Killing in the Name Of
The reactions are diverse when you tell someone you’ve decapitated a live chicken in Vietnam: I’ve been laughed at for my inept bravery, labelled as a bloodlust sicko and given a pat on the back. One thing’s for sure: it peels open a fresh can of controversial worms.
Nearly all of us kill animals every day. If it’s not for Friday’s steak night, it’s sporting trendy fur coats, leather boots or placing a bet on a lucky horse. Whether you like it or not, animals are being killed for our convenience. That’s a dry weetbix or two kinda breakfast. Fucked.
Killing something has always been on the agenda for me. Not in a murderous, cult-killing compulsive kind of way. I don’t idealise butchery and you’ll still see me sobbing through the scene where the horse drowns in Never Ending Story. But as a sucker for self-sustainment and self-growth, I had always wanted to see how capable I was of killing my own food, with my own hands, as opposed to conveniently allowing someone else to do it for me.
It was almost comedic that I found a place called ‘Pub with Cold Beer’ in the peaceful Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, where tourists are offered the violent opportunity to select and kill a chicken for their lunch. The ride out there was scenic and tranquil, and despite my spine feeling like it may be permanently hunched after 20 minutes of navigating potholes on a scooter, we passed farmers tending to their crops with a backdrop of limestone mountains.
After skimming through the menu, we washed down the dust we’d inhaled on our ride with local beer and ordered the signature dish — dinner with a killer’s touch. An old lady with a toothy grin lead us to an opening behind the restaurant.
On our way, we intersected with another traveller. Specks of blood dotted his shirt and socks. I reflected on my own poor choice of outfit: a white, loose, linen button up paired with denim shorts and white nikes. I was sweating profusely and not from the heat.
The owner disappeared into the coop, sending dozens of feathers into the air. A few chickens were weighed until finally one just over a kilo was deemed the right pick for our growing appetites. The owner handed me a machete with one hand and the chicken with the other and lead me to a small, rectangular wooden block on the ground. Fresh blood soaked the block and had spread to the surrounding dirt. My hands were now shaking; the owner had abandoned me to accommodate other customers.
Holding the machete and a chicken, I felt detached from my body. I crouched awkwardly, lost in limbo and unsure how to slap myself into the moment. Eventually, the owner returned and indicated to the neck, repeating “cut here” in a supportive but firm tone. I understood the task before me, but willing my body to digest what that meant for the chicken in front of me was hard to swallow.
The chicken was uncomfortably quiet as I held it firmly by the legs. It looked lifeless already, as if I could let go at any moment and it would still lay there with its head pressed against the block. I began to panic.
“Does it know what’s about to happen? What if I miss the neck?”
I repeated these questions over and over in my mind, knowing that if I didn’t angle correctly, the chances of hacking into its face or shoulders, and conjuring a bloody mess, were high.
I went in for the kill. The blade met where I intended but I hesitated at the last minute.
The chicken began franticly flapping its wings and gurgling its last chirps. Its eyes rolled back in its near-severed head. The owner squealed, “Cut it! Cut it!” Her words dripped with empathy for the chicken, which I wholeheartedly shared. My arm repeated the motion of slashing into feathers and tendons, slowly opening a messy gash to allow blood to bubble over. By the time I completed the cut, blood splatters were visible on my clothes, hands and arms. I had never seen such a rich, red flow.
Seized with the overwhelming realisation of what I had done, my gaze failed to notice my hands were wet with blood. I was led to a tin bucket, congested with dishes and scraps, the likes of which brushed against my fingers as I attempted to clean myself up. Exhausted with guilt as blood dissipated into the lukewarm murky water, my stomach curled; the uneasiness suppressing my appetite. It was a weird sensation killing something.
In Vietnam, killing a chicken is a regular chore; cut the neck, place in scalding water, pluck and remove the innards. Personally, this seemed to be more naturally humane than purchasing a packet of meat no longer recognised as once-living; just a slab of protein that makes us salivate. The Vietnamese have desensitised themselves to killing what is necessary, and although that may sound like a deprecating jab, mass meat manufacturers inhumanely kill daily. I spent only a few moments interacting with my food alive and I knew it hadn’t been pumped with hormones to plump it up for the shelves.
I slinked back to our dining table. Conversation was awkwardly exchanged for silence, allowing space for our mutual discomfort to surface. No one had any lunch time jokes to share. Our meal arrived soon after, alongside rice, homemade peanut sauce and steamed snap beans, all sourced from the family’s farm. Polishing off the remnants of our meal, our bellies were full and for me, eating meat for the rest of trip was out of the picture.
Cover by Lesly Juarez; inset by the author