Remember the larger than life larvae hunter, Hoang Huu Van? Well he was determined to ensure I never made it out of Bac Kan alive by dragging me, kicking and screaming, through the night into a stream. We were still in Na Ri, Hoang assured me, but there’s little assurance to be found on the backseat of a motorbike that’s speeding through the darkness of a narrow dirt-track alongside a riverbank. One wrong move, any minor miscalculation and I’d wind up in a long-overdue watery grave. He was going to teach me the traditional Tày way of the catching crabs, I only hoped I’d live long enough to try these nocturnal crustaceans. Having loaded up on rice wine before setting out, he was confident we’d find a big haul. In Hoang we trust.
“You can find crabs in the day, but there’ll be lots more of them at night.” Hoang’s still not improved at reassuring me. He unpacks a pair of rubber boots that are at least two sizes too small for me before lighting a cigarette and throwing a head-torch at me. Even though for many Tày communities around Vietnam, modernity has rendered Hoang’s old school ways somewhat obsolete, in Na Ri the traditional Tày diet still largely consists of whatever happens to come to hand. Tonight we would be taking that notion very fucking literally. The majority of the 1.7 million Tày people in Vietnam tend to live in the mountainous regions of the north where there’s no shortage of edible delights. However, as the largest ethnic minority group – out of 54 – many Tày communities have assimilated into Vietnamese culture in a far more wholesale fashion than other ethnic groups and now, Hoang tells me, many of these traditions are being lost. “There’s a lot of things you need to catch crabs, but that’s only if you want to eat them straight away – a lot of people will take them to market, but tonight we eat.”
Armed with little more than a strange array of lighting devices, a bucket and our bare fucking hands, I followed Hoang as he led the way into the water. We followed in the footsteps of King Canute and charged into the stream, immediately the waves of regret washed up on my shores as I felt my rubber boots fill to the brim with murky looking water. I kept telling myself it would be worth it, crabs are delicious after all, and so it was worth floundering around in the dark and the damp in pursuit of the Vietnamese stone crab. “The red ones are harder to find, but they are the most delicious things in this stream.” The stone crabs tend to vary in size and colour, with most of them disguised better than a Transformer in a used-car dealership. Looking like little more than an oddly sentient grey pebble, lots of these crabs are easy to overlook, but those larger, red-tinged stone crabs are now harder to find.
“People don’t often catch the crabs themselves anymore, there are a few fishermen in town – you can just buy them if you like.” Hoang’s determined to keep the games of his youth alive, even though the larger red stone crabs are now being caught for market value, rather than for just survival – which has led to a decline in their numbers. I wondered if opting for the bright red paint job might have also been a factor in this – it’s not exactly a cunning disguise.
After a few minutes of stomping around like drunken dinosaurs wading into a tar pit, Hoang holds up a hand to stop me and trains his head-torch on a large rock jutting out of the water. Here be crabs. I look, but to me his spotlight shows nothing but running water and questionable terrain. Squatting down slowly so as not to disturb the water, Hoang motions me closer without looking at me – his eyes are fixed on the rock, or rather the crevice of the rock underwater. Then, with the reactions of a cat in a firestorm, he strikes. His hand darts into the cool shadows of the stream and emerges wrapped around a red stone crab, about the size of a side-plate.
The crab snaps away furiously, all of its tiny legs scurrying uselessly in the air as Hoang readjusts his grip on the captured crustacean. There is no going back for this little fella, Hoang has him now. “You have to hold them like this,” he demonstrates. “Otherwise they’ll get you!” With this he laughs holding the crab up, inches from my face in the dark. His one remaining thumb is pressed against the underbelly of the crab, close to where I imagine the anus would be if crabs have such an orifice. Do crabs shit? These are the big questions in life. Meanwhile, his index finger and middle finger work with his thumb to form an inescapable pincer over the top of the crab’s shell. This keeps Hoang’s soft fleshy parts out of reach from the less than dextrous crab and its claws.
Into the bucket, the crab tumbles as Hoang throws him in. The hunt continues. We wade further upstream, slipping about like figure-skaters on a grand prix racetrack, but Hoang’s got the skills of a mountain goat as he trudges through, resolute and hungry. For my part, I doubt crab catcher is a title I’ll be adding to my CV anytime soon. My attempts at snatching them out of the water were clumsy and at one point, upon wrestling one rather feeble looking crab out from his underwater sanctuary, I got the grip all wrong and accidentally pulled off a leg, allowing the crab to fall back to the freedom and obscurity of the water. Hoang roared with laughter and scooped up my fallen quarry with grace and poise. “Don’t worry – they won’t need their legs.”
This process went on for about an hour and our bucket was getting filled nicely. 60 minutes of blundering through nature, desperately attempting to find sustenance from its bountiful waters and I was sweating out all of my vital fluids back into the stream. Ashes to ashes, sweat to stream. Comparatively, Hoang was fine – easily navigating the treacherous rocks and unseen depths of the waters like he was born for it. Pouncing about like a man possessed by the spirit of a lion, his ruthless energy sits at odds with his age and watching him work made me wonder what a lifetime of sitting at a desk will allow me to do should I ever reach his age.
The bucket was teeming with life now, looking like a seafood holding cell writhing with disgruntled crustaceans who were probably blissfully unaware of how tasty they would be shortly. Hoang wasted no time in setting up his cooking equipment. First he nimbly clambered up the river bank as I lunged after him with all the style and panache of a falling tree. Then he was busy yanking dead branches off trees like some Mortal Kombat finishing moves. My measly firewood collection went beyond superfluous and straight into the realm of embarrassing, but Hoang just laughed and got the blaze going.
With the fire illuminating the river bank, casting long shimmering shadows out onto the water, Hoang fished out a huge battered looking cooking pan. This was more like a cauldron than anything and the dents and burns that adorned its once silver exterior suggested that this was far from Hoang’s first rodeo. “Fill this with water from the stream, we’ve got to get this boiling before we can get the crabs in.” I obliged him as he went back to rummaging through his bag – I could feel the water squelching in my boots, like two whirlpools stuck on the ends of my legs. As the water in the pan started to boil, I liberated my feet from the sodden rubber they’d been enciphered in for the past hour and a half, Hoang meanwhile had crafted a dining table out of a large leaf and was busying himself with chilli peppers, salt and limes. “Without this, they taste a bit plain,” he explained as he sliced up the peppers.
Hoang lifted the lid off the pan, a cloud of steam tore its way out and was illuminated momentarily by the fire. “It’s ready!” he said with a grin. Reaching into the bucket as nonchalantly as you’d reach into a bag of Haribo, Hoang started tossing the crabs into the boiling water and then stopped to add a few more herbs from his bag. With our haul now simmering away nicely, Hoang threw in another local delicacy – arrowroot noodles. You could sense a certain level of pride he felt for Na Ri, he’d given a thumb and two fingers to this place and in return it had bestowed upon him a wide range of locally sourced foods unique to his home.
Using two roughly similarly sized twigs as chopsticks, Hoang lifted the crabs out onto our hastily made table and to my relief they had since given up attempting to carve my fingers off. “It’s up to you how you eat them, but this is how I do it.” He proceeded to snap off all of the spindly legs and the once intimidating claws and in a single flourish tore the face off the crab, exposing the tender white meat below. Again, my own attempts were more destructive and took more effort, but eventually – after dismantling the crab in clumsy, jerking movements – I had exhumed our prize for the night.
Dipping the crab into the lime-soaked salt and peppers, Hoang showed me how to eat it; you just put it in your mouth and chew. We were a long way away from the fine dining restaurants with all their fancy instruments for eating crab – this was survival style. To my surprise, the shell was not as hard or as crunchy in my mouth as it had felt in my hands and with the seasoning and noodles to boot, Hoang had whipped up a solid means of staying alive with his bare hands. These traditional methods are exhausting and at odds with our current mode of living for convenience, but there is something in eating food that you caught yourself that you’ll never find in a Big Mac.