When I was in kindergarten my class put on a weird musical production of the Yellow Submarine in which we all dressed up as sea creatures and permanently destroyed any positive associations our parents may have had with the Beatles. After the show, the rest of the day was dedicated to vaguely ocean-themed activities, one of which (for reasons still unknown to me) involved dissecting a boiled mussel with a serrated plastic knife. The majority of the class was horrifyingly thrilled about this. I remember the girl next to me looking absolutely ecstatic as she gleefully plunged her knife into the fleshy yellow pouch of the mussel’s body. (She’s in prison now. Clamslaughter, I think it was).
Since everyone’s mussel had already had the life boiled out of it prior to our age-inappropriate biology experiment, and since mussels look more like something that might come out of someone’s nose than they do living creatures, I suspect that no one was too traumatized by the experience. However, when I dug my knife into my mussel’s plump little body it started squirming around and squirted a little bit of saltwater onto my hand. Realizing that I had just murdered an animal of sorts, I started inconsolably sobbing and ran out of the classroom. My dad—a Lutheran pastor and well-intended white-liar—followed me out of the room and tried to console me by telling me that the mussel was now with his family in mussel heaven, which somehow worked to calm me down, but not before I had encountered my first experience with death. (Well, kind of.)
The real story begins two days ago in Phong Nha—a one-street town in the middle of Vietnam which is home to the largest cave in the world and the smallest town center. On my first night there, one of the hostel guides told me about a small farm-stay a few kilometers east of the town creatively named The Pub With Cold Beer, where one can catch, kill, pluck, and barbecue an entire chicken for the equivalent of about $5. Thinking that this would be, if nothing else, an interesting experience, my two new hostel friends and I rented motorbikes and made the trip there along one of the most poorly-maintained mud roads I’ve ever been on.
The afternoon we left was, weather-wise, one of the most beautiful days I’d had so far in Vietnam, and so when we passed by a duck pond on our way there where an elderly Vietnamese woman was feeding a hundred-plus horde of ducks and grinning with an impossibly angled upwards curvature of the mouth, we decided to pause and enjoy the scene and the sun for a minute before we moved on. As we stood there, all happy and carefree, listening to the cacophony of three hundred quacking ducks (a quackophony, if you will), a man walked casually into the coop, picked up a duck, and in a cruel act of foreshadowing, twisted its neck past breaking-point with alarming ease. He flipped a few small bills to the woman who was now somehow smiling even more, and walked down the road. My friends and I stared at him with our mouths open and suddenly didn’t feel like spending any more time at the duck pond.
As we left, the realization began to creep in that we were horrified about something we were quite literally en route to do for ourselves. Nonetheless, we continued onwards towards the farm-stay, and after a few more minutes of riding we passed through the gate and parked at the top of the gravel driveway. It was early enough for lunch that we were the only people there, save for a scrawny vegan girl from the states who, as a vegan, had absolutely no business being at a destination known specifically for offering a DIY chicken slaughter.
Once parked, the daughter of the farmer greeted us and led us out back to the chicken coop, making a sweepy hand gesture that I took to mean, “every chicken the light touches is yours (for 50,000 VND/kg).” I made a move for one of the smaller ones and was so far off from actually catching it that the girl just grabbed one for me and weighed it in at 1.5kg. She handed the chicken back to me and led me towards the side of the house so that the other, more fortunate chickens wouldn’t have to watch their friend get decapitated.
I should take a moment here to mention that when I signed on to kill and cook my own chicken, I justified it to myself in an oddly self-congratulatory way by thinking, “well, killing a chicken myself is actually quite morally responsible because it will provide me with a broader understanding of what really happens on the other side of the neatly-prepared chicken breasts I’m oh so fond of back home.” However, I imagined that I’d have slightly more guidance with respect to the neck-chopping procedure, and that it would be accomplished in a somewhat professional seeming environment. Lastly—and this was the most ridiculous assumption of all—I seemed to have had some wildly misguided notion that killing a chicken would feel physically and emotionally similar to cutting a raw chicken breast in half, which is something that I don’t even like doing to begin with. I was wrong on all fronts.