Know Before You Go: Experience the real Vietnam and its tasty egg treat

10.20.2010
by kelley

BalutTo eat the balut or to not eat the balut? That, is truly the question. And that is a question a friend of mine had to ask himself when traveling through Vietnam a few months back.

He and his mate had stopped in at a busy café to relax following an afternoon of roaming endless streets and dodging homicidal moto taxis. A few beers later, they struck up a conversation with a local man sitting next to them, and as the discussion meandered toward the finer points of Vietnamese street food, the young man turned to a waiter and ordered something in Vietnamese. The waiter soon returned, bearing three ominous-looking eggs.

The eggs were in fact baluts (or Hột vịt lộn in Vietnamese). For those not familiar with this South East Asian snack, a balut is a fertilized duck egg containing an embryo in various stages of development. And while Western palates may all but collapse at the thought of eating one, the balut is highly prized abroad, both for its delicate balance of flavors and the alleged fire blast of love-juice to the loins.

The unofficial ambassador took two of the mystery-eggs from the waiter, turned to his new American buddies, and said with a keen smile, “Welcome to Vietnam,” and handed a balut to each stunned foreigner.

Now, if this were a Choose Your Own Adventure book, my friend, the protagonist, would have two choices:

A) If you decide to gobble down the balut in one bite, lick your fingers and say, “Hey! That tastes like another one!” Turn to page 12.

B) If you decide to pull an awful face, decline the balut, and say, “I just gave up eating quasi-formed embryonic chickens, like, three weeks ago…sorry.” Turn to page 7. (Hint: This choice doesn’t end well.)

Sizzling BalutBut, this brings to light a more important question: How willing are you, my friend and I, as travelers, to not only learn the customs of those countries we visit but to actually embrace its attitudes and expectations while traipsing through its streets and street food.

When placed in those unfamiliar situations—like being offered a balut in Vietnam or being expected to cover your head when visiting a mosque in Egypt—it’s much better to be in the know before you go. Awkward situations are averted, and you’re armed with an anticipation of certain scenarios taking place.

Although grace and humility are universal (a sincere apology goes a long way when certain faux paws are made), what goes much further is respecting a culture enough to study its etiquette and behaving accordingly when traveling amongst its people.

So, that brings us back to our protagonist and his fateful decision: To eat the balut or to not eat the balut?

When I asked my friend he if took the Vietnamese man up on his offer, he looked back at me with a pained expression that told the whole story.

“How was it?” I asked.

He winced and said, “Chunky.”

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