I’ve had the luxury or misfortune, depending on your view, of visiting the Snake Village in Le Mat, Hanoi on 3 separate occasions. Each experience was different, with one commonality. It involved snakes on a plate. 7 km from central Hanoi, the Snake village is only a short drive away. For a culinary adventurer, eating snake in Le Mat is a must while visiting the Vietnamese capital.
Eating Snake in Le Mat
My first and second experience eating snake in Le Mat was when I was 23 and fresh blood to Asia. I was on my first backpacking trip of a mere 7 weeks in South East Asia. Doing the usual of many first time travelers here of this age, I was drinking too much and soaking up every experience I could assuming I wouldn’t be back. How little I knew then.
I was staying at a party hostel, Hanoi Backpackers. A place I would probably avoid now, but different ideals then. Anyways, I had woken from a needed afternoon nap. The sun had set and my stomach growled. I made my way to the lobby down the bright vacant corridor and opened it to an exuberant mob already laced with liquor. I found myself a quiet corner and contemplated dinner. I had no idea what awaited me.
I heard a voice in what seemed like the distance as I gathered myself. An announcement was being made for the snake village tour. Immediately snapped into action, I inquired thinking this would not only take care of dinner, but be quite the unique experience. It presented a six course meal of reptilian flesh and of course being a party hostel, more booze then required at a dinner. Well, maybe the liquor was the inhibitor prevention for a meal such as this. I signed up and needed a hair of the dog to ease the stomach in preparation.
Arriving in the Snake Village
Speeding through the streets of Hanoi across the Red River, we pulled in down some quieter streets entering Le Mat or the snake village. We passed numerous signs that advertised a ‘tasting menu’ of snake and I knew we were close. When we got to our destination, the manager greeted us. Receiving a slight introduction to the place and the more visual menu, we got the chance to hold the snakes for any that wanted to get to know their dinner better beforehand.
The snakes we were eating were called the ‘house snakes’, as if a ‘house wine’. Cobras were the high end stuff.
I love snakes, but on the other hand consider this no different than my love of farm animals growing up in the countryside. Snake removed from curling up my arm, we were led to our dining area. A low, long table ringed with cushions, in a dimly lit open pavilion encompassed by ponds and gardens. Shoes off, we settled in while a round of beers was brought over.
Appetizers had a few people contemplating their dinner choice. Maybe, just a bit more than they could chew. Beating hearts fresh from the snakes chest. This was like some twisted ancient ritual and of course, I was in. The menu was made up of three house snakes. This meant three hearts for a group of nine. While everyone hesitated, I shuffled forward in anticipation. This is why I was here. There was no way I was missing my chance due to hesitation. Extra hearts could be purchased for a small additional fee, while cobras had a higher price tag.
The slightly brutal, ritualistic process began. Pulled from the burlap sack and holding the snake, he handed me an xacto-like knife. Shocked that I was given the blade, he directed me as to where to make the incision and I made the cut.
The blood was drained into a glass of rice whiskey. It swirled majestically as two liquids combined like a shot of heroin. The beating heart was pulled outside of the body and like a savage, I was instructed to bite. I did as told as if a right of passage. Holding the heart on my tongue, it continued to pulse. I swallowed it back with a shot of the blood whiskey and the ceremony was complete. While I thought about my experience, the stomach was opened and the bile was drained into the second glass of rice whiskey.
In some odd sense it was like an oyster. Open it up and eat the sweet, fresh morsel chased with its natural liquor.
My second experience was a mere three days after my first. It began more or less in the exact same way, but with one difference. Still under the assumption, I would not return to this part of the world, I was determined to eat the heart of a cobra. For about 10 CAD extra, I performed the same animalistic ritual.
As the courses were prepared, blood and bile shots were poured for the table. The blood was thought to be a male aphrodisiac, while the bile was apparently one for females. I watched most people hesitate. I suppose this could be considered daunting. Myself, I oddly enjoy the taste of blood and in my opinion the blood mellowed out the harsh rice whiskey. The bile on the other hand brought a bit more concern to my thoughts. Bile is bitter, pungent and overall, not pleasant, but hey, who am I too judge. Thrown down by all, and as anticipated it was quite unpleasant. Memorable to say the least and thankful for the beer to wash my mouth out.
Sure enough there was ‘rules’ to dinner as a party hostel always focused more on getting drunk opposed to simply enjoying an experience for what it is. At this point in my life I wasn’t complaining and was all for it. Each course presented signified a round of rice whiskey shots before a chopstick touched it. Down the hatch, I just wanted to eat.
Snake Meatballs / Snake Spring Rolls
There was no distinguishable flavour I could pick out telling me this was snake. Spiced quite heavily and herbal, they were delicious. Not to mention they were also deep fried, bite-size snacks which can make almost anything taste good.
Snake Liver and Skin Stir Fry
This was a bit more up my alley. The liver was mild as I had no idea what to expect. Stir fried with vegetables and chili, it had a nice sweet and sour sauce complimenting the richness of the liver. The skin was weird, for lack of a better word. Similar to soggy fish skin. It didn’t taste bad, per se, but the texture left it hard to chew and therefore off putting. When it was prepared like crackling on the other hand it was delicious reminding me of salmon crackling without the fish flavour.
Spiced Snake Bones
This plate peeked my interest the most. It was explained to us as snake bones dried, roasted and mixed with spices. Served with a rice cracker, it reminded me of a Middle Eastern dukkah with the addition of ground bones. Of course, no meal in Asia seems complete without rice, so a few plates were dropped with the bone mixture sprinkled on top.
The finale of the meal was a favourite among many people. Ribs. I mean most people love BBQ ribs. Well, these were slightly different. To be honest, I never even realized snakes would have ribs, so this was a lesson learned already. While they did taste delicious and the glaze was sticky and ‘finger licking’ good, there was so little meat on the bones. It was the equivalent to chicken feet in that sense. Delicious as it was, it’s a lot of work for little pay off.
My third experience eating snake in Le Mat was much more tame and refined in a sense. I had arrived on December 31st from a long and hectic commute from Phonsavan, Laos. A whole other story though. I was still staying with Hanoi Backpackers, but this time at their second location. The tour for the snake village was no longer operating, so I took this upon myself to convince and organize a van of willing candidates to join me in a feast of snake.
The van arrived and the route still familiar, we had arrived at Le Mat. It was definitely a different restaurant this time. One that seemed as if it was meant for business men. All in suits, drinking copious amounts of rice whiskey and I only assumed discussing business. I know it is often done this way in parts of Asia. Food, a good amount of liquor and business once the liquor took affect.
That aside, the meal preceded similar to the last with a few differences. The snake hearts still being apart of the experience, they were served in a small shallow bowl visibly pulsing. Sitting in a small pool of rice whiskey, the barbaric ritual wasn’t enacted this time. I offered the hearts up to two others guests that were interested in trying this as I’d had the opportunity in the past.
Dinner came in stages just as before, with a few new dishes. A snake soup was added to the menu along with crispy snake skin crackling and a snake porridge. I much preferred this meal over the previous restaurant. While I do prefer a bamboo hut over a classy restaurant 9 times out of 10, there was something about this place that just made it seem more authentic.
Don’t Miss Eating Snake in Le Mat, Hanoi’s Snake Village
Regardless, this is an experience that in my opinion is a must while visiting the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Eating snake in Le Mat is one of those stories that will stick with you forever and will bring wide eyes to those you tell. While striking off a culinary adventure for me, it is one that is a first and last for many. Myself, upon returning to Hanoi and eating snake in Le Mat will be a constant on my itinerary. For those with a fear of snakes, simply throw caution to the wind and bite back.
You’re much braver than me. I would have passed on this.