Whoa. What was that?
I feel a kick of pain in the wall of my stomach.
I can’t be pregnant. At least I don’t think so. Shake it off. Probably nothing.
I’m standing in a rural market out in the mountains beyond Đà Lạt. Our tour guide just handed us the tenth—maybe eleventh—different sweetened rice and/or red bean treat. And while each one is relatively tasty, they’re all becoming indiscernible from the last. “This one rice and bean.” “This one bean and rice.” “This one rice inside banana leaf.” “This one just bean.” My pupils are starting to float on little rafts of sugar inside my eyeballs.
This is our guide’s signal it's time to move on. We pass rows of verdant, fragrant herbs bundled and stacked high. We mosey past tables of various animal parts. It’s a horror show of hearts, livers, tongues, intestines and all sorts of other fun bits—like, straight-up face, like FACE—laid out in the morning sun, complete with flies.
While the meat woman’s back is turned, our tour guide grabs a meat cleaver and sneakily slices off a bit of ham and hands us each a taste. I take a bite.
Woof. My stomach again. Not good. Could it be that plate of fried crickets I ate half an hour earlier? I’m not sure why but I decide it can’t possibly be. No way.
Fast forward a few hours. It’s lunch, and I pick at plate of cold noodles with chopsticks. I can only stomach a few bites. I’ve never not eaten lunch. Like, ever. I keep thinking back to that ham. It was only the size of a thumbnail but maybe it was—
Warning: This next part gets a little grisly. I can’t share the details of our 8-hour "secret tour" since I’m sworn to secrecy (really), but let’s just say it involves someone offering me some day-old (or shit, who knows, it could’ve been a week-old), charred rat.
My stomach is doing an Olympics-level gymnastics routine inside my abdomen. I politely decline the rat.
This does not go over particularly well with my host. She half-menacingly, half-hospitably motions her bamboo container of rat and ginger towards me again.
There’s no getting out of this.
OK, yes, I’ll have the rat.
Before I know what’s happening, the woman lunges at me with a gourd-full of sour rice porridge. She pushes my head back, opens my mouth and begins pouring the mushy gruel down my gullet. I’m choking on the sloppy rice goo. It spurts out the corners of my mouth, like terrible little rice slugs, leaving trails of white as they slide down my cheeks.
This is what waterboarding feels like, I think. Except with rice goop.
When she shoves the bamboo stick of rat-ginger mush into my mouth, it’s actually a relief. The bits of charred meat and—more importantly—the ginger cut the taste and texture of the rice. I gasp for air while simultaneously chewing and swallowing. I’ve never been assaulted with food before. I look up at my hostess/tormenter and give her the most polite thank-you-for-sharing-your-rat-meat-with-me smile I can muster.
Mmmmm. This is so good. I’m writing the Yelp review right now.
She seems pleased by my reaction. Although I don't think she knows what Yelp is. Also she has no teeth.
The ensuing van ride back to our hotel lasts an hour and a half. Let’s just say we make it back just in time.
A few minutes later I’m curled up on the bed. I’m wrecked. Reruns of a subtitled episode of Deadliest Catch circa 2012 blast from the TV. It’s the only thing that can take my mind off the napalm warfare that’s raging inside the middle third of my body. My neck, forehead and breath feel hot. In the absence of a thermometer, I guess that my temperature is around 300 degrees, plus or minus 100. My skin feels chilled and goosebump-y though. I curl up in the paper-thin sheets on top of the world’s hardest bed. (Is it made of concrete? Possibly.)
It’s official. I have food poisoning.
As I lay listening to the captain of the Time Bandit describe how his plan for this year’s crabbing season is to go after the riskier but potentially more lucrative blue crab colonies, I think back to the delicious smorgasbord I've consumed over the past week...
Crispy/herbaceous/fresh-rolled bánh xèo pancakes.
Delightful green mango salads drenched in fish sauce and topped with peanuts and dried, jerky-like beef.
Claypots dense with fish chunks and lemongrass and who-knows-what-else delicious things floating in it.
Crunchy, creamy spoonfulls of hột vịt lôn: creepy, fertilized duck eggs.
Also, we had some amazing oysters one night.
I roll over and look at Liza.
“I regret nothing.”
Here’s the thing, Vietnamese food is a dizzying and delightful celebration of street food. Fresh herbs, just-butchered meat, oodles and oodles of noodles, all prepared right in front of you. The old traveler adage is, “Cook it, boil it, peel it, or forget it.” We’d adhered to it almost religiously in Cambodia. But in Vietnam, oh in Vietnam, it’d be a crime to leave those mountains of fresh herbs sitting on your table or ignore the salads making eyes at you on the menu. It’d be like taking your kids to Orlando and then telling them they’re not going to Disney World because there's a 90% chance they'll get diarrhea.
In Vietnam, the food prep situation is generally superior to what was going on in Cambodia. Still, we'd tried to be smart. But I had admittedly gotten a little cavalier since crossing the border. (There was one slightly sketchy breakfast noodle soup I grabbed in a moment of hangry desperation.) But who knows what did me in. According to MayoClinic.com—which I obviously checked about five times—depending on the type of food poisoning you have, symptoms can appear an hour to 28 days after eating the contaminated morsel. So who knows what the hell it was.
Sure, you can take precautions—only patronize popular food stalls, stick to peel-able fruits, maintain good health in general—but ultimately it’s a game of very delicious Russian Roulette.
Fittingly, my last day in Cambodia, I picked up a pirated copy of Anthony Bourdain’s classic Kitchen Confidential. As I sat on a Saigon sidewalk my first night in Vietnam, this paragraph leapt off the page:
Good food and good eating are about risk. Every once in a while an oyster, for instance, will make you sick to your stomach. Does that mean you should stop eating oysters? No way. The more exotic the food, the more adventurous the serious eater, the higher the likelihood of later discomfort. I’m not going to deny myself the pleasures of morcilla sausage, or sashimi or even ropa vieja at the local Cuban joint just because sometime I feel bad a few hours after I’ve eaten them.
I remember reading that, thinking, Yeah! You go girl!
Seven days later, my adherences to this romantic philosophy is being tested. I'm laying on my hotel bed in Đà Lạt, rolling around like a dying dog. My internal temperature rising and my body aching everywhere.
I turn to Liza again.
“I still regret nothing.”
I think she's just relieved it isn't happening to her.
An hour after slamming a couple of bottles of Revive (a Vietnamese soda-cum-electrolyte sports drink), a handful of grapefruit seed extract pills and a few spoonfuls of some weird, bitter Chinese herb powder that Liza got from her "acupuncturist", I slip mercifully off to sleep.
Several hours later I wake up on the concrete slab of a bed. The room is pitch black. I feel my neck. It doesn't feel hot anymore. My fever must have broken in the night. I fell my stomach, waiting to feel the bluuurb, but it's not there. I slip back to sleep.
When I wake up again, it's over. No fever. No stomach pain. Just a little lingering body ache and headache that lasts a few more days. With a little rest, Chinese herbs and determination, I'd made Vietnamese food poisoning my bitch, Bourdain-style. But it also made me its bitch, so, I guess it's a tie.
By 8pm, we're in the seaside city of Nha Trang, pointing at buckets of live shifty-eyed shrimp and oblivious crabs. “Half kilo please. Cảm ơn.” Moments later we're greedily gobbling them down on plastic red chairs, in full view of 16-year-old cooks preparing the fresh fare with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Street seafood. The perfect recovery meal, right?
I still regret nothing.