Hoang Huu Van isn’t just cooler than you because he roams around the forest with an axe hunting larvae and climbs up waterfalls with a cigarette pursed between his lips in the parts of Bac Kan that Google can’t find, he is cooler than you could ever be.
With all your futile self-doubt and nagging sense of uncertainty – Hoang maintains a fine balance of rice wine and blood circulation that renders self-doubt physically impossible. Besides, you probably haven’t blown up three of your appendages with dynamite. Hell, back in 1986 you were probably nought but a wiggle in your daddy’s hips, maybe at best you were trying to support your own head and not dribble on yourself. Meanwhile our man, Hoang, was busy turning mountains into gravel with high-powered explosives.
Now, before you jump down my throat and ask what a grown man was doing blowing up mountains with dynamite, first off – Hoang wasn’t a grown man at the time, he was part of the Bac Kan Youth Brigade and secondly, they’d been tasked with blowing up enough mountain rock in order to construct one of the arterial roads through Bac Kan.
“They gave me some time off [after the finger-claiming dynamite incident] but I really wanted to help.” Between seemingly interminable shots of rice wine and drags on cigarettes that apparently appear from nowhere, Hoang explains himself. “At the time there was no way to cross the river and our whole district was cut off from the rest of Bac Kan, so we knew it was important, but it was the first time I’d used dynamite so it was disappointing to lose two fingers and half a thumb.”
32 years have passed since Hoang accidentally blew himself up. Most people would probably call it quits there and look for the quiet life, but then most people wouldn’t go to live in the forest for months at a time. “Even as a teenager, I felt it, but when I became an adult, the pressures of life just seemed too much – I liked being out in the forest by myself.” Looking like a cross between a Vietnamese Hunter S. Thompson and an ageing Rambo, Hoang consistently hurls his body around through perilous terrain, not just because it’s his job – one look into those twinkling eyes and you know, this isn’t about money – it’s a calling. He even has his own sidekick – Nguyen Van Huyen, a peppy little kid who knows how to swing an axe like he was in Lord of the Rings and has been accompanying Hoang on his larvae hunting expeditions.
“It’s not really a traditional Tay meal – the larvae – but it’s a good snack if you want to survive.” I did desperately want to survive. Pitiful as my drunken skid-mark of an existence may look to anyone else, it’s the only life I’ve got and so as I frantically tried to follow Hoang, I was earnestly hoping not to impale myself on the bamboo spikes his machete left sticking out of the mud. We were somewhere deep in the heart of Na Ri district, Bac Kan province in the North-East corner of Vietnam and here I was, a supposedly able-bodied young man straining to keep pace with an octogenarian with missing fingers as we charged up a waterfall, occasionally stopping as Hoang stooped to snag a stone crab. More on those later, but right now – we’re bug hunting.
Swathes of bamboo must have fallen to Hoang’s blade before we reach what I foolishly presumed to be the peak. I was encased in a personal swamp of sweat – not just on account of the humidity, although that was grim. Fear sweat has its own unique scent and I’m almost certain that Hoang could smell it wafting off my scrawny cadaver. Of course there was more forest to go. Less waterfall, but always more forest. Finally, after several literal centuries, we stopped at a dead tree. It wasn’t a convenient place to stop, it was slanted down close enough to 90 degrees to make me question my life choices, but according to Hoang it was a natural hotspot for larvae.
“The demand for these worms is growing, I used to just go for dead trees, but now we’ve had to cut down a few to create a sort of artificial womb.” When he says go for, he fucking means it. Out comes the axe and up jump my testicles as Hoang starts swinging the axe in excruciatingly close-quarters. Hacking away at the dead tree, Hoang wedges the head of the axe in between the split of the bark and pries open a hefty, fleshy wound in the dead log. “Now you just pull the wood away, like this.” With a grin that any psychiatrist would describe as manic, Hoang proceeded to shove his bare hand into the fresh cavity of the fallen tree and sift through the bark until he emerged triumphant.
Wriggling in terror and caught helplessly between Hoang’s remaining thumb and forefinger was an especially large, grotesque yellow grub. The pincers on the thing thrashed wildly, but Hoang’s calm demeanour betrayed his expertise – this little bug was going nowhere but my stomach.
“In Saigon, they have the coconut worms, but they eat them alive – here we grill them, don’t worry!” He smelt that fear sweat alright, but I was in no way reassured. People in Saigon could be eating garden gnomes for all I cared – right now, I was trapped with an axe-wielding maniac whose idea of sustenance was baby insects, all the while I was gradually sliding down a mud-slope where a minefield of sharpened bamboo sprouts lay in wait following a hot date with Hoang’s machete. I’ve had better days.
After Hoang had forced me to excavate the second dead log we encountered, the rain began. It was like God had flushed a celestial toilet over Bac Kan and so we skidded and swerved down the slopes of the forest and back to Hoang’s wooden cabin. “It’s a way to rely only on nature, it’s not a big meal, but it’ll keep you alive if you’re stuck in the woods for a few days.” By this point the exhaustion and exhilaration was dancing too fine a balance for me to wonder why I’d be stuck in a forest for any period of time beyond a festival, but Hoang carried on regardless. He’s alarmingly energetic for someone so elderly and seemed almost spritely as he skewered the larvae between a cut of bamboo, even laughing when one wriggled out of the trap he’d constructed.
While Hoang was busy instructing me on how to skewer these hulking yellow worms – they feel like soft, cooked pasta shells, in case you were wondering – his assistant, Nguyen (pictured above), built a fire in spite of a rain. These guys literally laugh in nature’s ugly face for a living. “In a small tree, I might get five to six kilograms, but some of the bigger ones have about ten kilograms of worms in them.” Hoang’s smile broadens. “I can get up to VND200,000 per kilogram at the local markets.”
With the larvae writhing hopelessly in our bamboo skewers, we waited for Nguyen to put the final touches on the fire. I was curious as to how the grubs before more me had become something of local delicacy. “The demand has grown recently, before it was just something I ate for survival, but now we go out to the forest a few times a week. The problem is finding dead trees, so we’ve had to cut down a few in order to make new homes for the worms to grow in.” Before I can ask why the good people of Bac Kan had grown a taste for larvae, Nguyen announced the fire was ready. With a bit of careful positioning in relation to the tips of the flames, the grubs were lowered to their second to last resting place – the final ones being our stomachs.
“If you grill them too long, they burst so you’ve got to get it just right.” Hoang and Nguyen handle the skewers expertly and as we wait for them to cook, Hoang tears open a sachet of pepper with his teeth and pours the contents out onto a broad leaf. The moment of truth had arrived, as I always knew it would, but despite my fears of chomping into a live bug, these ones were quite nicely toasted into oblivion. That should have made it easier, but the yellow complexion of these freshly cooked little fuckers was still daunting to my feeble western eye. Hoang laughed and cajoled me into taking the first one.
Amazingly enough, larvae are fucking delicious once grilled. A sort of creamy, almost fatty texture bursts in your mouth – not unlike the eyes of your enemies, or a sun-dried tomato – but with a flavour that felt at once recognisable yet still so alien. The seasoning helped the second one go down and before I knew it, all of us were wolfing our way through a VND200,000 haul of larvae. I’ve had weirder Tuesdays, but I honestly can’t think when.