Hoi An, Vietnam
We awoke at 7 a.m. feeling remarkably refreshed after what may have been the best night’s sleep of this entire trip. After all of the lightning last night, it didn’t even end up raining and the boat sat peacefully through the evening in a secluded lagoon. Our scrambled eggs and fresh fruit for breakfast up on deck was about the food as much as it was the setting: the thousands of lush limestone karsts rising above the early morning mist.
Our captain picked up anchor about an hour later — and although our boat was the only one in Halong Bay with working sails — cranked the engine to reach our next destination: Sung Sot Cave, on the island of Bo Hon. This is the largest and grandest of the many caves that dot the Gulf. This “Cave of Surprises” as it is known was a huge and cavernous spot, lit to accent its many defining features, and packed with day-tripping and screaming Vietnamese tourists to break the creepy silence.
With one last swim under our belt, we made our way back to mainland. After a solid lunch – the food was good, eating downstairs in the air conditioning, even better – we snapped a group shot with our foster-parents, Richard and Esme. We’ll miss their supervision! (Just kidding.)
The transfer back to Hanoi was a bumpy and long 3-hour ride. We made the obligatory stop at the arts village/tourist rest area/sweatshop where most of us sat in the air conditioning of the jewelry showcase. The motorbikes of Hanoi start appearing en mass shortly thereafter — a sign that Hanoi was close. After arriving, our hotel informed us that our Vietnam Airlines flight to Danang, originally scheduled for 6:40 p.m., had been delayed, so we had a couple of hours to kill.
Burt had recently watched an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods. On a visit to Vietnam, host Andrew Zimmern had eaten a beating cobra heart (believed to bring strength and good health) and Burt was feeling particularly inspired. We hit up Google on the lobby computer and found Le Mat, a snake village just a couple of kilometers from downtown.
Our taxi driver navigated the clogged streets and about 20 minutes later dropped us off at a nondescript alley. “We’re here?” we asked. He just nodded, so we jumped out and were soon mobbed by Vietnamese. Using a lot of pointing and gesturing, along with some half-English, we were able to somehow find a cobra and negotiate a price (400,00 dong, or about $25USD). Here’s our little friend.
We were both really scared at this point, as the snake was vicious looking and generally trying to attack anyone or anything that it saw. With his hand clenched around its head, the handler told us to follow him down the street into a small courtyard. A crowd gathered, tensions grew and Burt debated backing out. Before he could say anything though, a knife was taken to the cobra and its still beating heart was ripped out.
They drained some of the snake’s blood into a glass of rice wine, mixed it all up and then poured Burt a shot, with the heart floating on top. Bottom’s up!
In one gulp, it was gone. And then, reality reared its ugly ahead — albeit momentarily.
“Now bile,” one of the women said. “Bile?” Burt replied with hesitation. “Good for stomach,” she said, before placing an unidentified organ in another shot of rice wine and handing it over. With a group of curious gawkers, there was no backing down, so Burt caved and offered a cheers.
Last up was the remaining glass of blood. But this was perhaps too much. And after one sip and a slight gag, the glass was back on the table and we were ready to get the heck out of dodge.
Before we could go though, this Vietnamese guy had to express a newfound respect for the unknown American who had come into his village as a boy — and was now leaving a man! A really strong one, too!
We sat down at a tiny bar nearby for a few Viet Ha draught beers (the cheapest in the country, at 4,000 dong or $.25 cents a glass) and recapped the last 30 minutes. “I’m feeling great right now,” Burt said. “All it tasted like was booze. Salty, bloody booze.” It wasn’t inspiring — think I’ll stick with the Bombay.
After picking up our bags at the hotel, a transfer brought us to the airport, where we had noodles for dinner and Burt proceeded to tell everyone of his feat of courage. Surprisingly, our flight to Danang was aboard a monster jet, which felt like we should be traveling a whole lot further than one hour south. As we approached for landing, a huge thunderstorm broke out of the sky, rocking the plane with turbulence. Burt glanced at me.
An announcement in Vietnamese crackled over the loudspeaker. A garbled English translation sounded like we would be circling until the weather cleared. With lightning flashing outside of our windows and an occasional loss in altitude, it wasn’t the most comforting of situations, although we did eventually (and successfully) reach terra firma.
Despite the two hour delay, our van transfer to Hoi An was still waiting for us. With a rain falling, we set out for the 45-minute ride and promptly slammed into a passing motorbike. With the way people drive here, we were surprised it hadn’t happened sooner. Our driver looked at his girlfriend in the front seat, they both laughed, and we continued on our way.
We pulled into the Ha An Hotel at around 10:30 p.m. and could immediately tell that this would be a nice place. The rooms, filled with fresh cut flowers, were immaculate and spacious — and the provided shampoo, clearly home-concocted and offered in little clay jars, worked wonders.
Exhausted from caves, cobra hearts and commuting, we didn’t last more than 15 minutes before promptly falling asleep.