I am the type of conflicted liberal who is vegan at heart and carnivore by practice, and now I find myself eye to eye with a slithering snake in Vietnam. I committed to eat its heart, and the entire room is watching. How did I get myself in this situation?
My journey to Fear Factor-style feasting started with a four-month trek through the backpacker-coined Banana Pancake Trail in Southeast Asia, and the adventure’s final weeks took me up Vietnam’s dragon-shaped coastline. Starting in Ho Chi Minh City, I worked my way through Hu?, Nha Trang, M?i Né and the lantern festival in H?i An before arriving at Hanoi Backpackers Hostel in the capital city. Barely unpacked with a Halong Bay trip set for the morning, I joined several other travelers in the hostel common area to drink back-to-back bottles of Bai Saigon lager. The chatter is at full pitch when a tour operator stuck his head in the room and asked, “Anyone going to Snake Village?”
A rush of silence swept through the room as a Norwegian of Colombian descent asked, “What is that? A zoo?”
“A snake farm and restaurant,” the man replied. “They cook snakes in several different ways. It’s good.”
Upon hearing the description, more than a dozen people scrambled out of their chairs and headed for the door. Little did we know the culinary adventure would be more gruesome than anyone imagined.
Whether the name occurred organically or as a marketing gimmick, L? M?t Snake Village is an old part of town northeast of central Hanoi. Like Bible thumpers who take Mark 16:18 too literally, the villagers have a snake-catching tradition that reportedly dates back nearly a millennium. Per the tourist-baiting signage, the tradition started when a local farmer saved King Ly Tong’s princess from a giant sea serpent, and the King granted the farmer this land as a reward. The reptilian restaurants arose from the local catches, but as Bourdain-channeling tourists increased demand, families started breeding snakes to increase supply. Cobra is often a premium menu option, but it typically costs several times that of a regular belly crawler.
Hanoi Backpackers Hostel runs regular tours to Snake Village, and in 2010, the cost was around $15 for transportation, rice wine and a multi-course meal crafted from every part of the snake. Individuals can visit on their own, but going with a large group of travelers—particularly ones at various stages of inebriation—makes the experience that much more rambunctious.
After a short ride, our group arrived at the restaurant. It looked like a converted old rice house, but the large chicken-wired wood bins held live snakes instead of grains. Most were grass snakes, but a few cobras were in the mix. Bottles filled with whole snakes sat on tables and shelves apparently marinating in olive oil or vinegar. Many bottles stacked colorful snakes in beautiful circular rings, while others had petrified cobras set in attack positions.
We arrived, looked around and ooh’ed and aah’ed, and one of the proprietors brought out a large snake that several people carried for mini-photo shoots. Then our hostel guide delivered the unexpected surprise: “Does anyone want to eat the heart?”
The guide continued, “The restaurant kills one snake for every three people eating, and to do so quickly, they cut out the hearts. It will still beat for a few moments, so if you swallow it quickly, you can feel the heart beat as it goes down your throat.”
With a facial expression that clearly said “count me out,” a young woman exclaimed, “That’s cruel.”
The guide responded, “You want to kill it as painlessly as possible, and taking out the heart is the best way. Cutting off the head, for example, would extend its pain. If no one wants a heart, they just toss them, so it will make no difference to the snake.”
While the explanation made sense, it still seemed barbaric, yet I surprisingly blurted out, “Count me in!” Several others also signed up, including a pair of young Brits named Mark and Rob who made their countrymen proud by throwing back booze like sea-hardened sailors.