I've written quite a few times before about my travels in Asia and if there's one thing old Asia hands learn fairly quickly, it's that if you're not sure what it is you're eating, then don't ask. They might tell you
I love bread but good bread is really hard to find in Asia, except in Indochina where it's fantastic (score one for the French). You can buy wonderfully fresh and crunchy baguettes from the street vendors, packed with salad and a pate made from something that I really didn't want to ask about The Vietnamese call them Bánh Mì Xiu Mai and Phil Lees talks a bit about them here.
And in my last trip to the Philippines, I was introduced to balut which is basically a crunchy boiled egg. Now, if you think about it, there are only two ways you can have a crunchy boiled egg and no, it's not because you eat the shell If you really want to know, Wikipedia has an explanation here, along with some totally gross photos. Guys cruise the streets on bicycles late at night shouting "Balut! Balut!" and the eggs they're selling often have numbers written on them indicating how, um, crunchy they are
I guess they go out late at night because after a big night at the pub is probably the only time you would ever want to eat one. The waitress at one bar I hung out at kept telling me how yummy they were and that I should try one and I eventually broke down and ordered a round (yes, I had had more than a few beers). All I can say is that I'm glad I saw the Wikipedia photos after I'd done it since I probably wouldn't have tried one otherwise
Also from Vietnam is snake wine. This is from when I was there in '98.
Hoi An is something of an anomaly in Vietnam, a small town full of genuinely friendly, cheerful people, with none of the hassles that one has to put up with just about everywhere else in the country. Lying on the bank of a peaceful, meandering river, Hoi An was once an important port and old wooden trading houses and Chinese temples are tucked away in every backstreet, simply oozing nostalgic charm. The main part of town barely fills one square kilometre and the visitors almost outnumber the locals, yet it rarely feels overcrowded, there is such a good vibe in the air as you wander around the narrow lanes. The town has gone to great lengths to preserve its character and heritage, and also to ensure that everything runs smoothly for its guests. The payoff for the town is apparent and Hoi An is everyone's favourite place in Vietnam. In a country where the average wage is less than a dollar a day, people are clearly doing well for themselves.
After hours, the place to be was Treat's Same Same Cafe & Bar, run by a genial young man with a big smile and his Mom in the backroom, frying up plates of chips for us all. A few years ago the place had been a restaurant but Treat had decided that in a town overflowing with fabulous food, it was probably better to be doing something else. It was a dimly-lit place, not much brighter than the dark of the night outside, with an open-air courtyard and a few beaten-up musical instruments hanging on the walls. The requisite pool table sat at the far end of the bar, surrounded by an array of electric fans strategically positioned to give the players some relief from the muggy Vietnamese nights. Dripping sweat onto the pool table was considered to be somewhat less than dignified.
People came mostly for the music and behind the bar was what could possibly be the coolest drawer in all Vietnam, filled with a jumbled pile of cassettes that people had sent Treat from around the world with some of the funkiest, rockingest, hippest music that you could ever want to hear. Frustratingly, most of the tapes and their cases had long gone their separate ways and those that hadn't were obscurely labelled in a dozen languages, so most of time we had little idea of who or what we were listening to. Still, we had a good time bopping along as we waited our turn on the pool table.
On top of the bar sat a huge jar of snake wine, vodka, actually, but the jar had been filled to the brim with a variety of dead snakes and topped off with an evil-looking bird, feathers and all. It looked like something out of every schoolboy scientist's wet dream. Apparently, snake wine is supposed to be good for one's virility and the bird is a crucial ingredient. No right-thinking Vietnamese would ever dream of drinking this stuff without one. Of course, no right-thinking person would ever dream of drinking this stuff, period, and we spent several nights sitting at the bar clutching our reassuringly ordinary beers, warily eyeing this imposing bottle of pickled wildlife.
The pickled wildlife just eyed us back as if daring us to partake of their juices and so, naturally enough, on our last night in town when we were all rolling drunk, we decided that we had to at least try a little of the old snake wine. Shot glasses were lined up and Treat poured each of us our share. Salt and slices of lemon were provided for those who wanted it, although personally I felt that that was getting perhaps just a little too weird for words. We toasted the memory of those animals that had died so that we may drink, and knocked back our glasses.
It's difficult to find the words to describe how it tasted, like dead snake, I guess, with a gut-wrenching after-taste of dead bird. Being Guys, we manfully stood our ground but after we had all finished boasting about how virile and studly we had suddenly become, I was horrified to hear Treat say that he was going to shout us a "going-away" round. I could hardly refuse and so had to bravely down another glass of this whiskey most foul. The second shot was a killer and I was forced to invent a bus that had to be caught oh so early the next morning and staggered off home, ruefully wondering why I keep letting myself get talked into doing these things. If this be the price of virility, then point me to the nearest monastery, please!