“In Cambodia,” Perkins said, “you can pay $150 to shoot a bazooka.” He said that as we looked down at a rusty old RPG sitting in a glass case in Vietnam’s Army Museum. RPG stands for Rocket Propelled Grenade; an RPG sits on the shoulder of the person that fires it and was designed during WWII so foot soldiers would have something to shoot at tanks.
“What do you fire the bazooka at?” I asked him. If one was going to shoot a rocket, it seemed to make sense that there should be something there to stop it.
Perkins didn’t know. “A house,” he finally said.
I didn’t think about firing an RPG again until we met a strange character named Santiago while slurping down bowls of pho in a small restaurant near St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Santiago had heard that a person could fire an RPG in Vietnam if that person had the right connections. Since Santiago seemed to have looked into this, I asked him the same question I’d asked Perkins.
“What do you fire it at?”
“A cow,” he said, not missing a beat. “I’ve seen videos of it on YouTube.”
The videos Santiago referred to show men in large open fields firing rocket launchers into the distance. The videos stop short of showing exploding cows, which is what I’d pictured in my head. I’d seen a cow detonate into a mushroom cloud of blood and bones, letting out a pained “mooo!” as it burst like a bubble, leaving behind nothing but a pool of pink milk.
“I don’t think I could shoot a cow with a bazooka,” I said. It seemed cruel.
“What animal could you shoot?” Perkins asked.
I thought for a second. “Maybe a bear.”
Both Perkins and Santiago seemed appalled. “Oh no, not a bear,” they said, showing disapproval. “I could never shoot a bear for fun.”
Shooting a bear, obviously, is not fun. Not as fun as eating a snake. In the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, Perkins and I signed up for a live snake dinner. I was quick to tell anyone I came across about it.
“They take the snake,” I’d say, “and they cut its heart out. Then you eat the heart while it’s still beating. And after that, you down it with a shot of blood!”
This wasn’t the only strange thing we found that involved snakes. The Vietnamese also put snakes in jars. They then pour alcohol in the jar and let it sit for two weeks to pickle. At that time, the lid is removed and what you’re left with is some sort of potent drink that apparently, due to the mixture of alcohol and poison, has psychedelic effects. I saw a woman on Monkey Island dropping limp snakes into jars, preparing the drink on the beach while a group of people huddled around her to watch.
Yet by the time I left Vietnam, I hadn’t shot anything with a rocket launcher. Our beating heart dinner was canceled, and I never tried the snake wine.
When I came back, I found myself telling people more about the things I didn’t do in Vietnam than the things I actually did. It was as if I had a whole imaginary trip to go along with my real one. The exploding cow. The snake’s heart about the size of a kidney bean, beating and hopping around in the palm of someone’s hand. The way things would look after drinking the wine, like how a snake would see the world, through a thick window of clear liquid and glass, watching everything from inside a jar.