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Day 69 – Unelectable (Or Things That Go “Woof” in Your Mouth)

May 11, 2010

Dateline: My Tho, Ben Tre and areas surrounding Mekong Delta, Vietnam – Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When you travel you have to be ready for unforeseen opportunities. Sometimes you deep water solo.  Sometimes you stand in line behind a bunch of Malaysians in Penang and end up eating new foods.  Sometimes you spend three hours feasting and drinking with Cambodians.

Today was one of those days. Today was day one of a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta. I’d booked it through my hotel. We left Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) at 8 a.m. An hour or so later, after a pep talk/history lecture from our chirpy guide, we were in My Tho, a large city in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

We boarded a tour boat and motored our way to Unicorn Island. We visited a coconut-candy factory. We cycled around the island’s village. We rode along thin, elevated dirt paths. We passed kids on their way to and from school. Despite all the tourist boats, this wasn’t just a tourist trap. People actually lived here.

We had a simple lunch. I chatted with a guy from the Australia, two girls from France, and an Irish and Spanish couple. The couple had quit their jobs to travel. One of the French girls was on an extended holiday after working in New Zealand; her friend was a lawyer on vacation from France. The Aussie was from the Solomon Islands. He was on holiday and had gotten stranded in Vietnam when Hong Kong denied him entry because of he was carrying his Solomon Islands passport instead of his Aussie one. His friends had abandoned him to go on their own through HK and Taiwan; he was hanging out in HCMC where they’d later meet up.

In other words, the regular motley crew of travelers.

After lunch we boarded canoes for a trip through the island’s jungle canals. Local women in pointy woven hats paddled us from the island’s coast to our inland destination. The women were kind enough to loan us pointy hats of our own to protect us from the sun. I took full advantage.

When we disembarked, we listened to a band play Vietnamese southern folk music. This managed to be more atonal and wobbly than anything you’d hear out of America’s deep south. It seemed to have a musical structure, I just couldn’t decipher it.

That’s when an unforeseen opportunity presented itself. The locals and our guide sat down for a snack, leaving us alone to hang out. We were cooling ourselves under electric fans when someone ran up and said, “Anyone want to try dog?”

Oh my God. Really? I figured I’d get a shot at trying this Vietnamese staple, but I also thought I’d have some time to prepare myself. I’m an adventurous eater, but sometimes even my mind must be given time to catch up with my bravado.

I hurried over to a nearby table where the locals were toasting and picking at a pile of barbequed meat. Our guide was daring everyone to try. She took great pleasure in shoving meat at us and asking, “You try?”

I did. A little piece.

Now, I love dog. Usually, though, I prefer mine much more raw, alive, and in fewer pieces than the pooch I held in my hand. It was dark, fire charred, fatty, and moist. When I popped it in my mouth it tasted like a cross between pork and beef. I chewed and was surprised that it was soft and tender. For a split second, my mind wandered and I pictured puppies. In a flash, I switched off my brain (one of my few talents). No good would come of thinking or of gagging in front of my hosts.

I swallowed and found that the meat had a bit of a gamey finish. It reminded me a bit of duck because of all the fat.

Now, down to the dirty: Did I like it?

I have to say that as long as I think of it as just meat, the answer is, “Yes.” It’s flavorful and interesting. I’d have to try different preparations to be sure that it was the meat itself and not just the way it was cooked.

If, however, I think of it as puppies, it’s a bid harder to stomach. I’m also not sure I could eat it if I saw it whole, rolling around on a spit. In contrast, I have no such qualms about pork, beef, chicken, duck, or any other flesh. It’s such a strange, arbitrary distinction. It is real, though.

The experience does illustrate why I am an adventurous eater, though. When any of us ate a piece, the locals would cheer. When one of the guys went back for another taste, he was smilingly offered a shot of local wine as a reward. The only thing that builds bridges faster than language is an ability to appreciate local food. By being willing to try anything more than once, I can connect with people in a way that a more prudish eater cannot. To me, the risk is well worth the reward.

It was a fascinating little culinary side trip. If I’m presented with a chance to eat it again, I’ll give it another shot. I don’t think that I’ll be ordering it on my own, though.

Sadly, the experience was so unexpected and shocking that I didn’t have the wherewithal to snap pictures. You’ll just have to use your imagination. If you dare.

After folk music and canine we walked to a bee farm to try some locally made honey tea. Quite good. Our guide brought out a honeycomb and handled it barehanded without gloves or those little smoke cans you see on TV. That seemed more daring to me than eating canine, but maybe that’s just me.

We then boarded the boat back to the bus and drove two and a half hours to Can Tho, the provincial capital. We passed small villages and crossed high tech suspension bridges. The melding of the developed and the developing world was quite dramatic. On the local equivalent of the Bay or Golden Gate Bridge, people had stopped their motorbikes on the mini-shoulder to eat, hang out, and watch the sunset. I wanted to hop off the bus and join them.

We dropped some folks off at a local home stay. The rest of us headed off to our hotel. After a nap, I ventured out for dinner. I settled on a nearby restaurant called Sao Hom, which turned out to be located in the local equivalent of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. This former old market and passenger port was now home to shops and eateries.

This place provided me with my second unexpected culinary opportunity: snake. I opted for the set menu of fried snake spring rolls and snake curry.

This was a classy joint even by Western standards. Outdoor seating with a riverfront location. I was joined by a hoard of boisterous French tourists. They loudly engaged in coordinated drinking and toasts. I ordered a soda and settled in for my second food adventure of the day.

First up, the rolls. They were good. Snake meat is dark and, as served to me, was in thin strips. If I were the kind to be disturbed, I’d say it looked disturbingly like miniature serpents. Like they’d been trimmed of Medusa’s head. The meat was flaky, if that makes sense. Not dry, though. It was a bit tough. It’s the kind of thing on which a more civilized person would have used a knife.

The curry was good too. It was spicy, so it was harder to pick out the snake flavor. It was, however, obviously serpentine; the meats were again in long, thin strips. Every once in a while I’d trip myself out by crunching on something. Every time I’d be relieved to find it was just a peanut.

It was way too much food for one person, though. I had to apologize to my waitress afterwards. I tried to explain that it was good, but I just couldn’t eat all of it. She humored me.

I headed back to the hotel through Can Tho’s empty streets. Overall it was a good day. I’d expanded my food horizons—it turns out there are two more things in this world that I don’t mind eating. Just don’t make me look them in the eye as I swallow. At least not yet.

GALLERY: Click through to see today’s gallery, including pictures of bees, kids in motorbike car seats, and Mervyn in a pointy hat.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Valerie permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:54 pm

    As much as I love reading about your exploits, this pregnant woman definitely had to stop imagining you downing puppies and snakes…and you definitely made me feel weird about eating my taco bell burrito supreme.

    Still…quite fascinating!

    • May 20, 2010 10:12 pm

      As a pregnant lady you’re entitled to tune me out when necessary.

      You just made me really hungry, by the way. I haven’t had Mexican in a nearly three months. A Taco Bell burrito sounds all kinds of good right now.

  2. Valerie permalink
    May 18, 2010 12:55 pm

    btw, did they tell you what kind of puppy it was??? I’m imagining cocker spaniel or pomeranian… =)

    • May 20, 2010 10:17 pm

      I have to keep telling people–I ate dog not puppy. Puppies ain’t got no meat on ’em. 🙂

      They didn’t identify the species, but I’ve seen dongs wandering around along with the chickens, so I assume that’s what’s used as food. There’s a pic of one that I saw at the rice noodle making operation in the Day 70 entry. Just go to the “Gallery” at the bottom of the page and flip through the pictures.


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