Vagabond Tales: The strange food of Vietnam

Apparently, there are no sharks left in Vietnam.

This is not a scientific fact. It’s based solely upon the opinion of my dive instructor in Nha Trang, a trendy resort town in southern Vietnam. While you may initially think this is a good thing, the sad reality is that sharks are one of the most threatened animals in the undersea environment and the vast majority pose no threat to humans whatsoever.

The instructor claimed he hadn’t seen a shark underwater in over 8 years, a fact which led me to speculate as to why. Was the water warmer? Had their food moved further offshore? Had he just not been looking?

The answer, it would turn out, wasn’t as much of a mystery as I was making it out to be.
“Because we eat them all” he nonchalantly mused. “Vietnam, Korea, China, eat all the shark. No more shark.”

While I knew that shark fin soup was a much sought after dish in the Far East, I didn’t think it had reached such dire levels where a trained professional who goes into the water actually looking for them hadn’t encountered one in nearly a decade.His answer did nothing to surprise me, however, as the Vietnamese are renowned for eating absolutely anything; sharks, dogs, birds, snakes, cats, starfish-it’s all just food. Of the Vietnamese, a Cambodian friend of mine once quipped that “the only thing with two legs they don’t eat is a human, and the only thing with four legs they don’t eat is a table.”

I ruminated over this as I examined an oversized glass vase in the dive shop which had been stuffed with dead snakes and black ravens. A curious sight to be sure, the dead animals were soaking in a brackish looking liquid I was informed was rice wine, the final product of which was meant to be an aphrodisiac so potent it aroused women to uncontrollable levels and kept men “strong” all throughout the night. Much of this information was gleaned from an elderly Vietnamese woman communicating solely in hand gestures, a somewhat awkward state of affairs concerning the subject matter.

Regardless, later in the day as I flopped backwards overboard at the outset of my dive, I soon would realize that the Vietnamese don’t just eat anything, but they also will eat anywhere.
As I mentioned in my Vagabond Tales column on roasting marshmallows over Guatemala’s Volcan Pacaya, one of my favorite aspects of global travel is the refreshing lack of liability found in many parts of the globe. This is why it came as no surprise when 15 minutes into the dive we found ourselves inside of a cave 60 feet below the surface, a place where most US based operators would never take beginner divers (though I am a PADI Divemaster, my two mates from New Zealand were only on their second dive ever).

For those of you who have read my blogger profile here on Gadling, you have an idea of what happens next. Navigating his way through the cave with four hesitant divers in tow, a large shellfish suddenly caught the eye of the instructor. Seeing as this is Vietnam and you eat whatever you can find, it obviously meant this was feeding time.

Giving us the signal for “stop and wait”, our instructor hastily grabbed a medium-sized stone from the sand bottom and crushed the mollusk in a Neanderthal-esque display of force. Then, like an orangutan sharing its meal at the zoo, he divvied up the flimsy white meat and offered us all to have a taste, which is how we found ourselves eating raw shellfish, underwater, in a cave, in southern Vietnam.

To answer the question of anyone paying attention, yes, eating underwater is hard, but it’s not impossible. You take a deep breath in, remove your regulator (which is never done outside of the skills test when you first get certified), place the food into your mouth, reinsert the regulator, and attempt to breathe and chew at the same time.

So yes, there are no more sharks in Vietnam, some Vietnamese eat dogs, and if they find a shellfish underwater, there’s a good chance they’ll eat that too.

**Disclaimer: The author does not condone multiple elements of this story, including, but not limited to, tampering with sea life while diving, attempting to eat underwater, removing your regulator under any circumstances, fermenting dead ravens to make sex juice, embarking on a $15 scuba dive in the first place, or discussing politics with a Vietnamese man who’s been drinking, which although it’s not included in this tale, simply serves as a general warning**

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here