On a misty, overcast morning in Hanoi, my husband and I braved Vietnamese traffic as we wove through the streets on our little rented motor scooter. We were in quest of a rare delicacy, a mythical morsel we had heard of from several friends who had visited Vietnam – a meal of cobra, prepared 10 different ways. Le Mat, a “snake village” with dozens of snake restaurants, was our destination.
The “Snake Village” of Le Mat, near Hanoi, Vietnam
Le Mat is located just a few kilometers east of downtown Hanoi in the Long Bien District of the city, and a tour or rental car with a driver can easily be booked with a travel agency in downtown Hanoi. We chose, however, to find our own way there, and friendly residents graciously pointed us on our way to the snake village. We knew we had found the right place when we started to come across restaurants painted with snakes, and huge specimens of alcohol-steeped cobras preserved in glass jars and displayed in restaurant windows. We chose a large, two-story restaurant, and as we were the only diners at our restaurant – we had missed the tour bus rush – the manager of the restaurant himself came out to help us select our snake from the stack of cages lining the wall.
A young boy, the snake handler, brought out a long hooked stick and confidently stepped up to the cobra cage. The snakes instantly sent up a racket of hissing, and several of them opened their hoods in warning. In shot the boy’s hand, and out it came again, grasping a cobra by the tail. Hood up and tongue flicking, the snake was only momentarily confused before it began to strike. The snake handler pulled it by the tail to disorient it, and used his hooked stick to pin its head and neck. As the cobra calmed down slightly, the boy held it up proudly for us to photograph. Then, the snake was brought into the kitchen for cooking.
Stir-fried cobra, cobra soup, cobra spring rolls. . .
We were shown into the upstairs dining room, and seated on cushions laid on the bamboo floor mat. Cross-legged at the low table, we were served tea and drinks. Soon, the first course, stir-fried snake meat, arrived. Slightly chewy and mixed with local vegetables, the snake was a little bit like squid, yet not unpleasant. Snake soup followed, and then snake spring rolls. Minced snake meat mixed with herbs and spices was rolled into snake meatballs and dipped in a delicious lemongrass sauce. Fried snakeskin and snake meat wrapped in leaves were also among the myriad preparations, and all the food was accompanied with local vegetables and a huge portion of rice mixed with yellow beans. With our bellies full of snake meat, we left with our stomachs and taste buds satisfied, and with an unforgettable memory of the experience.
Diners in Le Mat can choose between eating cobra or other, smaller, types of snake. The cobra is the most expensive, of course, but still a reasonable price considering that diners partake of ten courses. Travellers can also participate in the grand finale – the raw cobra heart served in a shot glass topped up with alcohol and consumed in one swallow, the warm bloody organ sliding down the throat. It is an experience not for the faint of heart.
The villagers of Le Mat have been catching and breeding snakes for hundreds of years. The vocation is handed down from generation to generation, and besides running snake restaurants, villagers also make medicines and tonics from the snakes and their venom. Snakes feature prominently in the village mythology, some of which can be glimpsed at the Le Mat Snake Festival in the Lunar month of March.
Travelers to Vietnam can be a little overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of downtown Hanoi, and a trip to the quiet village of Le Mat can be a welcome break from the bargaining, sightseeing, and heart-stopping traffic of the city center. Take the time to admire the cobras in Le Mat, and relish a meal you will never forget.
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Camilla Cheung is a Canadian freelance writer currently living in China. She has published travel guides and articles on various websites, and blogs on food and cooking at www.foodrepublik.com.