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Eating Snake in Saigon

Americans in Vietnam prove themselves to be total pussies and perhaps explain why they lost the war…

My decision to eat snake in Vietnam was entirely spontaneous. There it was, right in front of me on the menu, in clear and correct English, wedged between entries for garlic chicken stir-fry and beef noodle soup: FRIED SNAKE.

As far as I knew, this was a real snake, cut up, spiced, cooked to tender perfection, and served with rice – or at least an attempt at the feat – which was good enough for me. I just had to have it. The problem was that it wasn’t part of the set menu that Dong, our hired guide, had already ordered for us.

“Hey Dong,” I said, waving him over. “They have snake here.”

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.”

“Hmmm…”

“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 coming 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.

I had not come to Vietnam on some great culinary adventure. I was not seeking strange, exotic, or vomit-inducing cuisine that has made stars of some on the Travel Channel. I came to Vietnam for a simple vacation – for the beach, the sun, the cheap prices – and, of course, as a pilgrimage of sorts. Because of the war, Vietnam, or at least the idea of the place, has haunted many Americans, including me.

Half of my childhood friends had Vietnam vet dads with thousand yard stares, unknowable angst, and tempers that burned magnesium-hot. I was fed the staple of films and pop-culture Vietnam War fare, from “Apocalypse Now” to “Platoon” to “Full Metal Jacket”.

So part of me wanted to go to the actual country, to see the palm trees and smell the red dirt and try to comprehend what had happened there some thirty years ago. Why go to over-visited Thailand, when I could instead set foot in the place where the shit really went down?

So my friend Sam and I flew into Ho Chi Min City, or Saigon, depending on your geography, sense of political correctness, or loyalty to the Hanoi regime. I found that most foreigners did indeed refer to the place by its newer name, in honor of the glorious victory of the Vietnamese people, as well as a nod to old Uncle Ho himself. However, the majority of locals still called it Saigon, and no amount of revisionist cartography or re-education was going to turn the tide as far as that was concerned.

During our first few days there, Sam and I paid homage to the war and all things Vietnamese: we crawled through the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi, enduring a histrionic sixties-era propaganda film condemning the “bastard American imperialists” and their “South Vietnamese flunkies.” We witnessed ex-guerrilla guides demonstrating nasty, bamboo-spiked traps, designed to kill and maim American GI’s, while a gaggle of sunburned Russian tourists joked and laughed, obviously delighted to see their former tax-dollars at work.

We dizzily rode motorbikes around Saigon, getting separated in the unstoppable river of other riders (Sam got lost and ran out of gas and maybe even cried.). We shot rusting Kalashnikovs and American 45 pistols, the latter taken off prisoners or corpses or both.

We took a boat tour on the Mekong River, tromping through villages, eating fresh-caught fish, and enduring a tourist hard-sell at the local rice candy factory. We ate crazy tropical fruit with names like Jack, Dragon, Durian, and Star. We drank tea and were sung to by adorable local girls in silk dresses. We even saw our unflappable guide stung by several angry bees at a honey farm, forever branded in our memories as “the incident at Bee Island.”

We now found ourselves in the crumbling town of Can Tho, a drab and smallish city located on the banks of the Mekong, the site of a raging battle during the American 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 in the massive complex.

Afterwards, 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, smoking and speaking in hushed, Continental tones.

“So are you up for it?” I asked Sam.

The snake issue decided for the time being, Dong had gone back downstairs, politely declining my invitation to join us for the set dinner.

“Eating cobra?” He said. “Sure. I guess.”

“We are in Vietnam,” I said, sucking down a gulp of cold 444 Beer. “I saw it on TV one time. They even drink the blood and swallow 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. The greater part of the morning had been spent in a boat. We had gone up the river to check out a famous floating market, which, sadly, was closed when we got there. Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, was just two days away, and much of the country was packed up and on its way to visit family members in far-off cities and provinces. This was especially evident on the road, which was heaving with traffic of all kinds: Buses were packed with people inside and supplies on top; whole families balanced on 100cc motor scooters – squeezed together to maximize all possible space; cars weaved in and out, passing 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. At some points I couldn’t even look at the road, choosing instead to close my eyes and go to my “happy place.” When I re-opened my eyes I would look over at Sam, who, like me, was sweating pure fear. Dong was unperturbed, however, and blindly passed trucks on corners while puffing on his cigarette.

Adding to Sam’s and my anxiety was our ever-growing hunger. We each had eaten a small bowl of noodles several hours previously, but that fuel had since spent itself. What had begun as a small twinge of peckishness 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 garishly painted and 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, since, despite it being lunchtime, there was no one in the place, save the bored looking older couple who ran it.

Upon seeing us, the couple’s boredom evaporated, for they were at once on their feet, excited by the prospect of some business, and no doubt smelling the money emanating from these two Westerners like the stench of b.o. 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?”

“What?”

“You want the big cobra or you want the small cobra?”

I looked at Sam, who just shrugged and shook his head.

“Is there a difference in price?” I asked.

“The big cobra very expensive,” Dong clarified.

“Uh… I guess we’ll go with medium?” I said, looking back in Sam, who, each second, seemed to be retreating further into himself.

“Uhm, 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, I could see the load in the bottom move, or more accurately, writhe.

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.”

“Well if you’re not going to do it…”

“Listen man, I never really wanted to eat snake in the first place. I ate rattlesnake back in Idaho once, and it was okay, but not that great.”

And he was right. The whole crusade to dine on snake had been my personal mission. I was the one who insisted that we stop here for lunch, at Dong’s suggestion, of course. But nowhere in the proceedings could I recall an enthusiastic endorsement from my travel companion.

“Well fuck 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 undoubtably 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, reminiscent of and Indian poppadom. We broke off pieces of the wafer bread and used them to scoop up the minced snake meat.

At once I regretted my decision to not 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 the meat, 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.

chris tharp