"Snake Village please" I told the cab driver as we got into his car. I didn't really know what Snake Village was, but Hanoi wasn't on my original itinerary so I Googled a few things to do for a day there before we headed to Sappa that night. To our surprise, the cab driver had no clue what it was either. According to some tourist websites I found, Snake Village is an area outside Hanoi where the locals eat snakes, mix their blood with rice wine, and drink it because they believe it's good for your health. When I travel, I'm really into trying the weird stuff. The things that Westerners would look at as bizarre but are completely normal to the locals. Little did I know exactly how weird it was going to get...
After exiting our third cab because the driver had never heard of snake village, we did a little more Googling and found out that it is actually called Le Mat. With that, our fourth cab driver hopped on the freeway and started asking us if we would like to eat dog as well. I told him that maybe we should just start with the snakes. After a drive that seemed like hours for only being 7 km, our driver dropped us off in the middle of what can only be described as "bum fuck nowhere." We were stuck in the middle of a highway road lined with plain looking one story buildings. There were a few big electronic shops and car dealer ships down the busy street from us, indicating that we were clearly not in any type of village whatsoever. Another interesting thing about this "village" was that there were no snakes anywhere to be found.
Coming out from the closest building to us was a short Vietnamese man asking us "You want to eat snake?? Follow me." Marika and I both looked at each other very confused. Was this a village or some shady ass building where they feed tourists to snakes? We were in the middle of nowhere, and it felt like that place had never even seen a tourist.
So we followed the man into the building, which turned out to be his restaurant. I will admit, the restaurant looked kind of nice inside and definitely not the type of place where they slaughter live animals in front of you. The man gave us a speech about the ancient practice of eating snakes and drinking their blood as he showed us a few live cobras and bamboo snakes in their cages. He clearly gave this spiel to everyone that was skeptical at first about eating snakes. Every time I asked a question, such as “Are these snakes endangered?” or “Is it actually safe to eat a poisonous cobra or will it kill me?”, he only responded with multiple variations of “I only serve the freshest snakes in Vietnam! They are very good for your health!” He wasn’t lying about them being fresh since they were still alive. The health thing he was talking about was my penis. According to them, eating snake is very good for male libido and getting erections.
Though we had a million unanswered questions at this point, we were still really curious so we agreed to follow him to the back alley behind his restaurant where they keep and prepare the snakes. Do you know that scene in the original Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory where they go down the tunnel of horrors in the boat and it felt like a horrible acid trip? This is the moment where we felt like we were stuck on that nightmare boat. The alleyway was narrow and covered in water. Vietnamese men were bent over a large bowl washing meat and barely paying attention to us. The man we followed there took a cobra and put it on the ground kind of harshly, almost dropping it completely. The snake was already pissed off as the man dragged it by its tail and shook it so we could see it open its hood; which of course we didn’t ask him to do.
The cobra slithered around between the other men and then towards us. We stepped back as far as we could while the other men working there didn’t seem to care at all. Two of the man had boots on, and I’m positive the cobra could have reached above them for a deadly bite into their legs. One of the men actually had sandals on!
Kind of scared for our lives, kind of okay with everything because of how calm everyone else was, we noticed a woman take a live chicken and throw it into a pot of boiling water right in front of us. Seconds later it came out featherless and smoky. I did not know people prepared chickens like lobsters anywhere, but I didn’t have much time to think about it in that moment with a deadly snake looking right at me within striking distance. Suddenly I heard laughter coming from right behind me. Though I probably shouldn’t have taken my eyes off the cobra, I turned around and saw a cackling Vietnamese man blowing out a Snoop Dogg sized cloud of smoke from his mouth and holding some type of metal pipe with a large opening. I can’t tell if he was laughing at our fear of the cobra or if he could not control himself from whatever he was smoking. All I know is his gums looked like they were dripping brown tobacco goo.
Probably one of the best moments I have ever captured.
“What snake do you want to kill?” Asked the owner of the restaurant. “KILL?” I said. Yes, not only was one of these snakes going to die so we could eat it, but they wanted me to kill it. I am very stubborn about trying everything once, and I never want to regret not doing what locals consider normal no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. But I have never even been hunting. I’ve definitely never killed anything bigger than a house spider in my life. Before I had a chance to really think about the mental consequences, he put a bamboo snake around my neck and told me to hold it by the very tip of it’s neck right under the mouth. It writhed and struggled in my hands and almost escaped from my grip. I had to hold on tighter and tighter as the poor thing looked frightened and agitated. “I’m right there with you” I thought.
Apparently the face I make when I'm told I have to kill an animal on the spot.
Then the laughing man from earlier, now with a cigarette in his mouth, took the snake from off my shoulders. Another man in a green shirt (also with a cigarette in his mouth) took out a knife, pressed the snake’s head between his boot and the ceramic tiled ground, and before I could tell what was happening made a slit a few inches below the snake’s jaw. The snake squirmed like crazy as the man in the green shirt took out its heart and put it in a shot glass and drained extra blood in the glass for good measure. Rice wine was mixed into the shot glass and more blood was drained into another half full bottle of rice wine. Then they cut open the snake again, this time removing its gallbladder. The cackling pipe smoker drained the gallbladder into another bottle of rice wine, creating a bright green Gatorade like color, while the guy in the green shirt removed the scales from the hopefully by now dead snake’s body with his knife.
I don’t know what was worse, looking one way to see a poor snake die in pain because of us, and looking another way seeing two full bottles of gasoline-like alcohol mixed with the snake’s blood and bile that I was expected to not only drink, but finish. There was no turning back now.
They walked us upstairs to the actual restaurant. There were no tables for two there. Each table was either circular and big enough for 7 people, or long and rectangular and big enough for 12 people. The restaurant was actually going off with loud Vietnamese families laughing, eating, and toasting over and over with the red and green liquid. This only confirmed for us that we had to have been the only tourists there ever. Feeling like idiots for coming by ourselves instead of with a large group of people, the first dishes started arriving. Before we could finish one dish, two more would arrive. Then we were full. Then three more dishes arrived. I don’t know how they were able to make 10 dishes out of this snake, but they used every single part including the bones.
Dishes included snake soup, sautéed snake, snake spring roll (my personal favorite), crispy fried snake skin, snake liver, snake gruel, and snake chitterling (small intestine) to name a few. Some of the dishes such as the snake spring roll were delicious! I never would have known it was snake. It tasted like the type of sausage where you can’t quite name the meat, but don’t really care. Salty and crispy, Marika had one and I ate the rest. Some of the dishes such as the soup and gruel were completely bland even after adding tons of salt. I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than couple bites of the snake intestine. Not only did it look exactly like an intestine, it was chewy and tough like a tongue. Most interesting was the fried snakeskin. It reminded me of a classier version of pork rinds. We also had two bottles of alcohol to kill (no pun intended). The first shot I took was the one with the heart in it mixed with blood. At this point the heart had stopped beating because I took too long contemplating whether I could do it or not. After all, it was my first shot of the day. I probably should have gotten drunk first. I decided to swallow the heart whole instead of chewing on it. It wasn't so bad! The rice wine was already so strong and terrible that I couldn't even taste the blood, and the heart was already a bit slimy so it went down very smooth.
As for the bile, the worst part of it was actually the color (besides the fact that it was snake bile). It was so green it looked…fake. It was definitely real as I saw them remove the gallbladder and drain the bile, but it honestly looked like a Jell-O shot. It went down about as easily as the blood: pretty fucking nasty because the rice wine was so bad. But I don’t believe the bile actually had much of a taste at all. I guarantee that you could serve the bile mixed with rice wine to a bunch of drunk college kids at a bar and they would think it was some party juice shot if you added a little sugar.
Our table was completely covered in dishes that we could barely take bites of we were so full at this point. One of my pet peeves is letting food go to waste, which was especially in effect here since we just had our food killed. I was determined to eat as much as I could without getting sick. Then the double doors opened and in came a waiter holding a large platter with some vegetables surrounding some type of fried meat the color of a Thanksgiving turkey but the size of a man’s shoe. We quickly noticed the mystery meat also had a face. And its teeth were showing. It was a dog. If we didn't already feel like the worst human beings on the planet for eating something so questionable earlier, we sure did not once we saw Snoopy all fried and crispy. We barely had a chance to take this sight in before two other waiters started yelling in Vietnamese and quickly pushed the waiter with the doggie platter back through the double doors and out of vision. Our best guess as to why they freaked out is because we were white tourists and they didn't want us seeing that since it would offend us. Killing a possibly endangered serpent in front of me and making me swallow its heart is okay for them, but seeing a cooked dog with my eyes, which they commonly eat in the North, is not okay for some reason. It was definitely shocking, and I really didn’t think anything else could surprise me at this point.
So there we were, trying to drown out the memory of poor fried Fido with more shots of snake blood and bile mixed with rice wine. We were in
the middle of absolutely nowhere and there wasn’t a tourist around. I was asking to be removed from my comfort zone, and I got it. We were about halfway through our bottles, about to take another
shot, when Marika made a loud gasp and said “Oh my god!” She found a live caterpillar on our plate! It was crawling around on the leaves that we were supposed to mix with the snake soup. I
briefly contemplated eating it because we had already taken things so far. We inspected it for a few seconds in bewilderment when three waiters rushed over to us to apologize and take it away.
I’m not one to whine about food and I don’t think I’ve ever sent a meal back, but if I hadn’t had that snake’s blood drained to satisfy my self indulgence earlier I would definitely have thought
about complaining. But if you put yourself in a completely foreign environment intentionally expecting things to get weird, there is no reason to complain. We got exactly what we wanted. Instead,
we just laughed at how incredibly out of place we felt there and downed another shot.