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Travel and World Culture   
Image: Vietnam
 Photo: Mike Wang
Image: Vietnam
 Photo: Mike Wang

Vietnam: 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 him.

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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