01/28/2012 – My eyes shot open from the nap I thought would become a coma. Disoriented, with no concept of time, I only knew the sun had gone down. Squinting and working to hold myself up, I slowly felt my way down the bright, vacant corridor. I made it to the door on the end, on the other side, an exuberant mob laced with liquor. Oddly being on the sober side of the crowd, I found myself a computer and contemplated dinner.
Through the foggy emptiness in my head, I heard a voice calling my name. I vaguely heard the Hanoi Backpackers Hostels announcement for the snake village tour, which would take care of dinner and my urge to devour some reptilian flesh. Two birds stoned at once. Having some prep time for the night ahead, I grabbed a couple beers to begin priming my stomach.
The nine of us pile into a van and flew down the streets of Hanoi. Suddenly he relaxes on the gas through some seedy roads passing sign after sign advertising a ‘tasting menu’ of snake. Coming to a jarring halt, I assume we have arrived and not the only ones drinking. Greeted by the manager, she showed us to the holding facility of these fascinating, yet surprising delicious reptiles. As we approached, the handler lost his hand in a burlap sack to reveal two, three foot long ‘house’ snakes. Not sure of the actual species, I thought of it as a house wine. The other option on the more visual list was the daunting spitting cobra. It has a subtle hint of venom. Watching the handler antagonize the cobra into strike position, which led to squealing, I was holding a house snake as it glided up my arm and around my shoulders. I love snakes, but not wanting any nibbling on my ear I had it removed as we were shown to our intimate dining area. A low, long table ringed with cushions, in a dimly lit open pavilion encompassed by ponds and garden.
Three house snakes were on offer (any more was just a little extra, and cobras about 10 dollars), for our warm fresh hors d’oeuvres. I had my hand up before our guide finished talking claiming one. Only two others decided to join in on the fun. The snake handler remaining almost completely in the shadows brought with him a burlap sack and a tray with two glasses of rice whiskey. Jumping up to take that first bite, this is what I came for! Pulling my victim out of the sack, he directed me to the whereabouts of the necessary incision and handed over the blade. Shocked that I got to do the knife work, without hesitation I put blade to flesh. While draining the some blood into the rice whiskey, he pulled the still beating heart from its resting place exposing it to all the elements. Getting the go ahead, I went for it, embracing my animalistic side, I placed my teeth around it and ripped it out. Still beating on my tongue, for a few seconds, I could feel blood running down my chin and adrenaline pumping through my veins. Swallowing it whole, I chased it with some bloody rice whiskey. In some sense it was like an oyster, open it up, eat the sweet, fresh morsel of flesh chased with its natural liquor. The stomach was sliced open next to drain the bile into the second glass of rice whiskey. The blood was apparently a male aphrodisiac, and the bile, female.
After the opening festivities to our six course meal, cushions were taken and snakes blood shots were poured. Watching most hesitantly drink, I slammed mine back, personally thinking the blood made the rice whiskey taste better. I was more concerned about the bile, everyone knows it tastes horrid coming up. It was stirred, turning the whiskey a murky grey. To say the least it was memorable. It was bitter, pungent and choked down by all. As the shot glasses were thrown down, so was our first course, and the rules explained. As each course is presented to us, before a chopstick touches the plate another shot must be absorbed. Down the hatch, I just wanted to dive in. Snake meatballs were first, followed by springrolls. There was no distinguishable flavour telling me this was snake, but nonetheless bite-size crispy, deep-fried delights equals delicious. Two more shots, two more dishes, and a little more my style. Liver and skin stir-fry and a plate of what was described as the bones crushed up with spices and dried chilies. Served with a rice cracker, it was similar to an Egyptian or Middle Eastern dukkah. Large plates of rice topped with the bone mixture were dropped next, which worked out well soaking up some of the rice whiskey. To finish off the meal, the grand finale was plates of snake ribs. A part I never put much thought into thinking they had. It was a miniscule amount of meat, but with a sticky glaze, finger licking!
Walking away from a meal of many firsts, with a sense of accomplishment, striking off another edible adventure with quite the buzz, I felt I was missing something. My last night in Hanoi, I returned to the village of snakes and finished my quest by eating the heart of a cobra. As they pulled the teeth out to prevent it from spitting at me, I went for it…