Steve McDonald Pokes Death In The Face With A Stick For Your Reading Entertainment: A Cobra Hunt
DISCLAIMER: No animals were harmed in the making of this story.
*Except for the cobra that I vanquished with scissors. Oh, and the rat that I smashed against a wall and ate.
“Take it!” Tai exclaimed, thrusting the serpent into my hands.
I ran my fingers along its smooth, black scales. “Is it poisonous?” I asked.
“Yes! Ha Ha!” he cheered.
“What!” I gripped its tail, flinging it out at arm’s length.
Tai howled with laughter. “Poison, but no die!”
We were standing in a village snake market in the Mekong Delta, perusing a female vendor’s wares. I handed her back the snake.
“Ah! Here he is!” cried Tai, crouching before a wire cage. “He’s very expensive, so today we’ll catch a wild one for ourselves. If we’re lucky.”
I stooped over and gazed into the eyes of a large cobra.
“It’s beautiful,” I whispered.
“It is,” nodded Tai, before smacking the cage to piss it off.
FSSS! The cobra lunged into the bars. It reared up, spreading its elegant hood.
“Put on your sunglasses,” said Tai. “Or he will spit venom in your eyes and it will be bad.”
“I don’t know why you are very funny, stupid tourist,” Tai informed me, and I tried to remind him that my cobra-hunting mission had a more important motivation than thrill seeking.
The Vietnamese believe that a man who drinks the blood of a cobra gains certain ‘qualities.’ You must first rip out the cobra’s heart—still beating, Temple-of-Doom-style—and drop it in a shot of rice liquor laced with cobra blood. You then proceed to drink the beating heart, before eating the snake for dinner. If you manage to keep it all down, it’s supposed to bestow you with great strength and virility; it will make you a real man.
The simple truth is that eating a beating heart ripped out of anything—anything at all, even a little rat—cements your title as a “real man.” This appealed to me, as I’ve historically been somewhat of a cupcake. I possess the upper body-strength of Gumby. Sometimes I shave my chest.
While there were countless snake restaurants in Hanoi, the ritual had been reduced to a tourist trap—an expensive gross-out photo-op stripped of any cultural meaning. If I was serious about becoming a real man, I would be better off journeying to the Mekong Delta, catching a cobra myself, humanely killing it myself, cutting out its heart, putting it in a shot of rice liquor and blood, and then slamming it back before eating the snake. Surely this was the pinnacle of manhood. Surely a handlebar mustache would sprout out of my peach-smooth face, my voice would deepen to a sternly growl, and the next morning I’d happily awaken with tattooed biceps and a keen interest in the affairs of racecars.
A friend from Saigon had referred me to two former Viet Cong captains, who ran a homestay in the Delta and offered to facilitate my cobra hunt.
Tai was a jovial, talkative man in his fifties, with a big, brown smile from chewing betel nut. His geriatric brother “Uncle Tran” didn’t speak much English, but proved to be one of the warmest, most hospitable mass-murderers I’ve ever met.
Tai opened a box of medals. “My brother Tran was a two-star Viet Cong captain! He killed 178 enemy soldiers!”
I smiled nervously. “Oh, wow!”
Uncle Tran curled his wrinkly fingers into a gun, training an eye on me. “Boom! Dead!” he grinned. “Boom. Dead! Boom. Dead!”
I nodded. “That’s so good!”
He kindly laughed, before preparing me a bowl of fresh fruit. “Eat! Eat!” he insisted.
Uncle Tran was a real man.
Tai’s motorbike rumbled out of Tan Tach village and into the lush backwaters, crossing wooden bridges over coffee-colored canals, fringed by droopy palm trees and floating with rice barges and wooden canoes.
Before beginning our cobra hunt, Tai brought me to the village snake market, where he rattled on cobra cages, proclaimed the infinite dangers of snake hunting, and then tried to shanghai me into purchasing an expensive riverboat tour instead.
“My ass,” I told him—though I knew his concerns were warranted. My shenanigans could easily get us blinded by a spitting cobra, bitten by a cobra (which kills in fifteen minutes), bitten by one of the other fifty venomous snakes that infest the Mekong Delta, infected by malarial mosquitoes, or sickened by water-borne parasites. Adding to the fun were the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs and landmines that U.S. forces showered across rural Vietnam during the war. These unexploded ordinances still pose a deadly threat to the Mekong’s inhabitants, but in the realm of the cobra, snakebites are responsible for even more amputations than the landmines.
Tai parked on the side of a dirt road next to a vast, yawning rice paddy.
“Roll up your pants,” Tai instructed, before handing me a hefty, bamboo stick.
Despite my enthusiasm, I really had no idea what cobra hunting entailed. I imagined it involved me wearing black face paint and a sweet bandana like Rambo, clenching a knife in my teeth, wrestling a giant serpent in the rice fields.
This was grossly inaccurate.
Cobra hunting involved walking around aimlessly in the mud for hours on end, swatting at clouds of mosquitoes, and sweating profusely under the baking Vietnamese sun.
This held my interest for all of four minutes.
After three hours, I started whining.
Occasionally Tai would scream “oooOOH!!!”
And I would lift my pole and cry, “WHAT!?”
And he’d say, “Oh. Nothing. Never mind.”
At the very least, carrying a big stick with intent was fun.
“I know much better place where we can find many cobra,” Tai decided.
We hopped back on the motorbike and rumbled down the dirt road, through rustic, palm-thatched villages, past sleepy bamboo groves and old women in rice hats pedaling bicycles.
We pulled up to Uncle Tran’s farmhouse, where I was promptly handed a gun. After receiving a brief, non-verbal marksmanship lesson from Uncle Tran, Tai announced that I was ready to walk around the farm and shoot at things.
Somehow, despite the promise of a loaded weapon, this was even more tedious and boring than the rice field.
After three hours of quietly looking at different trees, Tai pointed to a concrete bench riddled with holes.
“There!” he exclaimed.
I fumbled with the gun. “Where’s the snake?!”
“No, one time I hid behind that bench when the American helicopter was shooting at me.”
“What?” I lowered my gun. “You told me the Mekong was full of cobras!”
“It is,” Tai cried. “But cobras only come out at night.”
“I said they only–”
“I heard! Why are we hunting in the day, Tai?”
He shrugged. “I tried telling you about the riverboat cruise.”
“Well then we’re hunting tonight!”
“But cobra hunting at night is dangerous.”
“Yeah, there are actually cobras!”
“You don’t know about cobra,” Tai shook his head, turning back towards the farmhouse. “We can hunt tonight,” he sighed, “But you must come see something first, please…”
We parked in front of a small hospital, where Tai pointed down a shady footpath. “Go look at that tree. You see it? I’ll wait here.”
I wandered down the path to a small, nondescript tree surrounded by a pool of water.
I eyed it blankly. I leaned forward to take a closer look.
When I finally realized what I was staring at, it was too late.
FSSSS! The cobra lunged at me.
I flew back, my heart pounding.
The tree was covered with perfectly camouflaged cobras.
I took a step closer.
FSSSS! It lunged again, spreading its hood.
When you’re staring into the fangs of a hissing cobra, your mind unlocks an extra bonus level of fear that’s difficult to articulate with words.
There’s something powerfully hypnotic about a cobra’s hood; there’s something deeply primal about the body’s hard-wired response. Despite my love for snakes, an alarm bell sounded in my subconscious. My hands began to tremble. My stomach twisted and adrenaline roared through my veins. My body was screaming at me, warning me that those black, unthinking eyes were the very eyes of death.
“Run!” it screamed.
I picked up a branch and poked the snake.
“Wow, cobras are terrifying!” I gasped, returning to the motorbike.
Tai nodded. “Now do you see that this was a very dangerous idea?”
“Absolutely,” I said, checking my watch. “What time will we start hunting?”
Pale moonlight sliced through the palm trees as we strolled the banks of the canal, armed with slingshots, sticks, and flashlights. Joining us were Tai’s four young sons, who were just as tough and stoic as their gentle, murderous uncle. I watched as they shimmied up palm trees, leapt over canals, and at one point the oldest son dove into the river fully clothed and swam to the opposite bank, just so he could hit a frog with a stick. He then attempted to stuff the frog into his bag, but it escaped into the river with a crooked leap, and the younger brothers began cursing him in Vietnamese. I could tell they were real men too.
Eventually the boys began shouting and pointing up into the tree cover.
“A snake!” I cried, raising my stick.
Tai aimed his slingshot into the tree cover and fired.
An enormous rat landed at me feet, stunned.
I stared at it.
“Quick! Throw it in the bag!” Tai instructed. “Grab it by the tail so it doesn’t bite you!”
WHACK! WHACK! WHACK!
I smashed it with my stick.
“No! No!” cried the boys.
The rat flopped in place.
I grabbed it by the tail and bounced it off a cement wall.
“Stop! Stop!” they screamed.
I held up the vanquished rat. “Look! Look it!” I cried.
Tai frowned, “Now it will be difficult to cook.”
I stuffed it in my bag. I felt like a man.
The cobras never made an appearance, but all was not lost—foreseeing this potential outcome, we stopped on the way home from the hospital and purchased a cobra from a random woman standing on the side of the highway. Unlike the more regal specimens I’d encountered, this was a smaller, less menacing, Fisher-Price cobra.
Normally one would cut out its heart while it was still alive, but I wanted to kill the snake quickly and humanely.
Heeding Tai’s suggestion, I did this by snipping off its face with scissors. It appeared to do the trick, and the snake stopped protesting.
I then went about removing the snake’s heart, which was like dissecting a frog in science class, except there were condiments.
“Cut the skin along its belly,” Tai explained.
I jammed the scissors into what I imagined to be skin and snipped.
It was not skin.
It was everything.
The snake burst open like a piñata, spewing guts and intestines onto the floor.
“Oops!” I shouted, before losing scissor privileges.
Tai flayed the snake.
I pointed, “Is the heart still beating?”
“Who cares about the heart?” he smirked, selecting a greenish organ from the entrails.
“Cool!” I grinned. “What’s that for?”
I then watched in horror as he ripped apart the organ, squeezing the snake’s smelly, awful gastric juices into my shot glass, which was already defiled with blood and Vietnamese moonshine.
“Ha Ha, cheers!”
Tai placed the glass on a tray, before preparing a dozen more shots. He then carried them to the dinner table, where they festered at room temperature for over an hour.
I examined the ruby liquid with trepidation, allowing the humiliating possibilities to play out in my head. I imagined myself vomiting blood across the dinner table at Tai’s wife, before fleeing from the table in shame, squealing like a ninny, as the men laughed and licked their shot glasses clean.
When the snake had been boiled down to a soup, I gathered around the dinner table with Tai, his wife, his boys, Uncle Tran, and a few other men who stumbled out of the rice field without any introduction.
“You boys do the honors,” said Tai, placing the most rancid-looking glass in front of me. He handed a second glass to his eldest son.
I took a deep breath and nodded. “Cheers,” we smiled and clinked glasses.
I slammed it back.
It tasted like salty, iron-rich, bottom-shelf vodka.
“That’s not so bad,” I smiled, wiping my mouth.
The Vietnamese fell over laughing, clapping their hands.
“Ohz muh gawd!” stammered one of the random men.
Tai’s son pounded the table, suppressing gags. His brothers began screaming at him in Vietnamese, before he forced it down and gave a thumbs up.
“Again!” cheered Tai, “Again!” He placed another glass before me.
“Do it with me!” I shouted.
“Mm,” Tai looked away. “No, I’m okay.”
I turned to the others. “Okay, who wants one?”
I looked around. “Uncle Tran! Do a shot with me!”
The hardhearted war veteran grumbled in Vietnamese.
“Uncle Tran says that’s really gross.”
“Seriously?” I cried. “I don’t want to drink all the rest of these shots myself.”
“It’s not that bad!” I baited. “Anyone?”
The men examined their dinner plates.
I drank all the rest of the shots myself.
Despite the volume of cobra blood I consumed, a glorious mustache did not sprout out of my face, nor did my voice deepen to a respectable baritone. And when I awoke the next morning, I sadly discovered that I still didn’t care about racecars.
Furthermore, I had a paralyzing hangover.
While the cobra blood was a disappointment, I still managed to impress a room full of canal-leaping, enemy-scalping, helicopter-dodging, Viet Cong action figures. So while I might not be a “real man” yet, for a minute or two there, I certainly felt like one…
At the very least, my pan-fried rat with garlic was a taste-sensation.
For another shot glass of nightmares, check out “The 1,000 Year Old Egg & The Three Penis Wine“
To hear more about my whimsical death wish, take a trip to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in “Walnuts & Machine Guns: A Taliban Tale”