deGeneration X: I Swallowed a Still-Beating Snake Heart in Hanoi

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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?

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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?”

“Huh?”

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.

The process

goes like this: The snake handler cuts open the breast, and the snake eater scoops out the heart with his fingers and swallows. As I prepared to take my turn, the tour operator said he once saw a guy pull the heart out with his teeth. I unfortunately took that as a challenge.

With the snake slithering in hand and looking for someone to bite, the handler slit its chest open and pressed it toward my face. After using my fingers to dislodge the heart slightly, I grabbed the snake and gently pulled out its heart with my teeth. And then I swallowed.

The act netted three surprises. First, the body of the snake kept moving, which was unpleasant. Second, I did not feel the heart beat, and I suspect that is the common experience. Third, the heart did not leave any strange flavors in my mouth or throat. Mind you, I did not chew, but I thought it would leave a creepy aftertaste. While not sure if I provided the inspiration, Mark also took the heart by the teeth, and we both had slight blood smears at the edges of our mouths.

The whole theater-of-death act did seem cruel, but in our defense, the locals say eating snake heart has spiritual significance, and its medicinal benefits apparently include cures for erectile dysfunction and male pattern baldness. Maybe those claims are the real reason this Gen X-er swallowed the snake heart, in which case you should pity me (and my wife) greatly.

Nevertheless, the snake carcasses headed to the kitchen, and the servers directed us to a rustic old room with a communal table. The rice wine was en route when a server arrived with a tray full of shot glasses that were definitely not filled with alcohol. Rather, after cutting open the snakes, the handler drained the blood into shot glasses, and we now had the opportunity to drink it.

If the snake

heart went down easier than expected, the snake blood was the exact opposite. Several men (it’s a bravado thing) threw back shots, and everyone immediately started to moan. The thick texture coated the throat with a sickly taste that stuck around longer than an aging Kobe Bryant. A woman in the group offered me her glass, and with a college-honed instinct to take any shot glass without question, I threw back my second dose of snake blood. Tragically, my stomach couldn’t handle it so I regurgitated the blood back into my mouth and then swallowed it again. So technically I did three shots.

Thankfully, the rice wine arrived promptly. It is not everyday that cheap rice wine can be a savory lifesaver, but I quickly gulped down a glassful to wash the nasty blood flavor from my taste buds.

Then came the food courses. Over the next 90 minutes, the servers brought seven or eight different snake courses that covered the full range of culinary experience. Snake meat came grilled, fried, cooked in rice soup, wrapped in leaves and severed in crispy spring rolls. Snake tail was served with lemongrass, skin fried to a crisp like chicharron and bones crushed to bits to make poppadoms. Generally speaking, most of the dishes tasted good (not the skin) and benefited from Vietnamese cooking styles that are inherently delicious.

By the time the van arrived back at the hostel, the bottles of rice wine had taken their toll, and the pre-hangover headache hinted at worse discomforts to come. The pickup time for the three-day Halong Bay tour was in just a few hours. For the young wily Brits who joined me at Snake Village, the heavy drinking and light sleeping were mere road bumps, and they made the boat with more bottles in their backpacks. Personally, I slept for nine hours and only got out of bed to go find aspirin.

Photo: 3dom, CC-BY

David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.

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