As an advisor to the Vietnamese riverine boats in 1969-70, I had no choice but to eat food prepared by their sailors. I contributed money to a Vietnamese officers’ mess. Sailors purchased meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables the nearest local market place or simply hailed sampans heading to market. Everything was boiled. It was the only way anything was cooked. The only condiment was nước mắm, a fish sauce made by aging layers of anchovies and salt for a year on bamboo racks in the sun, collecting the drippings. When the smell was strong enough to knock a buzzard off of a dung heap, the sauce was deemed to be ready.
Each meal featured a common dipping bowl containing nước mắm and chopped peppers or onions. In September of 1969, our riverine unit participated in the “Dark Forest Campaign,” a major Vietnamese effort to root out entrenched Viet Cong and NVA forces in the U- Minh Forest of the Mekong Delta. My River Assault and Interdiction Division (RAID) had the mission of clearing a north-south canal that ran straight through the forest. This made obtaining food from the market difficult because the whole area was a free fire zone that had long ago been evacuated by civilians.
Further complicating matters was the blocking of the canal behind us by enemy forces planning to annihilate us. Ominously, they filled in a stretch of the canal with mud and logs, barring all movement north. The sailors made the best of it by foraging among the long abandoned plantations for bananas, coconuts, and whatever else they could find.
Hearing some shooting up ahead of my boat one day, I thought we had been ambushed, but it was sailors shooting a stray dog. They offered me some for dinner, but I declined. Similarly, they killed a half-starved American style hog and cooked it.
Fish and rice were our main diet. Fish were raised in flooded bomb craters over which a pier had been built. The pier was for defecating, which fed the fish. When the fish were large enough, the crater was pumped dry and the fish were gathered.
The boiled fish were the common entrée in the middle of the table. Each person had his own bowl of rice. You would break off a piece of fish with your chopsticks, dip it into the nước mắm, and hold it over your rice as you ate it.
I could never get enough to eat to keep from losing weight. Having been trained hard by SEALs at Coronado and Marines at Camp Pendleton for six months before my tour, I was a very fit 180 pounds when I arrived in country. During the Dark Forest Campaign, my weight dropped to 125 pounds (half my present weight). My fatigue trousers had little side straps to tighten instead of a belt. Soon, there was no more strap left to tighten.
The Vietnamese saw me withering away and frequently urged me to eat more rice. The Vietnamese had their fun with me despite their alarm that I might die of starvation. One evening at dinner the common “meat” looked like thick, white coleslaw. After I had crunched down quite a bit of it, the Vietnamese lieutenant asked me if I knew what I was eating. I examined it for the first time with the experienced eye of a one-time biology major. There was simple squamous epithelium on both sides of thin cartilage, punctuated by a few stiff hairs. I pronounced the result of my examination: “Boiled pig’s ear!” The Vietnamese were surprised that I had guessed right.
A former advisor had warned me of this game. He had been tested at a party in which the Vietnamese were eating raw, fertilized eggs and washing them down with beer. The advisor opened his egg and saw a fuzzy little head. Nevertheless, he chewed it up and swallowed it. As he stood there turning green, his counterpart expressed amazement that he had eaten the chick. He said, “We don’t eat them when they are that old.”
At Tet of 1970 there was a big feast. The Vietnamese went all out and bought a chicken. After halfheartedly plucking and gutting it, they chopped it up with some cabbage and boiled the whole mess. We sat around a table as if it were Thanksgiving dinner. A visiting commander said to me: “To you, Dai-uy (Lieutenant), goes the honor of the head!” At the apex of the cone of chopped cabbage and chicken was the googly-eyed boiled head. I asked the commander if there were any food that he did not like when he was undergoing training in San Diego. He replied, “Yes. I no like the hot food with little meats and red beans.” “Chili?” I asked. “Yes, yes! I no like chili!” I respectfully declined the honor, telling him that I felt the same way about chicken heads as he felt about chili.
The Heart of Darkness Diet is guaranteed to produce rapid weight loss, but I promise you will never be more miserable in your life.