[Ed Hirsch is a huge nerd, rap enthusiast, and homesick Chicagoan currently stationed in Dallas. The power of the cobra still courses through his veins.]
Almost six months before I visited Saigon (known technically as Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, but no resident referred to it as that unless they thought someone from the government might be listening), I was told exactly what to expect. “Saigon is capitalism in the raw,” I was told by a girl who had spent the last several years opening factories for her father in China. In reflection her story seemed a little fantastic, but if she was lying she made an incredibly lucky guess on Saigon. I landed in Saigon at 3 a.m., and the city felt like a mix of the manic energy and claustrophobia of New York with the dilapidated style of New Orleans. Directly across the street from the hotel’s luxurious windowed lobby, a line of cabs barely obscured the street families cooking food, cleaning their clothes and going to the bathroom.
I was in Saigon for a little over a week, a school trip for my MBA’s international business course. Saigon was also my first major international trip ever, so even with school commitments I felt I should try to appreciate a city and country I will likely never be in again. During that time I learned a few facts about Saigon.
1) Saigon is an extremely safe city, assuming you know how to dodge cars/buses that will not hesitate to run you over.
2) The only major crime you will experience is the time-honored tradition of ripping off tourists, which was well played by cab drivers, bartenders, and passport officials.
3) Seventy-five percent of the Vietnamese population is under the age of thirty, which will make you feel ridiculously old and leave you wondering if this has to do with the Vietnam War or some cultural revolution we Americans forgot about because we stopped caring about Vietnam about thirty seconds after that last helicopter took off.
4) Despite that war, people in Saigon only rank Americans third in their Nationalities to Hate list. The Chinese and French beat us out. USA! USA!
5) Grown adults can still laugh at the word dong.
6) SAIGON IS CAPITALISM IN THE RAW.
Anything can be bartered or negotiated for in Saigon, and that most definitely includes regular access to sex and child-sex-slaves. On one of our last nights in town, we were told the top floor bar had a “ladies night” going. The eight or so women on our trip discovered that ladies night in Saigon has a slightly different meaning: it was simply the night the hotel relaxed its “no locals sleeping overnight” rule and let the prostitutes line up for work.
My experience with capitalism, though, had nothing to do with sex. Instead, it had everything to do with cobras.
One afternoon on the way back from a factory tour, my friend Chris asked our guide Nguyen Nguyen if the bottles of liquor with a cobra and scorpion in them were in any way “legit.” Nguyen told Chris that those bottles were simply bathtub liquor with a cobra stuffed in after the fact, but that if we wanted, he could get us some cobra. From a group of sixty students, only four volunteered.
Nguyen loaded us into a cab that night and drove us out of the posh district-1 and into authentic back-alley Saigon.
“So… is this legal?”
Technically was the key term. Hanoi had made keeping cobras illegal a while back, presumably to reduce the number of waiters-dying-from-cobra-bites statistics to a more reasonable level. But Saigon is about as far from Hanoi as Dallas is from Chicago, and laws are more a tool for government officials to get what they want than, say, laws. “Technically illegal” meant it wasn’t illegal if you did it as a tourist and you were in district-1 or if it really didn’t mess anything up for anyone else. Or, of course, if you could pay for it. “Technically illegal” is the kind of illegal where something becomes actually illegal if you have to go down to the police station… but the police officer could resolve it right here for you.
During the ride over, Nguyen also explained to us that cobra is the Vietnamese Viagra and that it would be best if we ran a few laps around the hotel once we went back.
We unloaded into a small restaurant with its front completely open to a small side street. The street itself was unlit, and the fluorescent light spilled out as if inviting a police officer to walk by and begin raiding our wallets. We sat at a short metal table, common for any restaurant catering to actual Vietnamese people. I flipped through the menu, and while I had figured out some of the basics of fish, chicken, and pork, I was struggling with this menu. Nguyen pointed out something on the menu to us.
I wanted to. I felt this was becoming a night to absorb as many spirit animals as possible. But the rest of the table shied away.
The waiter brought us a round of Heinekens, Nguyen pointed to a few items on the menu, and we were gestured toward the kitchen.
We were asked if we wanted to have water snake, milk snakes, or cobra. We had come for the cobra, so there wasn’t much negotiation. The cook warned us the cobra was $80 American, not cheap. We insisted, and my friend Chris asked how we knew if we were getting cobra. This led to another great fact.
7) To tell if a snake is a cobra, poke it with a broom handle. If it goes all cobra on you, it’s probably a cobra.
A cobra, even restrained on a stick with its mouth clipped shut, is a terrifying thing. Conrad probably wrote a short story about it, and I suspect it ended with a white person realizing that the cobra was just symbolic of the dark, chaotic reality of nature and man. The reality is if a series of mistakes happened–about the same number that would need to happen for a cobra to bite me today as I type this–that cobra would have been loose, and it certainly could spot the four Caucasians that had paid to see it paraded before us and killed. The most dangerous game is still man, but high on that list is pissed-off cobra.
By this point, Chris and I realized that our fellow students were a little intimidated by this situation. They wanted to come along, but they only wanted to do one shot and then eat some chicken. Food was being brought to the table now, and even with several Heinekens and cobra-shots in us some people thought they were going to avoid eating. Nguyen and I called an audible: Nguyen wouldn’t tell us what we were eating until everyone had at least a bite.
First up came a stew. It was a bit salty but basically could have passed as a Campbell’s soup with some wild rice.
“Rice and leeks, with cobra intestines.”
OK, one down.
We began to finish off the first bottle of cobra blood, and Chris and I called for a second one. There was plenty of undiluted blood left.
We have deer back in the States. Last I checked they weren’t even poisonous. Definite 2/10 on the macho factor.
For the longest time I thought Nguyen called this “cuttle-bird,” but from what I can tell there’s no bird called a cuttle-bird. It was definitely a bird, though, and definitely not the bat I was wanting.
Well, hello again Mr. Cobra. I was wondering what had happened to you.
There was no way anyone could miss it. The main dish of cobra was served. This is the point in No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain takes a bite, pauses, and then says, “That’s… very good!” He may have even already said this about cobra. If so, I feel very comfortable in saying Anthony Bourdain is a liar and is only telling you this so you can suffer his fate of eating rubbery goo with tiny sharp bones in it. Eating grilled cobra is like eating ribs if you’re a giant, and if ribs sucked in this giant-having world.
Everyone had at least one piece, and I think I somehow managed to get through three before all was done. In that time we talked drunkenly about Vietnam and what it’s like–most of which was lost to being about six beers and ten shots in at that point.
Somehow Nguyen loaded us into a cab and got us back to the hotel, where we found the rest of our class going out to a bar to play darts. The night got fuzzy after that point, but I do know that I spent an hour walking in front of darts to prove the power of the cobra. I left there basically intact. What other proof do you need?