Fates Worse Than Snake Oil
By Liron Brish
After months on the road in foreign
lands, one becomes quite unresponsive and indifferent
to the calls of touts, cab drivers and whomever else
volunteers unsolicited advice. So you can understand
my hesitation when a motorbike driver in Hanoi told
me that the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was closed that
Monday and the offered to be my guide.
I double-checked and sure enough
the mausoleum was closed that Monday. The motorbike
driver’s story checked out, so I decided to ride with
him. Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body would have to lie
there one more day before it would receive me.
Thanh, the driver, was a handsome
Vietnamese man. Over sixty years old, he looked no
older than fifty. He had a round face, dark black
hair, and wore a black beret. Thanh came prepared.
He pulled out a homemade pamphlet with the names of
all of Hanoi’s tourist spots. After visiting the list
of favorite temples, museums, and the infamous “Hanoi
Hilton,” I figured that my one-day whirl-wind tour
of Hanoi was over. Then I saw the very last option
on the fourth page of the pamphlet: snake wine.
I pointed to snake wine and looked
at the motorbike driver for reassurance. He smiled,
chuckled, and we headed out of the center of town.
By luck, we ran into Chris, another American I met
a few days earlier in Hue. Coincidentally, his motorbike
driver was good friends with my own, so the two of
them joined us.
Initially, I had thought that the
snake wine would be inside a tourist trap where I
would be sitting next to several blonde, blue-eyed
Europeans sipping cocktails. As our motorbike got
further away from the tourist section of Hanoi, our
surroundings became slums. Eventually we turned off
of the highway, which was more a mass swarm of motorbikes
than a highway.
If Fellini ever made it to Vietnam,
I guarantee he stayed at the building we arrived at.
Outside, the building could have been any building
in Hanoi - old, unkempt, and soot-stained. The inside,
however, was like a surrealist movie set.
The first part of the building was
a covered patio. The walls were made of faint yellow
stucco. The ground was covered with red tiles and
large potted plants. To the right along the entrance
were two cages. One was small, about a foot high and
three feet long, and held several chickens. The other
was a large cage, eight feet high and five feet long,
that had several large branches in it. It was filled
with hay and bedding. At the end of the patio area
there was a curved bar counter. The sides of the counter
were covered in maroon faux leather padding.
Along the curved bar, shaped as
if it belonged more on a Tiki island than in Vietnam,
were several large, circular vats made of glass, covered
with a glass top and knob handle, filled with what
I later learned was a home-made alcohol and brewed
with various animal species. One vat was filled with
a black crow, wings spread. Another alcohol vat housed
several turtles while another was filled with seahorses,
starfish, and other assorted sea life.
The patio area was connected to
the main building by a set of three stairs. Three
large clay containers, were lined up on the stairs.
Inside the building on the first floor was a dimly
lit room with shelves holding more glass vats filled
with animals. The walls were covered with dreamy paintings.
There were two people working in
the building– a young boy, around fourteen and a woman,
in her mid-twenties. She had what appeared to be an
infected snake-bite on her left cheek. Its circumference
was the size of a silver dollar. The infection was
swollen and protruding almost an inch off of her face.
With the motorbike drivers as intermediaries,
it was settled that I would be the one drinking the
snake wine. Chris turned down the offer, explaining
that he had already eaten beetles on his trip and
that that was enough cultural culinary immersion for
The price was set. Thahn gave me
a look of disgust (he explained later that he had
never tasted snake wine and thought it was a putrid
habit) and the process of winemaking commenced.
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