To American baby boomers, the word “Vietnam” is synonymous with arbitrary death. The human toll is well known, but what of the non-homo horrors?
In 2013 at an unusual Hanoi restaurant, I was in a staring contest with a garden snake as a Vietnamese waiter took a penknife and slit the reptile’s midsection, shoved his thumb and forefinger into the wound, and peeled open the scaly sheath like a banana. Fingertips momentarily buried in guts, he squeezed as if popping a zit and produced a dime-sized beating heart connected to tiny shiny arteries, resembling a tangled red earbud cord retrieved from the depths of a fleshy backpack. Pinching the head with one hand, and grasping the bleeding, squirming midsection with the other, he held the creature up to my face like Rafiki hoisting a twitching, disemboweled Simba atop Pride Rock. Call me “Scar,” for I bristled at this offering. I couldn’t break eye contact with the snake, whose gaze drilled into me as its jaw undulated like a jackhammer in an silent scream.
If, as the cliché goes, eyes are the window to the soul, I was looking straight through this ophidian to Vietnam’s violent heart of darkness. It wasn’t the first time.
Laws are a bit more lax in Vietnam than we’re used to in the West. It’s one of those special places where you can hop on the back of scooter with a beer can in your hand and thumbs-up a cop as you drive past. Traffic regulations are more of a suggestion, as anyone who’s ever tried to cross a Vietnamese road will attest. That is, if they made it back alive; who needs Virtual Reality when in Vietnam you can live out Frogger every time you leave your hotel?
This deadly game is played not with cars, but scooters, which are the lifeblood of most developing countries and account for the vast majority of vehicles on Vietnamese roads. Drive down any street, during any weather, and it’s a good bet you’ll see hundreds of gridlocked scooters. Is it the middle of a monsoon? No worries, the drivers will be wearing extra-long parkas, draped over the front of their scooter to repel the water. Need to drive a family of six? They’ll all fit on one scooter, no problem! In addition to their central role in day-to-day life in Vietnam, scooters also facilitate crime. Muggers look out for female tourists walking down a sidewalk wearing purses draped over one shoulder – as opposed to across the chest – and run their scooter slowly up the street parallel with their mark, getting close enough to snatch the bag and zoom off into the humid sunset.
That much is Acceptable Risk. You can’t go to the developing world without assuming that every third local wants your wallet, your cell phone, and your kidneys. Every backpacker on the Southeast Asia circuit has either been mugged or knows someone who has. I was exceptionally aware of this during my 2013 summer trip through the region. Prior to my departure, I heard dozens of horror stories involving remote ATMs eating backpackers’ credit cards and leaving them SOL until their put-upon parents could wire just enough money for a tail-between-the-legs plane ticket right the fuck back home for an “I told you so” and a glass of warm milk. I, however, was keen to prove that I was in fact Henry Jones III. I wouldn’t risk having to beg mommy for money home. Thus I did the only logical thing: carrying $6,000 in cash with me at all times through a land where the average wage is $100 per month. What could go wrong?
I traveled for three months, night after drunken night, accumulating scars and losing friends to arguments caused by rum shakes possibly (probably) laced with psilocybin. Throughout all the debauchery, I never lost a bill nor felt endangered, which I attributed in part to my tall stature and tattoos, for in Asia the former is uncommon and the latter are associated with mean or criminal sons of bitches. I was Colonel Kurtz, untouchable Hot Shit.
By mid-August, I had less than a week left and was enjoying my final stop, Hanoi. En route from my hostel to a main road where I could find a taxi to a restaurant serving fried snake, I passed though a dark back alley containing no life save a local lounging on his scooter, sprawled on the vinyl seat like a hammock. He opened one eye as I passed. Creepy, but I forgot about it quicky.
Which brings me back to the vivisected snake. The house specialty was king cobra for $250 – a whopping 5.5 million in Vietnamese currency, called “dong.” However, by that point, my Six Large had by that point dwindled to a Small Few. My dong was shrinking, in need of financial Viagra. I was broke. Thus I opted for a lowly garden snake, which was promptly sliced open.
The waiter insisted that I eat the proffered beating heart, protruding from the snake like a grotesque raspberry on a vine. How could I say no? It would be culturally insensitive of me. In a state of nervous excitement, I closed my eyes and leaned in towards the beast like I was stealing a first-date kiss. And, like on one of my more embarrassing dates, the object of my hungry affection pulled back at the last second. I opened my eyes and the waiter was laughing at me, holding the snake further away. I was not amused. Seeking to nip this weird homoerotic tension in the butt – er, bud – I launched my head towards the bleeding serpent and seized the heart with my teeth like I was bobbing for apples at a barbecue hosted by Jeffrey Dahmer. I ripped it from its arterial moorings and swallowed it whole like a bubble tea tapioca ball. My vanquished foe spasmed and flopped limp, in stark contrast to my own savage adventure-erection.
The waiter separated the snake’s blood and bile into two tumblers and mixed whiskey into each, which I used to wash down the grilled meat of my garden snake. (It tasted like pork, in case you’re curious.) The next few hours were hazy, but I ended up tagging along with a Vietnamese family and a German friend to a karaoke bar where the only English selection was Irish band Boyzone.
I took a cab back alone, but the driver couldn’t find the hostel. He deposited me on a nearby main road and I drunkenly staggered home through the alley with the guy on the scooter. This time, however, the man was more lively. When he saw me, he leapt from the bike like a boss had caught him sleeping on the job and approached me, jabbering the usual Vietnamese hustler speak to which every tourist quickly becomes accustomed: “Where you from, friend? Where you go? Want a ride?”
“No, no,” I responded and quickened my pace. I heard him quicken his as well and, suddenly, I felt him collapse on my lower body: he dropped to a crouch behind me and started humping my legs while at the same time reaching around with both hands towards my front. Disgusted and shocked, my first instinct was to start swinging wildly. I swiveled around to look at the guy: he appeared out of his head – either drugged or retarded – with a crazy stare, quivering smile, and some Rick and Morty-esque drool on his chin. I can’t hit this guy, I thought. He’s clearly got some sort of mental disability.
My left hand nevertheless went to protect the pocket containing my ball of cash. (Though far from the $6,000 I started with, it was still a hefty wad.) With my right hand, I grabbed the guy by the collar pushed him onto the ground. He scooted away on his ass, that demented grin never leaving his face. I watched him slither backwards towards his scooter like the Cheshire Cat riding a drunken Roomba, while I walked backwards towards the opposite corner, keeping my eyes on him until I rounded it.
Only when I was on the steps of my hostel, hearing his scooter firing up in the distance, did I realize what was missing from my other pocket: my goddamned iPhone! I ran back around the corner but he was nowhere to be found. The crazed retarded junkie act was feigned. With his virtuoso performance, the mugger craftily defused the most salient American trait – a disposition towards wanton violence – and in its place elicited the second quintessential Yankee characteristic: naïve ignorance. He played me like a deft puppeteer. The night began with my lips on a snake and ended with my leg humped and valuables stolen. I could have saved myself the trouble and visited a Thai ladyboy a few countries back.
Watch out for thieves on scooters. I should have learned that lesson three years earlier during my first trip to Vietnam in 2010, when I went with a group of undergrads to Nha Trang to work with local students on a business project. Like most college students, we passed the time in a drunken stupor. We were a distinct group of about thirty, and before long we were known as “those drunken Americans at the Sailing Club,” a beachside disco a few blocks from our hotel. The local underbelly of sharks and hustlers knew exactly where to find us each evening. It probably seemed like an easy target.
One evening, I was drinking with a small group of classmates which included “Jay” and “Johnny.” Jay went off for a walk along the beach with a few of the girls and was left alone on the beach when they went back to the bar together to use the bathroom. Half an hour later, I was back at the bar, wondering what was keeping him. Turns out, he wasn’t alone for long: he was approached on the shore by three Vietnamese men in their thirties who offered to give him a free scooter ride back to our hotel. He was just drunk enough to take the offer, hopping on the back of one bike as the two others followed close behind on their own.
Midway through the ride, his driver changed the deal: the three minute trip would now cost 100,000 dong. Jay was in a predicament. He chose to stand his ground and refuse to pay the $5. While the more logical time to make this declaration was upon arrival, Jay chose to make his objections clear at forty miles per hour while he was holding on to the driver for dear life. To emphasize his disappointment, the driver sped up and circled the block at increasing speeds. When he slowed to make a turn, Jay made his move, standing up on the scooter’s passenger pegs and leaping backwards onto the pavement.
Of course, I was only able to piece these events together through a conversation with Jay the following day when he sobered up. After he disappeared from the Sailing Club, the next time I saw him was when I headed back for the hotel alone. I rounded the same corner at which Jay hopped off and was shocked at what I saw: he was surrounded by three pudgy locals and his shorts were around his ankles (which I would later discover was because the muggers had been reaching deep into his pockets, fishing for payment). He resembled the declothed girl running from a napalm attack in the infamous Vietnam War picture. Only instead of a backdrop of soldiers and explosions, there stood pantless Jay and Vietnam’s Three Stooges: Larry, Curly, and Moe Nguyen.
I shot straight into the fray like a pinball, shoving Larry away from Jay and shouting at Curly and Moe to back away as well. It was mostly drunken bravado; I’ve been in exactly one fight in my life, which lasted about thirty seconds and gave my nose the permanent shape of a winding backcountry road. Nevertheless, this time I was All In.
Jay pulled up his pants and joined the front lines. Realizing that shouting wasn’t working I took a swing at Curly; he caught it in the stomach and stumbled back. As he was reeling, Larry and Moe lunged towards Jay and I, just as Johnny appeared down the street with two of our female classmates. While I grappled with Larry, Johnny came rushing up to pull Curly off of Jay, who in turn took Moe on by himself. The girls ran towards the hotel, where I glimpsed two of the reception desk workers standing in the illuminated lobby windows with their hands over their mouths, watching us in shock. Evidently they had never before witnessed a three-on-three street brawl at four a.m.
Larry, who was wearing an open-face motorcycle helmet, jumped out of my reach to yank it off his head and began pantomiming in midair the act of hitting me with it, as if to say, “Watch out! I’ll do it!” Undeterred, I closed the distance between us and he took his helmeted swing. I grabbed his forearm with my left hand and palmed the helmet out of his grip with my right, followed by a swift headlock against my right bicep. This is awesome, I thought. Just like the movies! I realized that I’d be letting Nicolas Cage down if I didn’t come up with a witty taunt for my opponent as I jabbed him.
I took a preliminary punch at Larry’s headlocked face and racked my brain for the perfect quip. My first, brief thought was that I was very hungry. I had a flashback to a bag of fruit that my professor bought from a street vendor earlier that day. When peeled of its thorny red casing, the edible, milky white interior was the size and texture of a human eyeball. Yum, I thought. I could go for some eyeball fruit.
The pain in my Larry-beating fist jarred me back to my drunken senses. Hoisting him by the neck a few inches higher, level with my face, I paused the punching and let him have the absolute best zinger I could think of:
“I’M GOING TO EAT YOUR FUCKING EYEBALLS!”
And, to emphasize my point, I followed up my threat with an Iceman-from-Top Gun chomp:
It was as if a record scratch sound effect reverberated through the darkened street. All heads turned towards me. Jay and Moe, dancing around each other menacingly, stopped abruptly. Johnny, himself in the midst of a violent embrace with Curly, turned his head towards me with mouth agape:
“Bro, what did you just say?”
Though our opponents did not speak the Queen’s English, even they understood the ridiculousness of my threat. Larry looked fearful, as if I might actually carry it out. His left eye twitched involuntarily.
I shrugged, giving Larry another whack out of pure embarrassment, and pushed him away from me towards his discarded helmet. He picked it up but kept running, away from the scuffle, towards his parked scooter. Curly wriggled free from Johnny and did the same. Finally, Moe abandoned his dance with Jay and hopped aboard his own scooter. Each fired up their bike and rode into the night. Neither Jay nor Johnny said another word, and we walked silently, triumphantly, towards the hotel – the first American victors in Vietnam in forty years.
On the steps of the hotel, Jay paused. “Fuck!” Turning his pockets inside-out, he sighed: “They made off with my camera.” What we initially perceived as victory was a stalemate at best. At worst, we were just another set of Dumb Americans taking it up the ass in Vietnam. Speaking of ass: we were so exhausted that we retired to my hotel room, locked the door behind us, slathered each other in baby oil, and fucked like crazed demons.
…Just kidding. But, given the tone of this story so far, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility, no? I once had a literature professor who asserted that “hypermasculinity is just cover for a sexual inclination towards other men.” And that was the day I stopped deifying college professors. But maybe he was onto something, since the following week in Vietnam I found myself enthralled by two turgid cocks.
I was exploring Ho Chi Minh City on an off day from the class project, wandering the neighborhood under the looming, phallic Bitexco Financial Tower. Down a street that ran parallel with the Saigon River, I spotted a crowd in the distance. Drawing closer, I saw that fifty people were gathered around two long blocks of concrete, watching something in the middle. Two men stood in the middle, each with a puffed-up, ruffled rooster in a cat carrier. I had stumbled upon a cock fight!
Whereas the fellows with the mad cocks had clearly given this some degree of forethought, the assembled crowd – comprised entirely of men – was apparently so spontaneous that several had just enough time to park their scooters but not enough to remove their motorcycle helmets. I stood there watching as money changed hands and people chatted, placing bets on the fight’s outcome. My excitement at stumbling upon something secret, something illicit, started to dissipate as the minutes dragged on while bookies moved among the crowd, getting and counting money from everyone they could. Twenty minutes later, the fight finally began.
The men released the latches on their cat carriers, swung open the little metal doors, and out stepped two roosters, eyeing each other for a showdown. The cock on the right strutted assertively straight over to the cock on the left and pecked him three times in the eyes. Left-cock fell over dead, keeled onto his side as if a long day at the egg factory had left him terminally exhausted. Right-cock’s owner swooped upon it and shoved the ball of angry feathers back into its cat carrier before collecting his winnings. After a quarter hour buildup, the “fight,” such as it was, lasted less than five seconds. As soon as my erection subsided, I left with the rest of the quickly-dispersing crowd.
The fowl put my fighting skills to shame. He didn’t waste time making proclamations of ocular ingestion. No, he marched right over and, without a word, ate a motherfucker’s eyeball! He was a bird not of talk, but of action! Just to remind myself who was on the top of the food chain, I got a bucket of fried chicken at a nearby KFC.
To my mind, the cosmic pecking order goes something like this: chickens < snakes < Americans < Vietnamese. On these terms, my win-loss record in Vietnam is about even. Against human opponents however, I’ve done decidedly less well. I guess that’s The Way of Things. Rock beats scissors but loses to paper. Americans trump snakes and chickens and Iraqis, but lose to Vietnamese. It is the Circle of Life.
If I had a glass of whiskey and snake bile, I would raise it in two toasts. First, of course, to the dead (homo and non-homo alike). Second, to that most profound Lebowskian maxim: sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.