The Edge of Glory

At some point I realize I cannot avoid drinking the cobra whiskey.

Years of foreign encounters have primed me to always accept adventure. Am I comfortable traveling around a strange country on my own? Yes—I’m a grown-ass woman, damn it! Does holding a barbecue in three feet of snow in the middle of the woods when it’s 30 below out sound like a good idea? Hell no—but I’m sure gonna give it a try! Do I really want to get naked in this bath house so that someone I hardly know can beat me with steaming-hot birch branches? Not really—but even less do I want to miss out on some authentic Russian culture.

So when my brother Bob comes home from his family vacation in Vietnam with a bottle of cobra- and scorpion-steeped rice spirits, the part of me conditioned to always say “yes” in these situations does so before the revulsion in my gut forces me to reconsider.

A picture of the actual cobra whiskey which I actually drank.

Not that I’ve completely shut down my brain or sense of self-preservation. This stuff has poisonous animals in it, after all. How sure are we it’s safe to drink?

It turns out Ruou Bou Da, or Rượu rắn, or snake wine, or whatever it’s called, is indeed meant for consumption: apparently ethanol denatures snake venom. Variously considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac, a cure for farsightedness and hair loss, and the manliest drink ever made, records of its production in Southeast Asia date back thousands of years (thanks for that info, Wikipedia). In other words, it’s not just some kitschy tourist gimmick, which reassures me for the time being.

As Bob begins to pour, sediment at the bottom of the glass stirs and floats upward. With the alcohol level lowered, the top of the cobra’s head emerges glistening and somehow fresher-looking than anticipated. I’m trying not to over-think this decision, but I can’t help but be keenly aware that I am about to imbibe a drink that had dead, poisonous animals fermenting in it.

The moment of truth springs upon me before I can prepare myself, which is probably fortunate. It’s down to me, Bob, and our brother Eric, whose enthusiasm for this experience I blame for propelling us so swiftly to action. Bob passes me a glass, Eric raises his and says “cheers”, and I down mine with all the swiftness and resignation gained from drinking vodka with Russians.

I did not expect it to taste so strongly of snake.

Bob lurches toward the sink, Eric downs a glass of water, and I stand paralyzed with disgust as the consequences of my experiential openness hit my stomach. If my body is a temple, I have violated it. I imagine this is the sort of liquid orcs drink. I rinse out my mouth, but the taste returns every time I burp, which now happens frequently. It has the combined flavor of ripe fish and grassy, free-range chicken. I sense that I have crossed the boundary where bragging rights are no longer worth the price of initiation.

It is a good limit to discover.