Snake blood juice

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
1
9
26
Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, May 9, 2002

-- Fireball farewells

"By the time he was out of water to douse the fire with, the van was filled with thick black smoke and we could hardly breath.

I scrambled for my day pack, kicked the side door open and dove out into the oncoming traffic. I ran as far as I could from the flaming van, as did the driver. The van was now swimming in black smoke. Dark clouds where spilling from the windows and ... "

In hindsight, Vietnam was an exotic, easily travelled, safe, enjoyable experience, wrapped up with a fantastically cordial arrival and a frighteningly near-death exit.

Now, to find out more about the red carpet arrival and flaming inferno exit you'll have to read on... Let's start at the beginning.

-- Rolling out the Red Carpet, Saigon in Style.

I was desperately low on cash. I barely had 2 US green-backs to rub together. ATMs in Myanmar where annoyingly absent and I was worried that they might also be non-existent in Vietnam. I looked up from my dog eared Lonely Planet, where my nose had been buried as I looked for an ATM in Saigon that could belch out a few hundred dollars for me, and saw a couple, in their 40's sitting in the Vietnam Airway's cushy seats next to me.

I overheard them talking about Vietnam before the plane took flight. They had been there before.

"Hey, do you guys know if there is an ATM in Vietnam?" I asked them, grinning hopefully with my best backpacker-in-distress smile.

"Not sure, maybe. Wasn't one last I was there though."

Brian, an American businessman living in Hong Kong, and his Thai wife where on their way to Vietnam for a quick whirlwind tour.

"Backpacking? On a shoe string are ya?" he asked, looking at my guide book.

"Uuuhhh, yeah, kind of. I am just kind of broke seeing as there weren't any bank machines in Myanmar."

We talked for a few hours and then Brian enthusiastically turned to me,

"Hey, tell you what, why don't you let us pay for the taxi and we'll drop you off at your hotel, so you can save yourself a few bucks. It's on our way, really."

"Really? Hmmm, actually that would be great I only have a few US dollars left." I tried to be humble but instead, I pounced on the offer before he completed his sentence.

I did only have a tiny bit of cash on me and desperately needed to get myself to an ATM, keeping my fingers crossed that Vietnam actually had one that worked with a tattered Canadian bank card that I had imprisoned in my money belt for months.

After passing immigration and getting our bags, Brian headed to the taxi counter with his wife.

"Excuse me, can we get a car?" Brian asked the Vietnamese lady dressed immaculately in a long white traditional Vietnamese dress at the desk.

"Yes of course, you take Limousine?" she waved over to a parked Mercedes Benz.

"Hmmm, yeah a limo would be great" it didn't take much to sell Brian on the idea.

Brian was flipping through a stack of US 1 dollar bills in his hand like a lucky casino patron counting his winnings after a run at the slots.

"Here take this, happy birthday." he handed over 20$ US. I had told him about my upcoming birthday on the flight.

"No, really I can't, I'll be ok... really, I just need a bank machine. I have money, really, it's just in the bank."

"Hey, common take it! My kids will never take a trip like this and I want you to have it. It'll help really" He insisted and wouldn't let me back away despite my futile attempts to decline the generous offer.

I took the 20$ and thanked him. I must looked pretty desperate, but I did need the cash. For all I knew this 20$ might have been the only funds that would carry me through 'Nam. There was still the distinct possibility that my bank card wouldn't work and I'd have to survive on left over crackers and coconut shells until money could be wired to me. I was on a pretty good run, it was only 5 days before my birthday and I had already received 3 gifts, a free limo, 20$ from Brian and a hammock from Huib. Maybe 27 wouldn't be that bad a year after all.

The limo dropped me off at my hotel in downtown Saigon and I waved goodbye to Brian and his better half while thanking them profusely for their endless generosity.

-- Saigon Salvation

My hotel was smack dab in a backpacker mecca. Backpackers wandered down the street, in and out of 1$US pirate CD shops, Internet cafes and pubs. A miniature version of Bangkok's Kao Sahn road. Normally I wouldn't be too happy in a place like this but after the uncommercial, yet-to-be-fully-westernized city of Yangon, Myanmar, I welcomed it with arms wide opened.

I hobbled up to my room, dropped my bags on the soft bed and headed back down to jump on a cyclo. I needed to get my money problems solved so that I could sleep well again. The moto, a cross between a scooter and a motor bike, sped off into the streets blending into the sea of hundreds of other bikes. The roads in Saigon were cluttered with cyclos, navigating themselves in a seemingly planned out, flowing, dance. I'd later find out that the last month alone had 99 moto deaths, maybe the dance wasn't so precise. Hearing stories of motos speeding by and snatching tourist's bags, I clutched my daypack so tight that my knuckles bleached white.

The HSBC bank expedition was fruitful. I had money. To be safe, I took out enough money to take me all the way to Nepal if I had to.

For the afternoon I had my Moto driver take me to the war remnants museum, once known as the "museum of Chinese and American war crimes", recently renamed to for tourists sake. The photos, the babies deformed from Agent Orange in bottles and artillery was enough to drag bulging tears to everyone's eyes. It was interesting seeing it from the Vietnamese perspective, for a change. No GI heros here, quite the contrary. A picture entitled "American laughing at dismembered Vietnamese farmer" sat next to wall writings detailing the devastation of war. The museum clearly painted the Americans as murders and destroyers of life. Hell, I guess they were, it was war after all, but reading the stories from the Vietnamese side of the fence served as a reminder of just how slanted Vietnamese films we westerners see were.

Walking through the Museum, I encountered a familiar name several times. "Tim Page", the photographer I had spent the day with in Sri Lanka a few months back. The room filled with photo's of dead photographers reminded me of how horrible it must have been for him.

I walked out of the museum, dead quiet and stomach churning, to meet my moto driver perched on his bike.

"Hey, I have to ask you, do Vietnamese people hold a grudge, you know, have bad feelings, towards Americans?"

"Nono, long time ago, is ok"

I didn't know why, but I felt as though I should be apologising to him. An apology wasn't exactly appropriate seeing as I was Canadian and he was south Vietnamese. The south had been allies with the US and Canada never participated in the war. Never the less, I felt guilt, by association perhaps, brewing inside.

'You want to see temple?' the driver asked, thankfully changing the subject.

'Sure...'

The moto purred and blasted off.

-- 'Cu Chi tunnels, watch your head.'

I had booked a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels with Sihn Cafe the day before. Hoan, the hotel manager, rapped endlessly on the door at 7:30am to wake me up for the bus. I had been up drinking with some Irishmen staying in the hotel and had a pounding head ache. Another nasty side effect of the Malaria meds was a very low tolerance for alcohol. Grasping my head with both hands I wondered if I could stop taking the meds yet...

The bus was clean, air conditioned, new, and I couldn't see any rice bags, livestock or people strapped to the roof. The bus wasn't overcrowded, we all were assigned a nice and cozy seat. But it all felt very strange for some reason. Nearly one hundred backpackers gathered near the cafe to hop onto a bus they'd also booked the day before to various tours. It was all very organized, like a giant package tour. It felt like Europe. Very tourist ready. Very predictable. Very... bland... Disney World meets Asia.

I wasn't ready for this, Vietnam was a night and day change from Myanmar where simply taking a train can prove to be a challenge.

Seeing the cushy new bus, I thought of one Irish man, the night before who had been complaining that the bus rides were rough in Vietnam. After the nightmare bus and train in Myanmar, this was going to be a cakewalk. I had the delightful advantage of having already been through the worse, it was all going to get better from here on in, I thought to myself.

On the bus to the tunnels I felt more like a holiday tourist than a backpacker, my bottle of water on my lap, in my soft, clean seat and with my AC on full throttle. Everyone was clean, shaven, fresh and had expensive bags, cameras and clothes, this was easy travel. Something I was more than happy to be absorbed by for the time being.

"I am going to take the easy road this time, the road most travelled, time to recharge the batteries" I said to myself justifying the initial uneasy feeling I was having from being pampered for once.

I know, it cliche, but seeing how touristy Vietnam was, I was glad I had gone to Myanmar, before all of the tourists swarmed in. In Vietnam, I finally felt like I was on holiday rather than fighting my way through a challenging journey.

The Cu Chi tunnels, miles long, 60km from Saigon, housed 15000 VietCon (VC) militia during the war. We were herded into a small room to watch a propaganda film made in 1967 documenting the VC's use of the tunnels. I don't think I'd ever heard the words "Kill Americans" that many times in the span of 45 minutes before. One VC hero had even been given an award which was named the "Killing most Americans award".

The tunnel complex was a little disappointing in the sense that it was 100% organized for tourists. rehearsed lines, planned routes through the tunnels, it felt more like Disneyland than an authentic Vietnamese experience. All the same, it was fascinating. I'd have to get used to organized tourism again if I was to enjoy this country that had miraculously pulled itself out of a devastated,war-torn battle zone and morphed into a thriving, economically stable, booming and seemingly, capitalistic country. Hardly the communist regime I was expecting.

On the way home we stopped at a Caodist temple for mass. Caodism was a funky, colorful religion, establish in the 1920's and practiced only in a small region of Vietnam. As interesting as it was, it felt odd, 200 tourists guided carefully into the giant temple for mass. How could these people tolerate us all just starring at them like some amusement park attraction. Feeling guilty, I snuck back to the bus early to avoid the Caodist's eyes starring up at us as the tourists all aimed their cameras, set their flashes on auto-fire and blasted away.

No, no, no... I hadn't turned into one of those snobby, purist, backpackers who live to be off he beaten path, I hated those self righteous zealots, but it just didn't feel very authentic. There was something very disturbing about all this organized, well oiled, mass tourism. The feeling had to be temporary, I was sure it would pass after sucking back a few more pampered day trips.

-- The Nepalese Situation

I starred at the email for 10 minutes.

"We are sorry to inform you that your trip to Tibet via Nepal has been cancelled due to the violence in the region." it announced.

It may as well have read,

'Sorry pal, but we have decided to completely ruin your trip by cancelling the most interesting destination on your list'

I was afraid of that. The highlight of my trip, the Tibet trek. Cancelled. I had been following the situation in Nepal for weeks as it escalated. The Canadian Government had issued a warning that Canadians should avoid travel to Nepal due to escalating violence but when they had issued an updated warning that the rebels were promising to target tourist establishments, it became real. Being the only tourist booked on the trek, it was cancelled and, once in Nepal, I would have to fend for myself. I still had a flight to Kathmandu scheduled and I wasn't going to let a few rebels ruin my fun.

"It can't be that bad... I'll just fly in then make a decision from Kat"

Over the next weeks more news would surface from recently evacuated tourists.

-- The Mekong Delta

I booked myself on another cleanly packaged tour of the Mekong delta, the blood line of the country, in southern Vietnam. The tour was awful. Boat through the Mekong, stop for photo, "back on the boat everyone", hold the snake, take photo, "back on the boat now" ... Uggg ... I couldn't wait for Laos.

I had met Kaoru and Kevin on the tour. When the tour finally ended, we made plans to go to a hip club in Saigon called "Apocalypse Now", later that night.

After we settled in at the bar, Kevin leaned in to whisper.

"Luc, after you left us, some old lady and what I guess was her grand daughter walked up to me and the little girl did this" Kevin motioned something that looked as though he was trying to swallow a banana whole.

We both cringed in disgust.

"Disgusting..." he added

"You know what's disgusting, Kevin, is that if she is selling, then someone is been buying..."

We changed the topic and sipped our Tiger beers, trying not to imagine the stories that poor little girl must have had to tell.

The next morning I bought a freshly photocopied edition of "Lonely Planet Vietnam" and a half dozen copied CDs for 10$ and rushed out to arrange my travel plans to the north. To save time, I booked a night bus to Nha Trang. A municipal beach 14 hours north of Saigon. The LP promised that it was the "nicest beach in all of Vietnam" that would do just fine for my birthday.

I still hadn't managed to meet anyone with travel plans which would put them in Nha Trang in time for my birthday but I had amassed a pocketful of email addresses from other backpackers headed north. We all promised to try and meet up once we arrived at the beach.

-- Birthday on the beach. 'Nha Cheeeeaaaaang'

Linda, an Australian backpacker on a 3 week tour of Vietnam, was stretching her long legs out on the adjacent seats, in preparation for the long bus ride when I walked in. We chatted a bit and settled in for a long night.

Having suffered seriously disabling motion sickness the prior week in Myanmar, I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to make it through the night intact. It was the first time that I was taking the bus since the "Myanmar episode".

I was fearful of falling asleep and waking up to a disgruntled stomach demanding to evacuate it's contents so I stayed up all night to make sure that I arrived in good health. Lazy-eyed and sluggish, but in good health all the same. The moon was spectacular that night. Bright, orange with charcoal black clouds streaming by. I listened to my newly acquired pirate CDs, munched on some Oreo cookies ( a welcomed treat after Myanmar ) and fought a persistent battle with my eyelids to stay open.

Linda was also spending the day in Nha Trang ( pronounced Nah Cheang ) but had scheduled to be on a bus to the north the next night. She left her bags in my room for the day and we decided to treat ourselves to a full day at the spa. Nha Trang offered a luxurious spa for fractions of what it would cost in any western country. We spent the day sloshing in mud baths, splashing in mineral water and being massaged endlessly. By the day's end, I could barely keep my knees from buckling due to crippling exhaustion and absolute spa-induced relaxation.

We hobbled over to the beach to gaze at the rocky mountainesque formations speckling the South China Sea off the coast of Nha Trang melt into darkness as the sun faded.

Linda and I had been having such a good time that she decided to postpone her scheduled bus to the following day, which eventually would get pushed off again to the day after.

-- Happy birthday to me!

I sat up in my bed, anxious with anticipation, waiting for the phone to ring.

"Ring!" I snatched the receiver into my hand before it had a chance to ring again.

Right on time, it was my birthday conference call. John, a good friend from back home, had given me a surprisingly unique present. He had arranged a long distance conference call with all of my friends and family. It must have cost a fortune. Vietnam had one of the world's highest telecommunication costs and calls to Nha Trang from Canada weren't cheap.

It did me good to hear everyone's familiar voice again. Dave had moved into his new house, Gerry had graduated (finally :) ), John had just returned from Cuba... we laughed, traded stories and had a communal drink ( it was 8am Vietnam time, but it was never too early for a shot of Myanmar whiskey ). Once 45 minutes had passed, every one had had their turn, including my nephew who sang happy birthday to me ( I think it was happy birthday). I was relieved. I felt all cushy and was thinking of life back home again.

The difference in timezones between Vietnam and Canada had the advantage of it being the previous day ( April 30th ) back home and May 1st in Vietnam during the call. It would be the only time, that my father's birthday, which was on April 30th, would fall on the same day as mine. We both wished each other happy birthday.

All along I was worried that I would have a horrible 27th birth day sitting on the beach, alone, hammered on Red Bull and Rum, comatose on the beach while thieves plucked away all of my worldly possessions.

The day was already taking a high ranking, dangerously close to the best birthday ever. I didn't care how many people I could scrounge up for a celebration later in the night, I had already had a great birthday.

I knew how much the call was costing John, so after 45 minutes we wrapped things up. I dropped the phone back on the table, with a smile that just refused to give my cheek muscles a rest.

And with that... I was 27.

"I have great friends" I gushed to Linda when she burst back into the room with a plastic shopping bag full of goodies.

"I bought some stuff" Linda shook the plastic bag she was carrying.

She slowly emptied the bag of make-shift birthday presents. Oreos, a new toothbrush ( apparently I needed one ), batteries and a muffin sized birthday cake, complete with birthday candles. The perfect backpacker's giftset.

Although I had been emailing my newly acquainted friends that I had met in Saigon, to try to convince them to meet up for my birthday in Nha Trang, after I made Linda sing me happy birthday, we just hung out, had some drinks and called it an early night. I didn't really need to celebrate any more, I had already had the best birthday... ever.

-- Hoi An Bound

We booked a bus to Hoi an, a port city with saturated amounts of french colonial architecture, for the next morning. Despite a slight break down, the bus hummed along in air conditioned bliss for 14 hours. Recalling the hell of bus travel in the western Myanmar provinces, I slumped back in my seat and quietly chuckled as the other 12 Canadian girls on the bus spouted occasional disgruntled remarks about the ride. The bus passed towering lush green hills, fishing villages and salt resevoires. I was enjoying the benefits of day travel and was a quick convert.

We arrived and booked a posh room with TV, AC and a mini-fridge stocked with beer.

The next day we bought a few cheap suits ( 40$ US ), took a sunset boat down the river, had an authentic Vietnamese dinner, filled our daypacks with exotic fruits and retired to the room. I could get used to this type of travel.

-- My Son

Before leaving for My Son, walking down the street I could see a familiar name on the book shelf of a passing shop. "TIM PAGE - Derailed in Uncle Ho's Victory Garden". Tim had told me about his book and promised that I could find it in Vietnam. I bought an authentic copy, rather than a copied version.

My Son, an ancient Cham complex dating back to 200-1500 AD, roughly 1 1/2 hours from Hoi An was meant to be reminiscent of Cambodia's Angkor temples. We haggled for 2 motos and went off to see the ruins. After a proper 1 1/2 hour ass smacking from the moto, we arrived, pasted in dirt.

Unfortunately, countless wars took their toll on the temples and after the Americans were through bombing the area, only 3 mini-complexes were left intact. Still quite impressive, we wandered around and headed back on our motos as the sunset behind us in a bright orange glow over rice fields.

Riding back, I thought about back home, work and deep stuff that you only really think about on moments like this. I thought about a riddle Linda had told me.

"Every morning, this fisherman would go out, fish, bring the catch back to the house, eat, and drink beer with his friend.

One day this American man shows up and says:

"You know you should hire some people to work for you"

"...and then what?" the fisherman replied

"Then you could go national and open up other fisheries"

"...and then what?" the fisherman replied

"The you could go global and run fisheries from all over"

"...and then what?" the fisherman replied

"Then you could retire and just eat and drink beer with your friends.""

I wondered just perhaps that these farmers and villagers, without the stresses and complications of the western world, were better of than us in many ways.

We arrived in Hoi an with a thick layer of dust coating every inch of exposed skin, retreated to our room, finished off the remaining beer in the mini-fridge and enjoyed our last night in Hoi An.

-- Hue: DMZ Tour

One 5 hours bus later, we arrived in Hue and booked a DMZ tour. The Demilitarized zone (DMZ) which separated north and south Vietnam, was a few hours from Hue and I had been eager to get there since Saigon.

The tour left the next day for the DMZ. To kill time we walked around town, had a nice meal, complete with some Bird's Nest juice ( a drink made of bird spit ) and ended the night by drinking copious amounts of tequila and beer at a local watering hole..

The alarm never woke us the next morning and thankfully our internal clock sprang us out of bed. Slightly hung over, we ventured off to see the DMZ, the Ho Chi Minh trail, some tunnel networks built to evade the Americans and several American military bases. I learned astonishing amounts about the Vietnam War and from the Vietnamese side this time, which was bizarre but refreshing.

-- The Reunification Express Train

Hue was a quick stop over. Once the DMZ tour was firmly checked off our to-do list, we left for Hanoi, the northern capital of Vietnam. Linda had already bought a bus ticket to Hanoi. I had been reading Tim's book in which the Reunification Train played a significant role and I was eager to take the same train to Hanoi in lieu of the Sihn cafe bus. We booked a hotel in Hanoi from Hue and went our separate ways, planning to meet in Hanoi.

"Ban co vui Kong?" I asked the Vietnamese women waiting for the train next to me.

"Ahh! You speak good Vietnamese" she smiled.

I blushed knowing that my Vietnamese was utterly horrible and that by saying that one sentence I had almost completely exhausted my Vietnamese repertoire.

She was a dentist and heading back to Hanoi to see her husband, a doctor, who worked there.

We were sharing the same train compartment and she treated me like a king, or more appropriately, her son. I latter deduced that she was trying to set me up with her daughter, which might have explained the unbridled kindness. Regardless, I accepted it gratefully.

"My daughter very beautiful! Our family very happy."

As dinner arrived, she pulled me off my sleeper and sat me next to her. She held my wrist and gently tried to show me how, and what to eat from the free, cold, and slightly fluorescent train meal.

The train was posh. Full sized beds, 4 per compartment. The experience provided me with just the right amount of mingling-with-the-locals that I was missing out of from taking the tourist busses though it felt strange to be away from Linda having been together 24 hours a day for a full week.

I faded away into my soft sleeper and finally managed to sleep on an overnight ride. Score 1 for Luc, 0 for motion sickness, hoorah!

-- Nepal, 400 dead

It seemed that everytime I did a search for "Nepal" on cnn.com the headline would read:

"400 rebels dead", "100 police killed" or "general strike called".

The violence was escalating. When I arrived in Hanoi, at 5am, and spotted two Americans with "Nepal" TShirts, waiting for the hotel to open it's doors, I pounced on them to extract as much fresh information as I could. They had also booked a tour in Nepal but after being there one week, they decided it was best to leave the country and return when it was safer.

"They aren't targeting tourists, yet, but if the building next to your hotel happens to have a few policemen in it, and it goes, then it doesn't really matter if you've been targeted does it?" The Americans had a good point.

'There's a curfew at 10pm too, you should think twice about it, you can always go back some other time.'

Tibet. How could I pass on Tibet! It was the climax, the pinnacle, the one adventure that I had wanted to experience for years.

"Hmm, well I think I'll fly to Kat and then I can always fly out, right? Right..."

"Mmmm, yeah, I guess you can do that but Canadians don't have an embassy in Nepal so watch your back."

There was still one month before I flew in, I could still change my mind later. For now, I'd keep the course to Tibet intact.

-- Last days

Linda left the next morning at 8:15am. Our holiday romance was over. I waved back as her taxi sped off into the cloud of buzzing, fume belching motos. She was on her way back to London for new adventures of her own. I sat in my room, the raining was pouring down in massive pellets of water, drowning out the Asian MTV oozing in through the paper thin walls from the next room over. Thunder roared fiercely. I always felt homesick when I travelled with others who were at the end of their trip and on their way back to hot shower, thickly cushioned beds and parasite-free food.

"So, what's Laos all about then?" I asked myself with the conviction to change my thoughts.

Before I began country hopping through South East Asia, I had done very little research on each country. I selected countries to visit by ogling maps and by trusting anonymous traveller's recommendations. This granted me the excitement venturing off into the quasi unknown as the weeks passed and I slid into a new and mysterious land.

I flipped through my photo-copied Lonely Planet, entitled 'Laos', the next country on my laundry-list of South East Asian adventures and soon my thoughts filled of mammoth Buddhist pagodas, temple ruins and the unbridled friendliness that comes from under-touristed countries.

I couldn't wait...

-- "Now you have two hearts!"

For my last day in Hanoi, I decided to see some of the sites the city had to offer. I flagged down a moto and headed out. First the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous North Vietnamese prison where American POWs were locked up during the war. The prison-cum-museum was fairly bland but I got a good chuckle by the way the pictures and stories portrayed the Americans having a jolly old time while incarcerated. Playing volley ball and making their own chicken dinners. A slightly distorted image of prison life I would imagine.

After zipping by Confucious' house of literature where he had taught and preached, I asked my moto driver to take me to a village 10 km outside of Hanoi. The village was known for it's snake farming and I'd heard that it was possible to eat some fresh snake. It was lunch time after all and I didn't want to leave Nam without a good your-not-going-to-believe-what-I-ate story.

The village was wall-to-wall snake farms. The first one my non-english speaking driver took me to was a well touristed one. The prices made that quite clear, so I asked him to just drive around the streets until I saw one whole-in-the-wall snake dinner bustling with Vietnamese people.

I walked in to see 4 Vietnamese men standing around as a snake handler tore the heart out of a live snake.

I turned to the man next to me. "Still beating!" I couldn't quite understand why a bowl was being filled with beating snake hearts.

"Make you strong! " he replied flexing his biceps and grinning a contorted Poppey face. 'Arrrr!'

I was the only foreigner there and from the looks of it, this place was filled with wealthy locals indulging in a some snake slaughtering.

The bowl was full and all of the blood had been sapped from the snakes into a few large glasses overflowing with red goo.

The bucket next to the handler was brimming with headless snake corpses, still squirming.

"You take?" the waitress asked

"Yeah, err... sure. How much for a Cobra? "

"20$ US"

"Ummm... what the hell... I'll take that one." I said pointing to the cage buzzing with live cobras.

The snake never had a chance. The ruthless handler skillfully snatched the snake out, pinched it's head and sliced it open, ripping the marble-sized heart and bladder out. He quickly bled the snake into a glass and dropped a celery stick into it.

With a sense of urgency, they rushed me to the back room where a dozen Vietnamese army men where feasting. They all looked up at me and smirked. The women was rushing me to my seat, her hand pushing my lower back forward. I was pushed down into my seat and the heart, still pumping, was dropped into a small glass. An inch of translucent alcohol was added.

"You drink, quick" The entire room stopped eating and was now focused in my direction.

I gasped as the heart splashed down into the glass. The room burst into laughter.

I was flushed with Adrenaline. It had all happened so quickly that I chugged back the heart without thinking twice.

The waiter took the snake bladder by pinching it with two fingers carefully and slit it open. The black liquid oozed into my glass.

"Now drink, I think very good for you"

'What the hell ... When in Rome'. I glugged it back.

On the table, half a glass of snake blood remained. I tried to send it back but they rushed it to my table in protest.

"You must drink." They must not have understood why I was sending the ultra-expensive ( by Vietnamese standards ) drink back.

"Uhhh... let me catch my breath' I clasped the table with both hands, took a deep breath and prepared myself to glug back more cobra. 'Ok, if I drink that, I am going to need some beer...". They brought out a few Heinekens and I sloshed back the now-warm blood chased with a big gulp of cold beer.

My stomach was churning. I turned to glance at the rest of the room and saw the others all lifting their glasses my way. I made a coy grin and raised my beer. "Cheers".

Over the next 30 minutes, my once, mighty and proud cobra re-immerged as 15 small dishes with colorful names like "fried cobra rolls", "fried snake by fat pouring" and "Rolled snake liver". The snake rolls were scrumptious.

My heart was still racing from the alcohol and adrenaline but I couldn't help thinking that the experience would have been less edgy if I could have shared it with someone else.

There was still 5 more plates to come and I couldn't eat anymore. The only way to forget about the fact that I now had a beating heart in my stomach was to proceed to get properly smashed.

Why was it that Chicken, beef, duck and even frog was easy to eat but throw a strange animal into the mix and your stomach did backflips. I tried to convince myself that it was just Chicken. The fact that blood made me squeamish to start with didn't help the situation. Adrenaline confused the senses enough to help me last through the meal.

By the end of the meal I was hammered. Every snake bit that came in a glass was doused in Alcohol. The snake heart, bladder, beer, and snake wine made my head spin and I was grinning like a fool.

"Is that more snake? I can't eat any more really."

"is Mango! No snake..." The woman laughed.

"I think I drink too much snake heart"

"Yes now you have 2 hearts!"

'Yeah one in my stomach and one here" I said, pointing to my chest.

I paid, waved the crowd goodbye and stumbled back to my moto for a final ride home.

-- Escape from Hanoi

The hotel had arranged for a mini-van to pick me up in the morning to take me to the Hanoi Airport. I sat in the back seat, tossed my pack into the rear and we puttered off.

Half-way to the airport, I noticed a small vein of smoke dance it's way upwards from the seat next to me. The smoke smelt like burning rubber and was black as oil. Initially. I wasn't alarmed, "Probably just the tire rubbing against the van" I thought. I lifted the loose carpet to see what the source of the fumes was. Under the carpet, a hole the size of a tennis ball had pierced through the metal shell of the van and the edges were glowing bright red. Sparks spat violently over my hand and a small flame was flickering wildly.

Frantically, I tapped the driver on the shoulder and pointed to the distressingly growing flame.

"Hey, Fire! Pull over!" I shouted

The driver veered onto the shoulder of the road and nervously jumped into the back seat.

"Is ok, is ok!" he forced a smirk, grabbed a bottle of drinking water and doused the flame.

I couldn't quite grasp how a searing, flame-engulfed hole in the base of the van could be described as "ok" but in the interested of allowing the driver to quell the flames before the vehicle was completely a blaze, I let him continue to soak the carpet.

Oddly enough, as he dribbled more water on the flaming hole, the sparks flew with more intensity. By the time he was out of water, the van was filled with thick black smoke and we could hardly breath.

I scrambled for my day pack, kicked the side door open and dove out into the oncoming traffic. I ran as far as I could from the flaming van, as did the driver. He was off, running down the street yelling to a shop owner for, what I would later find out, was a bucket of water.

The van was now swimming in black smoke. Dark clouds where spilling from the windows and a small crowd of onlookers had gathered to gawk.

"Hmmm, where is the gas tank in this thing?" I wondered, seriously considering the repercussions of the explosion on my backpack, which was still laying in the backseat. "This could get ugly".

The front seat of the van was now half engulfed in flames. If I was ever going to get my backpack out safely, it was now or never.

In a snap decision, I decided to make a break for it. I took a deep breath, pulled my t-shirt over my blackened face and ran into the cloud of smoke. Using my hands as guides, I located my stranded pack in the back seat and pulled as hard as I could to dislodge the bag. My eyes were watering from the smoke as I ripped the pack out and ran back to safety.

"Water! Water!" the driver was running back to the van with a bucket and splashed the contents into the flame through the side window. The flame was finally extinguished. We all slowly crept towards the now open side door and watched the driver carefully lift the ashy carpet and badly scorched floor panel. The remains of a car battery, half melted, drowned in water and still oozing smoke was still spitting out random sparks. The fire must have been caused by a short circuit. Using a pair of pliers, the driver fiddled with the cables, dropping the tool to the floor every time the battery cracked a bright spark.

"Hey, mmm, I know this is a bad time and all but.. I have to catch a flight in 1 hour" I said as I tapped my wrist watch.

I was lying about the time, in fact, I had two hours, but a sense of urgency would be needed to convince him that I needed to leave quickly.

The driver stopped tinkering with the explosive battery, ran out to the street and joined me as we flagged down every passing car. We eventually struck gold and found a tour guide on his way to the airport who gladly took me along.

"Did you see the van? On fire! Woosh!" I threw my hands in the air, mocking a flame as I tried to explain what had just happened. My newly acquired driver didn't speak any english. "Woosh!" he repeated. He nodded, smiled and drove along laughing.
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