After some fifteen years of adventurous travel and telling the tales, I have found that stories about strange food always get reactions from the listeners. This was one of my early experiences from when my friend Marcel and I were in Vietnam. A friend had invited him for a wedding and we decided to make a trip of it.
Warning: Some parts of this story may disgust. Also, some things described here are not sanitary and I would not do them again.
We landed in Hanoi one Friday evening and went out for dinner at a restaurant. We had looked for a Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant named “Cha Ca La Vong” and found one that had that written on the signboard. It had felt a bit off; I realised soon that that was just the name of a Vietnamese grilled fish dish.
Regardless, we were hungry and we ordered. We also struck up a conversation with two Indian travellers at the next table. They had been around for a few days and recommended that we go to a nearby village called Le Mat to try a meal of snake meat. We did not yet carry internet-connected smartphones, so these guys showed us a picture of the signboard that we needed to look for on their digital camera.
The next day, we attended the wedding. The bride and her groom were in western attire – a white bridal dress and a suit. The attendees wore formal winter clothing. A few older men wore Communist styling. After the wedding, we took in the sights of Hanoi. The smoothly-flowing chaos of motorcycles and cars on the roads amazed me; a comparable scene in India would involve gridlock, horns and swearing; in Vietnam, somehow, the traffic just kept moving. Also noteworthy to me were the propaganda loudspeakers on many buildings and the mess of wires connected to the electricity lines.
Before darkness fell, we took a taxi to Le Mat and got off when we saw the sign board the travellers had shown us the previous evening. The ground floor of the restaurant looked like it really was a house. There were a number of clear jars with a variety of snakes preserved in some sort of liquid placed for display on shelves. The bottle packaging suggested that the liquid could be moutai, a Chinese spirit. On the ground were cages in which we saw snakes. A staircase led up one floor to the restaurant area.
We told the restaurant workers that we were there to have snake. One of them took a long pair of tongs, reached into one of the cages with it and pulled out a wriggling snake. He asked us whether it was OK. We had no way of knowing whether it was OK, but we said it was. A colleague of his had been sharpening his knife. He pierced the snake and drained its blood into a cup. Then he cut out its gall bladder and heart and placed them on a white ceramic bowl. Finally he cut off the snake’s head. Marcel and I looked at each other. The heart continued to beat, clearly visible against the white bowl. We had not planned on animal cruelty beyond the killing of the snake.
A waitress guided us up to the restaurant. She brought us the bile from the gall bladder in two shot glasses and mixed it with some alcohol from a porcelain vessel. We downed it. She then asked us who wanted the heart. Marcel did not want it, so it was mine. She poured the blood into the glasses and dropped the heart into mine, along with more alcohol. We downed the liquids again. The blood was mildly salty. I tried for a few seconds to chew the heart, but it was tough, so I swallowed it.
I was now hungry, but we needed to wait while the rest of the snake was being cooked. We looked around inside the restaurant. There were even more preserved animals in bottles there than at the entrance – and not merely snakes, but also worms and lizards. I pulled a menu from one of the nearby tables. I suspected that the bottles were actually for making animal-flavoured alcohols. In the menu, under the title “Various kinds of alcohol” were ‘snake bile alcohol’, ‘snake blood alcohol’, ‘five snake alcohol’, ‘nine snake alcohol’, ‘snake penis alcohol’, ‘gecko alcohol’, ‘salamander alcohol’ and ‘poisonous snake alcohol’. On the next page there was ‘bumblebee alcohol’, ‘scorpion alcohol’, ‘bear’s hand alcohol’ and so on. The list of dishes included civet, porcupine and pangolin.
This made us uncomfortable. We were in a restaurant that potentially sold endangered animals for food. We had already been uncomfortable with how the snake had been killed, but were not about to leave before dinner.
The waitress came up with the first dish. The meat had been sauteed with onions, mushrooms and chilli. I noted that the texture did not seem different from that of beef.
Then came a fluffy dish in which the snake meat was wrapped in a leaf. Then snake meat rolled inside Vietnamese spring rolls. The meat was barbecued, minced and even made into a soup. The snakeskin was fried into a really good dish and the liver was brought wrapped inside omelettes.
It had been one of the most impressive meals I had ever had for that price – and the quantity was such that we had a hard time finishing everything. It had started off as a wacky story, but had ended up a brilliant meal.
I realised much later that the consumption of raw snake bile and heart had something to do with traditional medicine and ideas about how these things impact one’s virility. I do not think either of us subscribed to the idea – we were just having an experience.
Since then I went on to try more wacky food. Today I am much more careful about consuming raw meat or fluids due to the health risks that they entail. I have a fairly rational attitude regarding food – unless there are health implications or it tastes or smells bad, I am willing to try it out. One does not always get the great payoff that I got in Le Mat, but I did get more pictures, videos and stories worth sharing from these adventures.