For many years I have heard tales of adventurous foodies drinking cobra blood and eating various snake dishes made from other parts of snake in a mysterious village just outside of Hanoi. When Sarah and I planned our trip recent nine-day trip to Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi we also made plans for a slight detour to this place I have heard so much about. I have always been a believer in pushing boundaries and living outside of my comfort zones, but admittedly the thought of being a snake eater and eating a cobra did give me pause.
From Hanoi, it is an easy 20-minute cab ride to Le Mat, the “Snake Village.” From the tales that had been told I was expecting something gritty and maybe a little touristy, but what we found was a quiet, newish looking neighborhood in the suburbs, near the freeway not far from a popular SE Asian megastore chain. There wasn’t another tourist about and almost no signage, so we just started wandering the streets looking for clues. There were a few places that displayed banners out front with hooded cobra images on them, but they all appeared to be closed. I guess westerners wandering around town are looking for the same thing, so finally, someone helpfully pointed us down a small side street where we saw a maître de in a white chef’s coat, who guided us the correct way.
We were led into a leafy courtyard and found ourselves surrounded by all things snake. Snake heads in jars, shelves stocked with snake rice whiskey and cages filled with snakes: bamboo snakes and cobra. A handler opened the cobra cage and, using a four-foot-long pole with a shepherd’s crook on the end, lifted out an angry five-foot specimen for us to examine. He grabbed it by the tail, and it was (of course) quite annoyed and began to thrash around so much the handler dropped him on the ground, and he started slithering toward me. I backed off and the handler pinned the cobra with the pole, but he continued to angrily thrash and strike about. We just kind of stood there dumbfounded when the maître de asked if this is the snake I would like to eat. With a bit of hesitation, I swallowed hard and said yes.
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The cobra was still pinned to the floor, and the handler grabbed him at the base of the head and quickly sliced its neck open with a sharp knife. The snake continued to whip around so much that both the handler and the maître de had to pick him off the tiles and carry him to the stainless steel table where they began dressing him. On the table, there was a tall glass over which the handler held the snake and drained the blood inside. He then slit the serpent’s belly open with a sharp knife and with practiced hands removed the heart and the spleen and placed them on the table for us to see. This was too much for Sarah, and she walked away. Even though I too didn’t want to watch, I stayed as the handler quickly began scaling the snake, much like you would a fish, and then placed the body, still wriggling, in a pot of boiling water.
Now I have a pretty strong stomach and being a carnivore, intellectually, I know where my animal protein comes from. I do however have to admit that watching the way that living creature started to become my lunch bothered me, and I was feeling a bit drained as we were led into the dining room to wait for our meal.
Almost a soon as we sat we were presented with two bottles of liquid — one yellow/one red — and a small white plate that held the still-beating heart of the cobra.
The red bottle contained a concoction of Vietnamese vodka and the snake’s blood; the yellow was bile mixed with vodka. I was also given a shot glass of straight vodka into which I was told to place the heart before I was to eat it — oyster shooter style. I picked the heart up with a pair of chopsticks and examined it closely. Somehow the violence in the courtyard seemed far removed as I handled the disembodied organ. I watched it beat one more time and dropped it into the shot glass. I straightened up in my chair and slowly poured the pungent liquid into my mouth. I let the lump of heart settle on my tongue, and I could feel it pulse one last time before I swallowed.
After swallowing a still-beating heart, the vodka-infused blood and bile were relatively easy. I had been a little pre-conditioned by having had a few bowls of pig’s blood soup with the hill tribes in northern Laos, and honestly, this was a pretty easy step. The blood had a little bit of a minerally iron flavor, and the bile tasted mostly like vodka with a bit of salt. Since these concoctions are supposed to make you more virile and give you energy I tried several shots. After a second shot of each — if I wasn’t exactly enjoying it — I certainly was beyond worrying about what it was.
Soon a parade of cobra-based dishes began to arrive. There was cobra soup, sautéed snake with onion and fragrant spice, fried cobra rib brittle with dry pancake (kind of like a papadam), crispily fried snakeskin and “fried snake made by fat pouring.” My favorites were the fried cobra meat rolled in betel leaf, sautéed cobra liver with ginger and the snake spring rolls. It was all pretty tasty, and I think Sarah enjoyed these things as well. I can’t say I liked the snake gruel (boring) or the stewed snake with Chinese medicinal herbs (too boney), but overall everything as far as I can tell was well prepared, and it was certainly fresh.
After all of those dishes and a few more shots of infused vodka, I was feeling quite lightheaded and full. We paid our bill (a little under $50 USD), and our waiter led us through the winding dining room to the exit. I had mostly forgotten the origins of our meal and was enjoying the afterglow of an enjoyable afternoon, but there was one thing that unnerved me a bit. I can’t be sure, but I think I may have heard the snakes hiss quietly at me as we walked through the courtyard and I think I may have also felt a tiny heartbeat in my stomach as we exited the restaurant.