Back in Da Lat we shared a room with four English friends traveling together: Eve, Luke, Toby, and Ben. I remember at one point we were doing the usual “where ya been? where ya going?” discussion that inevitably happens when you meet someone along your travels, and they began to talk about Phong Nha, which was one of our planned stops (and where we are now). Phong Nha is a small rural area located about 500km south of Hanoi and famous for being home to the world’s largest cave. It’s said you can fit an entire Manhattan city block inside of the cave, skyscrapers and all.
As they went on about the area they recommended Easy Tiger Hostel, where we are staying now and is indeed a great hostel so if any of you are reading this THANK YOU! Then after the hostel recommendation Toby said something about going to the pub with cold beer, to the tune of “you have to go to the pub with cold beer!” In my head I’m just thinking that he’s talking about some random pub in town that serves really cold beer, which sounds awesome since there’s nothing better than having an ice cold beer after a long day. After that I didn’t really think much of the comment, and kept going on with our travels
Fast forward a few weeks since Da Lat. After making the 200+ km ride from Hue, we’re finally on the outskirts of Phong Nha and making our way into the town, when all of a sudden we pass a sign that says “Pub With Cold Beer”. Immediately I think back to Toby’s comment, and realize he wasn’t talking about just any pub with cold beer, but THE Pub with Cold Beer! I should have known better, considering the amount of literal translations we’ve seen on this trip so far. Yummy Restaurant and Red Soda (strawberry Fanta for those wondering) just to give some examples.
We arrive at the hostel and we’re checking in and I notice a sign promoting The Pub with Cold Beer. The “pub” is run by a local family on an off the beaten path rode and everything they serve for food is raised and produced on site. They have one main dish, the chicken, which if you want you can kill, clean, prepare, cook, and finally eat, all by yourself. You could say this is about as “Farm to Table” as it gets, even by Vietnam standards. I always had this bucket list item where I wanted to hunt, kill, clean, cook, and eat something, but I didn’t think I would get the opportunity in Vietnam.
After a couple days of being here we decided to go and see what the place was all about. It’s about 10km back the way we came in so we took one of the bikes and headed off. We finally get to the turn for the place and the sign says its another 2km down this bumpy-as-all-hell dirt road. I had read prior to leaving the hostel the road leading to it can flood on occasion, and since it’s rained the last couple days we decided pants were in order in case the bike started kicking up mud. Luckily it wasn’t raining on our way there, but that didn’t make the 2km rode any easier. There was not a flat patch of road on that entire stretch, and because of all the dips and rocks, we had to go wicked slow. 2km felt like 20km while we were riding and I had to keep the bike in 2nd gear the entire time since we were moving so slow. At one point we had to go up a rocky hill and back down the other end, so I had to keep it in 1st the entire way down to keep us from picking up any unnecessary speed.
After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at The Pub with Cold Beer, parked the bike, and promptly ordered a couple beers. If any of you were wondering, they were in fact ice cold. We perused the menu, but we both knew what we wanted before we even set off for the joint: a fresh off the farm chicken. The only question was would I be the one to do the deed?
The family running the pub has a belief that to eat meat you should understand and partake in where the meat comes from. It’s so easy to buy it when you’re in a supermarket and it’s already sitting there, cleaned and having no resemblance to the animal it came from. I’ve never hunted in my life, and I’ve never killed anything larger than an insect. This would be quite a step up from a mosquito, but I agreed with the family mantra and figured if I’m here I might as well go for the full experience.
We ordered the chicken for the two of us and I asked the woman if I could be the one to do the honors. She said yes and walked us out back to the chicken coop, where she picked out some poor bastard to be next on the chopping block (literally). She walks it over to where we’re standing and begins to hand it over to me. I was a little hesitant at first, considering i’ve never held one, but I put my game face on, grabbed the chicken, and started walking.
**THIS NEXT PART IS NOT FOR THE FEINT OF HEART**
The woman leads me over to a chopping block in the back of the kitchen area, maybe 10 yards from the chicken coop, and I can tell immediately this isn’t the first time this block has been used today. I imagined in my head I would get the rundown on how exactly to do this considering I’m a newbie and I don’t have a clue what i’m doing, but the woman just handed me a meat cleaver in my left hand while I’m holding the chicken in my right and just takes a few steps back and watches.
At this point I’m thinking maybe I should just chicken out (pun intended) and let the woman do it for me, but then I remembered their mantra and reminded myself this is something I should do. I placed the chicken down with its head on the block, told the chicken I was sorry, closed my eyes, and slid the blade across the chicken’s neck area. I was hoping I would open my eyes and it would be all over, but of course it didn’t work out like that. I opened my eyes and the blade didn’t do shit. I realized then that I must have the dullest meat cleaver in all of Vietnam. I turn to look at the woman and she motions for me to chop instead of slice, so I say another few words, and make my move.
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where Theon Greyjoy attempts to behead Ser Rodrick Cassel, and fails to slice through on his first swing. He then has to go at it like a brute until he finally gets the job done, but not without looking like a fool first. That was me, only with a chicken instead of a person and a dull cleaver instead of a sword. I ended up getting the job done, but more on a Theon Greyjoy level than the swiftness of a Ned Stark beheading. I’m not gonna lie I was pretty down after doing it, but I guess that’s how Ned Stark felt when he had to behead someone. He wasn’t happy about it, but it had to be done.
**YOU CAN READ AGAIN**
I let the woman and the rest of the family prepare the bird. I had enough experience for one day, possibly a lifetime, and decided I was better off drinking my beer and burying myself in my book. After about an hour the bird finally came out and my mood was quickly turning around. The chicken was roasted to a perfection, served with morning glory, steamed rice, and both a peanut sauce made from peanuts grown onsite and a chili garlic lime sauce. For those who read my peanut allergy post you know that I have been experimenting with eating peanuts here and there, so of course I had to try the sauce. It was really good, but I didn’t want to push my luck so I only had a tiny bit. The chili garlic lime sauce was good enough for me.
We also brought our own chili jam that we bought at a shop in Hoi An. The stuff is truly amazing, much better than the regular bottled sweet chili sauce you see everywhere, so naturally I cart it around everywhere we go in case I need to bust it out. When the woman and a little girl of maybe 8 or 9 years old dropped off our food, they both eyeballed the chili sauce and asked what it was. I explained it was a homemade jam and asked if they wanted to try it. They asked if it was spicy and I said a little bit, which to me it is only a little bit but i have to remind myself sometimes that my spice tolerance is at unprecedented levels. Even before coming to Southeast Asia I had a high spice tolerance, but since we’ve been here it’s been off the charts, probably due to my just casually eating fresh chilies when they’re out on a table or ordering the spiciest curries they have available. Anyway, they each try the tiniest of bits and are both pleased with the taste, but about 5 seconds later their expressions turned to fear and they start breathing out of their mouths like they just ate a scolding hot slice of pizza. The proceed to turn and run back to the kitchen, saying god only knows what in Vietnamese, and continue breathing in and out of their mouths as they run back looking for something to calm the heat. If they saw how much I put on my rice they would have thought I was a crazy person.
I gotta say the chicken was some of the best chicken I had ever had in my entire life, not counting fried chicken of course. It wasn’t all pumped up and unnaturally large like the chickens you buy in a supermarket back home. This was a proper free range locally grown chicken, who I’m sure had a pretty good life roaming the village until his last days. At least from my observations, factory farming is a distant concept to the Vietnamese. Everything is local and free range, which is the way it should be. Anyone who has driven more than 10 minutes on a country road here can attest to that. Animals are everywhere! You never know when a cow will just decide it’s a good time to cross the street.
Overall I decided farming just isn’t for me, but I do have a greater appreciation for what I eat after having to do the dirty work myself for a change. After eating mostly locally raised, hormone free meat since we arrived, I’m not sure I could ever go back to the unnatural looking stuff from back home. The problem with back home is buying quality meat thats raised in the manner I want is far out of my price range. It’s not a problem here though. For the whole chicken, all the sides, 3 beers, and 1 coke the bill came to 400,000 VND or just shy of $18 USD. I think i’ll be staying here a while…