After Cambodia I headed northeast to Vietnam. I took a sketchy prop plane (in true Cambodian fashion) from Sihanoukville to Ho Chi Minh city and then jumped on a jet engine plane to the north. I wanted to start in the capital and spend more time in the North before moving down through the country. I was able to meet up with my friends from Thailand and an old friend from home! Colleen happened to be exploring SE Asia and had crossed into Hanoi from Laos just a day after I did. My friends and I used Hanoi as a base camp while touring the north. Between trips to Ha Long Bay and Sapa I had quite a bit of time in Hanoi. In total, I spent about two weeks jumping in and out of the capital and I ended up loving it. It is right up with Chiang Mai as one of favorite cities in all of SE Asia.
I think what I loved the most about Hanoi was its energy. To be totally honest, it can be a little overwhelming at times. It isn’t for everyone. The traffic can be downright insane. There are over 7million people in the city and about 5million motorbikes. Crossing the street in Hanoi was the most dangerous adventure I had undertaken to date. The crosswalks mean nothing, stoplights (if there are any) mean nothing, there are no traffic cops and there are seemingly no traffic laws / speed limits. It’s the wild west of driving. My mom would love it. After about a week I finally realized that the only way to get across was to put your head down and just walk at a normal steady pace. The cars and motorbikes adjust to your speed and move around you. The WORST thing you can do is hesitate, stop, or speed up. That’s how you end up being hit by a motorbike or van (it happens a lot).
So what was there to love about Hanoi? For one thing, the food was incredible. Everything was made from fresh ingredients. Nothing was processed, nothing was fake. I ate pho, bun cha, bun thang, and plenty of chicken banh my. I also ate my weight in rice noodles. Beyond that, I enjoyed local rice wine, terrible home brewed beer, steamed chicken feet and snake. I suppose my culinary journey through Hanoi began with one of the crazier experiences I’ve had… the snake farm.
While in Pai, Thailand I was walking through the night market with some friends. A street vendor was selling different skewers of meat. One skewer consisted of 7 chicken hearts. I made a pact with a friend that we’d come back the next night, have a few shots of the local poison, and split the hearts. Unfortunately the next night there were no hearts! Chicken hearts were the Wednesday special. We agreed that if we met up again in Vietnam we’d have to eat something crazy. So on my second night in Hanoi we joined the group headed to snake village… for dinner.
About 5 miles north of the city is the village of Le Mat. It is home to more than 100 snake farming households. Our group arrived at one of the more prominent farms / restaurants and explored the many cages of snakes. Most of these are cobras which have been de-fanged and no longer have venom. We are able to touch them and drape them around our necks. The worker also brought out a massive king cobra from a special cage in the back. We were instructed to stay back. I happily complied. The group was then seated around a large table while the staff brought out the large pots of rice wine. Shots were certainly needed to calm the nerves. Next came the 3 large snakes we would be sharing for our meal. They were still alive and slithering. The group gathered around for the infamous ritual, while three brave souls from our group stood forward. What happens next is a little disturbing. The staff cut open the underbelly of the live cobras and one by one the volunteers stepped up to bite the beating heart out of the living snake, washing it down with a shot of rice wine. It was insane and a little disturbing. Next the workers drained the snakes blood and bile into two separate chalices of rice wine. Each member of the group received two shot glasses; one bright red shot of snake blood and one florescent green shot of snake bile. With a chant of ‘Mot, hai, ba!’ the shots were thrown back one after the other. Full disclosure the bile shot tasted horrible. I suppose I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will not be welcome at PETA meetings moving forward.
After the gruesome cocktails were finished, the 3 snake corpses were taken into the kitchen. When they returned, they had been turned into a 4 course meal. There were grilled snake short-ribs, stir-fried snake with veggies and garlic, snake spring rolls, and snake with rice. For a restaurant that only serves snake, they sure know how to do it right. Everything was delicious! The sauces and the spices were well balanced and everything went down smooth with glasses of rice wine. Snake had an odd texture, somewhere between chicken and fish. It was a delightful dinner and there was plenty of food.
Overall the snake farm was a unique and fun experience. It was something out of the norm and out of my comfort zone. Snake meat has been a popular cuisine in Vietnam for years and snake is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Its blood is considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac. I’m not sure the science behind all of that, but I do know that my time at Le Mat was a wild introduction to Vietnam!