A Longer Lizard Tale
Our lizard mission began with an innocuous question to another traveling parent as we settled into our sleeper carriage on the north-bound train from Ho Chi Minh City.
The traveling dad, who had chased his four-year-old daughter into our carriage, introduced himself to Darling Man and said he and the family were heading home to Phu Yen Province.
We were on route to the little-known Phu Yen, via the little-known town of Quy Nhon on Vietnam’s central coast.
As our overriding mission was to track down the best local foods in four central Vietnamese towns, Darling Man naturally asked our visitor what the local Phu Yen specialty was. The answer: dông lizard.
The conversation stalled as the train left the platform and creaked off towards Phu Yen, Quy Nhon and (33 hours later) Hanoi.
During the brief pause in the Vietnamese conversation, Darling Man relayed the Phu Yen dad’s local food recommendation, which I dutifully noted in our important black notebook: “dong lizard, best served as lizard paste”.
As the Vietnamese ebbed and flowed around me, with only a few recognisable words registering with me now and again, I pondered lizard-as-food. I had four days to prepare myself for this Phu Yen specialty.
… o0o …
Clambering into a taxi at Tuy Hoa bus station in Phu Yen Province, Darling Man asked the driver for a recommendation to the town’s best dông lizard joint.
We were 16 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City (by a combination of train and bus travel) and the local accent was impossible for me to understand. Darling Man asked some follow-up questions, which I half understood, but the gist of the conversation eluded me.
Then Darling Man twisted around in the front seat and broke the news to me in English. Lizard was out of season right now.
We had been talking about lizard for days and we were so looking forward to this dish – Darling Man to eating it and me to ordering it, looking at it and deciding if I wanted to taste it.
Darling Man said he’d ask around in the hope that the taxi driver was wrong.
He talked at length to the pretty girl behind the reception desk at our hotel. She confirmed our out-of-season tip but said there was a lizard farm 70 kilometers away. We booked a taxi for the next morning.
The taxi took nearly two hours to take us 70 kilometers down the road we had traveled by bus the day before, so we were only 20 kilometers from Quy Nhon, our base for the past three days.
At the 70 kilometer mark we turned off the highway onto a narrow track that seemed to lead nowhere. We stopped a few times for directions and eventually the taxi turned into a cafe. I was immediately suspicious. Had we been conned?
Not just any old cafe. A completely deserted cafe.
A sleepy woman emerged, followed by a shy toddler. Darling Man ordered some drinks and asked about dông lizards.
Another incomprehensible conversation ensued. And then the sleepy woman’s husband emerged. More rapid heavily-accented Vietnamese.
Then Darling Man said: “Would you like to see the lizard farm?”
Maturely, I did not jump up and down with excitement.
We followed lizard farmer Truc out the back of the cafe, where a big white bucket stood under a tree.
Mr Truc took the lid off and gestured inside. And there was a writhing mass of dông lizards.
We petted one hauled out of the bucket by Mr Truc. We marveled at the colour of its skin. We discussed all things lizard with Miss M.
Then I asked: “Um, is that it? Is that the whole lizard farm?”
Mr Truc said no. He had a dông lizard paddock as well. He pointed to a walled part of the back garden. The lizards live in there, he said. Slippery tiles on the inside wall of the paddock mean the lizards can’t escape.
I asked how many and he said he didn’t count his livestock by number but by the weight of lizard meat produced. He said there was about 300 grams of lizard meat on each lizard and he sold about 700 to 800 kilograms of lizard meat a year. He sells to wholesalers who supply restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City.
He asked if we’d like to try some lizard. We said yes and he took the bucket over to the back of his house, which adjoined the cafe. Miss M started acting a bit fractious, so Mr Truc tied some raffia twine around one of the lizards, just above its back legs, and told her to take the lizard for a walk.
Miss M and I walked off. I ensured we kept our back to the “action”. When we finished our walk, we returned to the … errr … dông lizard preparation area. Mr Truc and Darling Man were deep in conversation over a bowl of red lizard meat. A few lizard heads were on the chopping blocks, gasping, even though they no were no longer connected to their lungs. I took Miss M and “our” lizard for another walk.
A little while later, back in the cafe, a beaming Mr Truc presented us with a dish of dông lizard chả giò (spring rolls) with a salt, pepper and lime dipping sauce. And a round of beers.
I gingerly took a bite and discovered that lizard spring rolls are pretty good. Mind you, you could put just about anything inside a spring roll and fry it and it would probably taste good. Mr Truc told me he’d minced the lizard meat with two giant cleavers, added some lemongrass and shallots, then rolled the mixture in lattice rice paper and fried the spring rolls for about 10 minutes.
After our lizard lunch, we piled back into the taxi and traveled the slow 70 kilometers back to Tuy Hoa. During the trip, Darling Man asked the taxi driver for a recommendation to a good local restaurant in Tuy Hoa. The taxi driver told us his favourite restaurant was a little place called 9 Tho.
… o0o …
Darling Man flips open the menu at 9 Tho and begins perusing the contents. The restaurant is in the front garden of an ordinary Tuy Hoa home, partly covered by a tin roof and partly by tarpaulin. There’s a little girl who seems to be part of the restaurant family and Miss M skips off to investigate the short-term friendship options.
Suddenly, Darling Man slaps the menu down in front of me, pointing to a line of text.
And there, on the menu of a restaurant that’s about 1 kilometer from our hotel, is dong lizard. Our earlier lizard mission had taken most of the day, with more than four hours in a cramped taxi with air conditioning that didn’t work very well.
But we’d had enough lizard for one day. We ordered jellyfish salad and quail porridge instead.
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10 years ago