I had the pleasure of spending Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) in/around the town of Sapa in Northern Vietnam. It is a small place up in the mountains. The air is cold and clean. I wanted to do some trekking and biking up in the mountains, but the weather was rainy and foggy. I did not even see the mountains. But, I still had an amazing and memorable time. Check this one out:
I met a friend of a friend named Chris, who has been spending a lot of time Vietnam. This guy is amazing. He can speak vietnamese, as well as some of the languages spoken by the local villages. He brought me up into the hills to visit one of these villages (it was a Dao village) where he was invited to a Tet lunch, and took me along.
So, here I am, with Chris, sitting in this village home made entirely of wood, no nails, and a concrete floor (people back home might call it a shack). We are huddled around small, circular tables. We are sitting on small stools about a foot off the ground. We are surrounded by local people who don’t speak any English, or Vietnamese for that matter. We are served too much rice wine and offered every edible part of a 70kg pig. I am not too conservative with food, but some of this stuff was pretty weird for a guy from Canada. But, curiosity and a fear of offending the host motivated me to try everything. Here is a run-down:
– brain: a very chewy texture, if I recall. A couple of days later an Australian girl told me about people who had gotten diseases from eating pig’s brain. Hmm, thanks, good to know (I think I will be ok :) Anyway, what was shocking was the liquid the brain was served in:
– bile: the most bitter thing I have ever tasted. I am actually grimacing right now as I type this. It was a nasty green colour. They squeeze it out of the gallbladder. Let’s just say I didn’t take any of the left-over bile to go :(
– intestines: served with mushrooms. I can’t remember much about the intestines, so they must have been OK. Maybe the taste of the mushrooms helped.
– stomach: no prob. By this time in the meal, I am becoming a pig-eating veteran. Bring it on.
– spinal cord: bones and all. Yuck. I couldn’t get the texture out of my mind. The bones were mushed up but still crunchy.
– blood: served congealed. So, you didn’t have to drink it. It was more like a “blood jello”. I should give Bill Cosby a call and tell him about this new flavour.
Tet lunch. At one o’clock: the green bile with pieces of pig brain in it. 11 o’clock: the intestines and mushrooms. If I recall (?), the stomach is at 7 o’clock. The spinal cord is that mushy looking stuff at 4 o’clock. There is also some less exotic stuff, like the spring rolls at 8 o’clock
Chris watches me throw back my first helping of the red stuff.
In addition to the pig, I got wasted on rice wine. What seemed like every few mintues, the local guys would cheers me and I would do the shot. Then my glass was immediately refilled again. Trouble. After lunch, about 2:30 in the afternoon, Chris and I walked through the rice fields to another home. I am drunk out of my tree. For some reason I can no longer recall, I took a video of myself struggles through fields. In it, I discuss the difficulties of “post rice wine walking” and a few design holes of Gore-Tex. It’s probably good for a few laughs, so here it is:
Anyway, that night I stayed at a homestay in the village. At dinner, I ate more pork and drink more rice wine. More trouble! I spent the next morning vomitting from too much wine, to the great amusement of the local family.
Me “cheers-ing” the local guys with some rice wine. For some educational content, note that I am showing respect to them by using my right hand, touching my elbow with my left, and attempting to clink glasses with my glass lower than theirs. But, sometimes these guys would try click with their glasses lower to mine to indicate respect to me (which I don’t deserve, but I didn’t fight them on it).
Anyway, that was a long story, but I thought it deserved some typing. Chris called it a “once in a lifetime” experience. I agree. As I have mentioned before, this sort of thing is the “holy grail” of travelling. It is the kind of thing countless people are crawling all over the planet in search for. And, through some good fortune, I got to eat the pig’s brain. I am a lucky man.
The title and the majority of this blog where about the food I ate because it was the weirdest and most interesting for the reader. But, I should mention how welcoming and friendly the village people were. I wasn’t even invited to this lunch, but they treated me like I was part of the family. It was amazing.
I returned to Sapa for New Years Eve. The guesthouse put on a great party with wine, champagne and food (fortunately no pig). It was a great night, good company. So, I got to celebrate two New Years this year: the lunar one here eating pig, and the “western” one at a Cambodian funeral. Crazy.
Vietnamese and foreigners celebrating New Year’s together, lunar style
My last day in Vietnam was back in Hanoi, during one of the 3 days of Tet. Compared to my earlier visit, it was a ghost-town. Most shops were closed. There was so much less traffic I almost felt safe crossing the street.
I have just come to Laos, the country just to the west of Vietname. I am in the city of Luang Prabang. So, new country, new culture, new people to meet, new food to try, new experiences to have.
Chuc mung nam moi! (Happy New Year!)
PS: After re-reading this post, perhaps I have given a few too many details on the pig parts… I apologize to the squirmish :)