. Good for man.”
He made a fist and stuck out his forearm, the universal Asian sign for STAMINA.
We were in the crumbling town of Can Tho, a drab and smallish city located on the banks of the Mekong in southern Vietnam, the site of a raging battle during the war. The place looked like it never fully recovered. We checked into a cavernous and belittling hotel that looked as if it were designed by Stalin’s personal architect – all moldy concrete, cold tile floors, and mysteriously stained carpet. We seemed to be the only guests.
Our guide, the always-cool Dong, took us to a restaurant in the center of town, right along the river, a place with a French terrace, ceiling fans, and tables full of European tourists, gesticulating, smoking, and speaking in hushed, Continental tones.
“So are you up for it?” I asked Sam.
“Eating cobra? Sure. I guess.”
“We are in Vietnam,” I said, sucking down a gulp of cold 333 Beer. “I saw it on TV one time. They even drink the blood and drink the still beating heart.”
“When in Rome,” Sam replied, raising his eyebrows. “But the heart’s all yours…”
By eleven the next day, Sam and I were on the road with Dong, on our way back to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as most everyone except the people who live there refer to it these days. Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, was just two days away, and much of the country was on the move – on its way to visit family members in far-off cities and provinces. The road was heaving with traffic of all kinds: Buses were crammed with people inside and supplies on top; whole families balanced on 100cc motor scooters – nearly fused together to maximize all possible space; cars weaved in and out, overtaking on the left and the right, honking and sputtering blue fumes. It was utter chaos, and I held onto the car door armrest with a constrictor-like grip. Sam, like me, was sweating pure fear. Dong was unperturbed, however, and blindly passed trucks on corners while puffing on his omnipresent cigarette.
Adding to our misery was our ever-growing hunger. We each had eaten a tiny bowl of noodles early that morning, but the fuel had since spent itself. What had begun as a small twinge had now evolved into a full-blown need for more food.
“I’m seriously starving. I need to eat soon,” Sam said.
“Me too, dude. I’m famished.”
No sooner had we declared our need to eat when Dong pulled off of the main road and stopped the car in front of a storefront.
“Here there is the snake.” He gestured to a large sign above the joint’s door, featuring a huge, garishly painted, nasty looking cobra. Sam and I looked at each other, took a deep breath and got out of the car.
“Here we go,” I said.
Sam nodded his head in silence and followed me through the door.
The restaurant was located in a basement. It was dank and bunker-like, all concrete, with an assortment of plastic tables and chairs. A few of fluorescent bulbs sickly lit the place, revealing a massive mural on the wall, depicting more colorful and extremely venomous looking cobras. The days leading up to Tet must mark a lull in national cobra consumption, however; despite it being lunchtime, there was not a person in the place, save the bored-looking older couple who ran it.
Upon seeing us, the couple’s boredom evaporated. They were immediately on their feet, excited by the prospect of some business, and no doubt smelling reek of cash billowing from these two tourist’s pores. Dong greeted them in rubber band-twang Vietnamese, and we were immediately led into a back room. In this room were a large scale and about ten burlap sacks hanging from the wall.
Dong consulted with the old man and turned to us.
“How big you like?”
“You want big cobra or want small cobra?”
I looked at Sam, who just shrugged and shook his head.
“Is there a difference in price?” I asked.
“Big cobra very expensive.”
“Uh… I guess we’ll go with medium?” I said, looking back in Sam, who, with each second, retreated further into himself.
“So, yeah,” I continued, “One medium cobra, please.” It was as if I was ordering french fries or a latte.
The old woman considered the burlap bags and grabbed one in the middle, taking it off the wall and over to the scale, all business. As she handled it, the snake inside violently writhed.
Dong and the couple formed a huddle of sorts around the scale, weighed the bagged snake, and began to talk in hushed tones, no doubt the financial negotiations, which, in bargain-cultured Vietnam, can take some time.
Sam took advantage of the lull in the action. He sighed, turned to me, and said:
“I can’t do it, dude.”
“You don’t want to eat any?”
“Nope. Don’t wanna do it. I’m really hungry and want a normal meal – like some rice and chicken and fish or a good ham sandwich.”
“A ham sandwich?”
“Yeah. The sandwiches are awesome here.”
“But we’ve come this far already.”
“You go ahead. Knock yourself out. I’ll watch. But I’m not eating any.”
“You’re not eating any?”
“Listen man, I never really wanted to eat snake in the first place. This whole thing was your idea. I ate rattlesnake back in Idaho once, and it was okay, but not that great. I feel no need to repeat the act.”
And he was right. The whole crusade to dine on snake had been my personal mission. I was the one who insisted on it from the beginning. Nowhere in the proceedings could I recall an enthusiastic endorsement from my travel companion.
“Well screw it, then. I don’t want to sit here and eat a cobra alone.”
So it was decided.
Dong took the news reasonably well, despite the fact that he probably lost face in front of the old couple, a great indignity in any East Asian culture. We loaded back into the car and continued down the road. But I did detect a change in his demeanor. He seemed to look at us differently, to regard us with much less respect than before. We had undoubtedly proven ourselves to be something less-than men in his eyes. We were all bravado and no balls. It was as if he had caught us frolicking in our rooms, wearing brightly colored bras and panties. I don’t know the Vietnamese term for “complete and total pussies,” but I’m sure it was loudly reverberating inside of his head.
Despite our greatly reduced status on the Southeast Asian strata of machismo, Dong was still our guide for the rest of the day, and suggested another restaurant.
“The too have snake. No cobra, but there is the snake.”
He took us to a lovely outdoor restaurant located on the banks of a swift brown river, and they indeed did have snake. Four to be precise – listless, half-dead Asian pythons, each about three feet long. They sat in about an inch of water, at the bottom of a dirty aquarium, next to a tank containing some large fish that were also available for consumption.
I pointed to the one I wanted, and it was removed from the tank by our waiter/python wrangler. He held it by its tail and proceeded to whip it around – bashing its brains into soup on the pavement: SLAP! SLAP! SLAP!
A group of middle-aged and well-heeled German tourists, lunching on deep – fried elephant fish, looked on in horror from their table just feet away.
After the snake was unceremoniously dispatched, it was taken back into the kitchen, where it was ground up and fried, along with some onions and seasonings. In ten minutes it appeared at our table, in a bowl, along with a crispy rice-wafer. We broke off pieces of the wafer and used them to scoop up the minced snake meat.
At once I regretted my decision not to eat cobra, which is said to have a nice, firm, white meat. This python flesh was nothing of the sort. It was dark and greasy and mushy in texture, as if the meat itself had absorbed the mud that the creature had surely spent the majority of its life in. Even worse were the bits of snake vertebrae that were scattered throughout, adding an unwanted crunchy element to the dish.
But we endured and ate every bit, rewarded with a set menu of fish, chicken, rice and soup afterward, which was very much to Sam’s satisfaction, despite the fact that he never got a ham sandwich.