Friday, January 7, 2011

Face Death And Drink It

"Wanna drive?"

"No thanks... maybe if it was an automatic, but not a manual."

We were leaving the hostel to go to a "Snake Village" just outside of Hanoi. Since it was just us two, we were taking her motorcycle instead of a taxi or a bus. Normally, it's a tour for 5 people or more. However, no one else in the entire hostel was down to go so, I went by myself. I had to do it--it's why I came to Vietnam.

Instead of the usual guide, the receptionist at the hostel was going to take me. I had decided too last minute for a guided tour, but since it was my last night in Hanoi, I had no other choice. After I told her my story, she said she'd take me herself.

Which brings us to her asking me if I wanted to drive her bike. It was cold out, and riding passenger is warmer since it's protected by the driver. Being a gentleman, I should have driven us...

Except for the fact that I've never ridden, much less driven one. The closest thing I had done was ride a Go-Ped. It's actually pretty embarrassing, and I couldn't outright admit to this cute local that I didn't even know how to sit on the back of her motorcycle.

So I lied. It couldn't be that bad, right?

It was terrifying. Let me describe Hanoi traffic. Streets lines are pure decoration, traffic signals are mere suggestions, and one-way streets... well, you can make it a two-way street if you feel so inclined. I've never seen anything like it. (Not exactly true. Imagine the game Crazy Taxi but with motorcycles and everyone is playing at the same time. It's like that.)

Needless to say, I was a bit shaken after the most (well, first) exhilarating ride of my life. And then, there was a cobra.

Dinner anyone?

I'll admit that some things scare me. I have a healthy respect for heights and a bit of claustrophobia. Normally, though, fear is something I can overcome with a bit of determination. I mean, I proved it to myself while weaving through traffic only moments before.

This was different. It wasn't just any fear. It was pure, unadulterated terror. My conscious brain was thinking, "Damn, this is cool. Let's get closer." My unconscious brain said... well, nothing. It froze with terror. So though I wanted to get closer, my body literally froze.

After sizing up our meal, we walked across the street to the actual restaurant and sat down. The server brought the snake over with a few glasses and a knife. Looking back on it, this was the time to pick it up, pet it, or at the very least, get a picture with it. I didn't. Or better put, it didn't even cross my mind. I was still shaking from the insane amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

I watched as he forced the snake to release it's venom into a glass. Once finished, he cut open the chest, slit a main artery, and bled it into a second glass. Then, he reached in, pulled out its beating heart, and plopped it into a third glass.

This last glass was handed to me. Topped with a splash of vodka, I was motioned to drink it.

No time for hesitation. You must drink it (eat it?) while it's still beating. And it was, after all, what I had come for.

In one gulp, I swallowed it whole. A second later, a shot glass with a blood and vodka mix was procured in front of me. I drank that too. The venom, a greenish-yellow mixture, followed soon after. (Note: Venom is poisonous if it enters your bloodstream. Otherwise, it's safe to drink... though there is a slight risk if you have a cut in your mouth or a stomach ulcer.)

It is said that a snake (particularly the blood, heart, and venom) is good for "male" health... Vietnamese people have straight forward thinking. If you eat feet, your feet will get better. If you eat eyes, your eyesight improves. And if you eat snake, well... it's good for men.

I'm not too sure about that last part for myself, but it was a rush all the same--as trite as it sounds, I've never felt more alive in my life. It invoked in me such an instinctual, primal fear that I didn't even know existed.

Simply put, it was the best experience I had in Vietnam.

After the craziness of the beginning, the rest of the evening was quite pleasant. We had dinner--snake, of course. Every part of the cobra was prepared in a variety of ways so that nothing was wasted.

Snake skin in the front, the upper left is mashed bones

Barbecued Cobra Hood 

But honestly, in the end, words and pictures are just that--words and pictures. To truly understand, you have to be there and experience it yourself.

So if you do end up going to Hanoi and find yourself craving cobra, let me know. I'm down to go. I still have to get a picture of me holding the snake. And if you really want it, I'll even let you have the heart, as long as we split the venom...

It's missing the first shots of blood and venom, but it has round 2.


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