Hanoi’s Snake Village of Le Mat
Hanoi’s Snake Village of Le Mat The villagers of Le Mat, just 7 km northeast of central Hanoi, welcome many curious travellers craving a different type of lunch, namely, one of snake meat. Surely a dining experience that cannot be filed under ‘blasé’. The restaurant’s owner is a man of few words and many scars. Indeed, his arms are covered with wounds, ugly souvenirs from the slithering reptiles with whom he shares a roof.
Says the snake wrangler: "I have been handling snakes since I was a child. A bite from one of our snakes is very painful, yes, but not fatal. There is no venom. The first thing we do is extract the venom from the snake."
Most of the snakes are cobras, arranged in securely closed boxes. Some of them are quite large. In Vietnam a snake dinner is considered a ‘man’s dish’ and thought to promote strength and virility.
Eat Every Part of the Snake
After I choose a scaly specimen it is im/mediately sliced open and its blood collected for drinking. Minutes later a waiter arrives carrying two glasses: one filled with the snake’s blood, the other with a fluorescent green liquid, the bile.
Both of these ‘beverages’ are cut with rice vodka. There is also a small dish containing the snake’s heart. Sensing my reservations, the owner grabs the glass of blood, plops in the still-beating heart and after a resounding chant of ‘Mot, hai, ba!’ (one, two, three), downs the explosive cocktail in a flash.
After this initial ritual of chest-thumping machismo, the slaughtered snake (a relatively small one, incidentally) is taken into the kitchen. Here, chefs will turn nearly the entire reptile into numerous traditional dishes.
Using a variety of seasonings and lots of lemongrass, the chefs turn out skewers, spring rolls, a salad, a soup and porridge. Even the skin is grilled.
Although the taste of the snake meat itself is somewhat obscured by the sauces and complementary dishes, its texture is halfway between that of fish and red meat. Truly, snake meat is a unique Vietnamese speciality. And should you recoil at the thought of eating snake, you may want to try a snake-infused digestif believed to carry aphrodisiac properties. Don’t worry: Venom is dissolved in the alcohol.
A Lucrative, Recognized Speciality
There are roughly 100 snake-farming households in Le Mat. These farms employ nearly 400 people. As well there are two large specialized farms that breed snakes and produce snake meat. Every day Le Mat receives around 1000 Vietnamese and foreign travellers looking to try this serpentine speciality.
Hard to believe that not long ago the business of snake breeding and meat production almost disappeared. From the 1960s to 1990s snakes around Le Mat were bred for restaurants and pharmaceutical purposes. Then, in 1993, Vietnam ratified the international convention on the protection of wildlife and imposed restrictions on the snake-breeding industry.
Snake meat disappeared from menus. In 2007, aware of the negative repercussions on the local dining economy, Vietnamese authorities granted Le Mat a ‘craft village’ status. On this basis plans for development were drawn to reconcile snake breeding and meat production with increasing tourists eager to sample this most unique Vietnamese dining experience.
The easiest way to get to Le Mat Village is to jump on city Bus No. 10 to Long Bien Bus Station (VND3000/ticket). From Long Bien it’s only a few hundred metres to Le Mat. Allow 20-30 minutes for bus travel. Snake is considered a luxury food in Vietnam. Plan to fork out between VND300,000-600,000 per person for a group of four.