I Ate and Drank Cobra in Vietnam's Snake Village
Feel like swallowing a snake's still-beating heart? Le Mat is the place to go.
Ever been slumped in a Wetherspoons, nursing some guest ale with the texture of sick and taste of soup, surrounded by screaming kids and defeated old men, and wondered if the experience mightn't be improved if it included a spot of barbaric animal cruelty? Then head to Vietnam, where, among the many terrible things a human can do to pass the time, you can while away the afternoons killing snakes and getting pissed on shots containing their blood.
My first experience of serpent cuisine came about after meeting a group of Australian travellers at a bingo hall in Hanoi's Old Quarter. After the usual "Where you from? How long you here? It's the journey, not the destination, blah, blah, blah," rigmarole, they started to tell my friend Danny and I about Le Mat, an ancient part of Hanoi that's known as "Snake Village". Shockingly, the area gets its name from the fact that it's full of snakes.
Let Mat is a tourist spot where you're encouraged to slaughter live snakes before sitting down for an eight-course dinner made entirely out of your kill. The Australians whooped and shoved each other as they described eating snake meat so fresh "it would give Gordon Ramsay an orgasm", which is one of the more distressing sentences anyone's constructed within earshot of me.
It's not my job to judge people, so in Vietnam I usually do it as a hobby, and these antipodean savages were no exception. But after a few minutes of quietly passing judgement, my black belt in hypocrisy came to the fore and I suggested that it might actually be kind of an interesting thing to do – it's not every day you get the opportunity to brutally murder a snake and eat its insides raw. Before long, Danny and I were arguing over who had the guts to down the guts. It was definitely one of those arguments where there are no winners, only two losers, but Danny somehow managed to gain the upper hand.
So, on a sweaty Saturday morning, myself and a couple of friends clung to the backs of some Xe om motorbike taxis as we sped over Long Bien Bridge towards Le Mat. Signs put up by the local tourist board explained that snakes have been bred there for over 900 years. It all started when a princess of King Ly Tong was rescued from a giant sea serpent by a local worker, who then asked that the King grant him the land as a reward, giving birth to the legend and a massive fucking cash cow for generations to exploit.
The area wasn't quite as mystical as I'd expected – just a coven of elderly women huddled over cauldrons of suspect meat and some potion shops selling snake-themed Viagra and cures for male pattern baldness. Picking the restaurant with the most secure-looking cages, we were led inside by a boy of around 12 with a worrying amount of bite marks on his legs. Inside was a bit like how I'd imagine a sex nest designed by Jim Carrey might look if he was dangerously obsessed with snakes: wall-to-wall murals of female goddesses, dragons and serpents covered in flaky gold paint and Mother of Pearl inlay.
One of the staff led us over to a cage in the corner that was essentially just a pit of angry snakes encased in what looked like knock-off chicken wire. But because the snakes clearly weren't angry enough, the guy began smacking the edge of the cage with a stick before hurling one of the pissed off, hissing cobras on to the floor between us.
It was then that I was thrust towards the guy as he eyed us all up, trying to deduce who should go first. I sat down and watched as he pinned the snake's head to the floor, cut into its belly and let the blood drip into the shot of homemade rice wine he'd put in front of me. He then sliced out the heart, dropped it into my shot and drained the cobra's gall bladder into some more rice wine, creating a nice emerald green chaser just in case I wanted something to immediately remind me what a fucking disgusting human being I was.
I lifted the shot to my mouth and felt the still-beating heart spit flecks of congealed cocktail into my face, then downed the whole thing in one (the prospect of chewing on the heart was a little too much). I figured I was already one foot deep, so might as well shot the luminous bile mixture straight after.
The taste of both was pretty forgettable, partly because I'd drunk quite a bit to get me to the point where I'd willingly swallow the still-beating heart of a snake, and partly because the local rice wine is so overpowering that it bulldozes the flavour of anything it comes into contact with, which was a relief.
Soon after downing the two concoctions, I remembered something I'd read while researching Le Mat online. Unsurprisingly, wildlife activists – who claim that the snakes are caught in the wild, rather than farmed – are slightly opposed to the whole Snake Village, theatre of death thing. Scott Roberton, a representative of the Wildlife Conservation Society, was quoted as saying something along the lines of: "Tourists kid themselves into believing that they're trying a local delicacy, when all they're really doing is trying to satisfy their own bravado."
I instantly knew exactly what Scott was talking about.
The other thing is that snake isn't really that much of a local delicacy, and more of a ploy to extort drunk tourists and ex-pats. Granted, there are reviews of various Le Mat restaurants online, but they're all in English, and anyway, if you're the kind of person who meticulously researches the best place to murder a snake, it perhaps isn't the culinary part of the experience that you're most concerned with.
Putting my guilt aside, I sat down to an eight-course feast starring the creature we'd just witnessed being disembowelled. The spread included soup, spring rolls, crushed-bone poppadoms, fillets and spare ribs, and was actually pretty delicious. The highlight was the fillet, which – marinated in its own anger – had an intense, gamey flavour that I hadn't expected while I watched it writhe around trying to snap at my ankles.
Well fed and oiled, we paid our bill and stood up to leave, but not before the snake-stabbing waiter pulled me to one side and told me that snake heart was "good for big willy" with a wink that will haunt me until the day I die. If I took anything away from the trip, it's that snake is far tastier than you'd expect, and that the ability to swallow something you've just seen wrenched out of a living creature comes much easier than you might have thought.
Follow Jak on Twitter: @JakPhillips
More weird stuff we've put in our mouths:
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