It never occurred to me to NOT eat them either. They were just creatures that surfaced in apocalyptic numbers after a rain, lining the sidewalks with suicidal determination. Little molluscs whose intentions I anthropomorphized when they slowly waved their tiny feelers at me as I relocated them to the safety of the bushes.
Despite their resemblance to delicious sea creatures like conches and oysters, and despite their fancy French pedigree as escargot, I just never looked at them as lunch.
We'd arrived in Saigon at 5:30 that morning after a hellish overnight train ride in upright seats with a terribly dubbed Alvin and the Chipmunks playing on repeat on the train's TV.
This picture about sums it up. An eye-mask and a neck-pillow were not sufficient pacifiers.
The hostel desk clerk was asleep on a couch by the front desk and no amount of shouting and knocking could rouse him. So we were forced to sit in the park and watch impossibly early-rising and spry senior citizens make their morning exercise rounds until about 7:00, when we were finally let in to take a much deserved-nap.
Now, Bến Thành Market is an earsplitting hotbox of frenetic activity, stalls jammed wall to wall, signs stacked five high, shouting proprietors grabbing your arm and pointing wildly at their wares.
(Thanks, Wikipedia - that looks about right. I would have taken my own picture except moving my arm would have meant drawing attention to my existence and being given no other choice but to purchase 100 belts, áo dài, and bowls of rice noodles.)
At the time, I could technically read and understand about half of the Vietnamese menus I saw. In practice, though, this didn't matter. I was unable to stop moving long enough to read the words, lest I be physically maneuvered into a chair and practically hand-fed (this literally happened in Korea - I wrote about it here).
Not that we could tell by the menu what kind of snails they were.
Our first half hour consisted of me trying to shrink into my plastic bench and disappear while Julian giggled, cackled, roared, and snapped pictures of the utterly unhelpful yet hilarious menu.
Google Translate actually comes up with 'junk' instead of 'interesting components', so you could argue they were going for positivity here.
Snails are such perfect, mildly-shellfish-tinged bases for flavor, and they combine that with being really, really maddeningly hard to get out of their shells.
But we like food that makes us work for it, you know?
We love smashing crab legs with little wooden hammers and digging the claw meat out with metal picks.
We stand at our cutting boards spattering pomegranate juice all over the kitchen, making it (and our hands) look like a bloody murder scene, just for the privilege of a few arils of yummy juice.
We cry as we chop endless onions, cut ourselves shucking oysters, scrape ourselves picking blackberries, and ferment grapes for decades just to have a glass of wine with dinner.
So by extension, coconut snails we have to dig out with safety pins must be about the most coveted dish ever, right?
No, I'm not exaggerating - you do have to dig them out with safety pins.
I'm not going to say that snails are always delicious. They depend on what they're cooked in. What they are is a fantastic excuse for flavor experimentation, and particularly in Vietnam, showerings of herbs and oil. The above-pictured dish - coconut snails - was a rich, silky, tropical indulgence. The two above (apple and garlic snails) were more refreshing, just vehicles for fresh spices and herbs.
Where to find snails in Orange County:
I have had snails only twice since returning to the states, both at the same place. The first time, I got a dish whose name I don't remember - but they were basically little garlic snails you pry out with a toothpick. They were delicious, with a savory-light sauce. The second time, I got ốc len xào dừa - snails in coconut sauce - hoping they'd be the same as the Saigon safety pin snails above. They weren't - they were excessively slimy and almost cloying.
So attempt if you dare - but it's only a $5 gamble, so really, there's no reason not to. Also, they serve hột vịt lộn* - I tried their version over the weekend and the baby I got was barely developed. It would be a great place to start if you're squeamish.
*When I ordered the snails, the lady behind the counter was all "UH, YOU KNOW SNAILS RIGHT?" but when I ordered the hột vịt lộn she didn't blink an eye. I think this may say something interesting about what different cultures think other cultures are apt to find distasteful.