The greatest bowl of cháo the world has ever known: cooked in the jungle at a makeshift barbecue with freshly-slaughtered roast-pork and chemical-laden market chicken.
I spent five days in a freezing mist up in Khe Sanh, drinking coffee and eating at the same rice shack every day.
It occurred to me to stay there forever and open a place called The Fireplace that served hot tea and nothing else over an open fire.
It would be the only warm place in all of Quang Tri Province.
Instead, I decided to go back and see Bo Bay—a kindly octogenarian member of the Pako tribe who had served as some kind of Communist super-commando during the war and had, most recently, invited me to tea.
This decision didn't come easily, but rather was inspired by an endless volley of phone calls and texts from the man himself wondering how I was and when I would arrive.
When I finally did show up on his doorstep one afternoon, he looked at me a little foggily.
Although Bo Bay had told me, on my previous visit, that he'd given up rice wine several years ago, he welcomed me with a plastic jar big enough to fit a cat in.
Hunks of snake glistened in the pale red liquid.
I'd already submitted myself to several regrettable rice wine marathons and begged my way out of further punishment.
"But this is medicine," he protested, explaining how he'd lately cured himself of several bothersome ailments with it.
I managed to stick to tea.
"I'm going to cook for you today," he said. "Would you like to go into the forest and eat a pig?"
I began to panic.
One of my colleagues, in enumerating the joys of vegetarianism, described his satisfaction at having no part in the slaughter of pigs.
"Have you ever heard it?" he had asked once. "It's the worst sound you can imagine."
I hadn't heard it and didn't really want to. Like most Americans, I just wanted pork to magically manifest itself on my plate while I sat in front of a television watching a heart-warming movie about a talking pig.
"Hey," I said while Bo Bay gathered up a long knife and a spear with a bayonet blade jammed into the top. "I've got an idea. Why don't we just have a nice vegetarian meal in the woods? You know, vegetables."
Bo Bay laughed and I thought, for a moment, I'd sold him.
Before I knew it, we were surrounded by a sizable retinue of sons and nephews all saddled with large pots and pans. Two strapping young lads carried a squealing rice sack that ran, for brief distances, when laid on the ground.
The sound it made was not unlike the one I might make if this same crew had chosen to feast on me.
I should add that somewhere between the pots and bowls and pans was a chicken - too. But, to be perfectly frank, I didn't really give a shit about the chicken because it wasn't squealing at 440 decibels and making brief but utterly pathetic attempts to escape.
As my mind raced for a plan, we all hopped onto motorbikes and stopped on the side of the Ho Chi Minh Highway at Kilometer marker 44. There, I assumed the role of the pig's attorney, and did everything in my power to render as many objections as possible on its behalf.
"Hey guys, maybe we shouldn't leave our bikes by the side of the highway," I whined. "Hey guys, maybe we shouldn't walk down this hill to that beach."
Everyone seemed vaguely puzzled by my lines of argument, but endured me with great humor.
"I'm sorry," I finally told Bo Bay when we reached the water. "I can't watch a pig get killed. I can't stand it."
"Oh no problem," he said. "Just don't watch."
When I pointed out that I couldn't walk across the rushing waist-deep water because I had a delicate camera with me, he ordered one of his sons to ferry me across in a truck tire inner tube. Another inner tube was reserved for the pig.
When we reached the opposite bank, the pig pissed itself. At that point, I rested my case.
Bo Bay - war hero, Pako elder and Great Man of the Mountains - smokes his pipe as freshly-slaughtered pork roasts on his jungle barbecue, constructed in a matter of mere minutes (after crossing a river with all equipment in two via inner-tube)..
My driver and the executioner waited for about twenty minutes while the party left the boulders on the opposite bank and entered the water.
At one point, one of Bo Bay's sandals slipped off in the current and he dispatched one of his many sons to swim after it.
It was one of the only times in my life I've thought I might like to have children.
On the opposite bank, we wandered into a lush canyon full of large boulders, flowering vines and bright sunshine. I hadn't noticed it, but the clouds and the mist that had covered western Quang Tri Province for over a week had suddenly cleared as though the gods wanted all of this to happen.
"My ancestral village is up that mountain a few kilometers," Bo Bay said. "But after that river crossing, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't make it."
The whole crew went to work turning the canyon into a professional kitchen. They carved cutting boards from felled branches and made counters from banana leaves.
They built two cooking fires--one a blazing mass for singeing, shaving and roasting the pig, the other a neat circle of logs for heating the main course: a chicken and pork rice porridge cooked to the consistency of Irish oatmeal.
The pig went quiet as they pulled it from the bag, washed it in a pool of water, and bled it to death upside down. It twitched, slightly, as it was tossed onto the flames.
Then, mercifully, it went limp.
Little was spoken among the team of cooks as they worked. The only sound in the canyon was an insipid pop song I'd been hearing for miles and miles, echoing out of a cell phone left on a rock.
Bo Bay unpacked chilies and herbs and built an altar for offerings. While the pig was dismantled, he cast down two bits of banana leaf stem like die, hurled fistfuls of rice in the air and let forth a series of invocations in Pako.
I presume he prayed for tastiness.
The pig's skin was roasted on sticks into smoky cracklings. Its organs were all carefully unpacked, evacuated and boiled in the broth and tossed with piquant herbs. Its blood was poured over a hash made from rib and organ meat. Its innards were mixed with those of the chicken and generously spiced.
And those were only the appetizers.
We ate them squatting around in a circle. When my knees couldn't hold any more, Bo Bay obligingly rolled a 100-pound boulder over to serve as my stool.
I personally ate two of its feet, a good slice of its snout and some parts unknown in a bowl of porridge big enough to feed a Catholic family. I have no words to tell you just how good and nourishing the meal was.
When I tried to explain it to Bo Bay, he laughed.
"There are better things in the world," he said.
I respectfully disagreed.
"But the chicken wasn't even ours," he said. "We just bought it at some market. It was probably full of chemicals."
Our party left the canyon just before dark and retired to Bo Bay's floor to drink tea, sing songs and smoke.
While everyone along the border had been pretty tedious and paranoid about foreigners, Bo Bay invited me to stay without a second thought.
I hardly slept for the sounds of dogs and roosters and neighbors who kept peering into my little wooden bedroom and asking me why I wasn't drinking rice wine.
In the morning, Bo Bay embraced me with a most satisfying hug and invited me to return, unannounced, any time.
A few days later he called to say that the meal had made him horribly sick, but he was on the mend, thanks to his medicine.
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