It’s a quiet afternoon at Le Mat, a sleepy village in Hanoi’s Long Bien district. Tung sits on the driveway of his family’s restaurant staring out into the empty street. For most of the day his time is spent waiting. He lives in an area known colloquially as ‘Snake Village’, where brave tourists in buses and indiscriminating businessmen arrive at night to sample the local delicacy: snakes.
Tung spots two foreigners on a motorbike and flags them down. They stop, as he is the only one catching their attention. ‘Come, come,’ he says eagerly with a big smile on his face as they park their bike. He quickly points to a blue mesh bag under a table next to the kitchen. The bag moves on its own with a constant hissing. He unties the bag and grabs one of its contents.
Tung’s eight-year-old son, Bao, runs out from the living room to the restaurant’s entrance. It’s not often he can help his father entertain guests during the daytime. Tung brings out a garden snake. ‘I caught it myself,’ he grins.
Many local residents of Le Mat are expert snake hunters and are often engaged throughout Hanoi to deal with slithering invasions. Their trade secrets are handed down from generation to generation, and generally the techniques are not allowed to be passed on if they are not from the village.
Tung allows the guests to hold the snake. The snake squirms around, but Tung has a constant eye on it. ‘Don’t worry! There is no venom. The first thing I do after I catch the snake is extract its venom,’ Tung explains. ‘I’ve been handling snakes since I was a little boy. One bite from a snake is very painful, yes, but I’m still alive!’
After a few photos he takes the snake and begins the show. Bao swiftly emerges from the kitchen with an empty glass and sets it on the table. Tung pulls out a knife and proceeds to make an incision.
The foreigners watch in awe as he extracts the blood from the snake. Bao runs around to grab the tail. Tung signals to him to lift his arms higher. Bao nods and goes on his tiptoes. With a steady hand, Tung extracts the heart and places it, still beating, on a small dish.
Tung motions his visitors to sit at a table. He returns with two shots of homemade rice wine, one colored bright red, the other with a murky grey-green tinge. ‘Drinking snake blood will make you strong,’ he says, as he flexes his arm and slaps it. ‘And the heart is good for love,’ he adds with a wink. They oblige, and drink the alcohol with a grimace.
In ancient times, drinking snake blood was believed to help with male potency and had anti-inflammatory properties. Snake bile has long been valued as a tonic and an appetite stimulant.
In the kitchen, Tung’s wife, Bich, and his 12 year old daughter Hien, start on the feast for their guests. Hien carefully chops up a herbal assortment of fresh lemongrass, garlic and ginger, while Bich cooks the fresh snake meat in a wok.
The show in the kitchen has been choreographed over the years. ‘Hien has helped me here since she started walking,’ says Bich, as smoke billows from the stove. ‘Night time is very busy. Many people come here to eat.’ She motions Hien to start on the spring rolls. ‘In the daytime I go to school. Not many people come here for lunch,’ Hien says.
From the 1960s to 1990s Le Mat was thriving, as the village bred snakes for restaurants and pharmaceutical purposes. However, in 1993, the Vietnamese Government agreed to follow international law that sought the protection of wildlife and imposed strict regulations on the snake-breeding industry. In 1997, after seeing the devastating effects of the ruling, Vietnam declared Le Mat a ‘craft village’, which allowed the area to redevelop into a tourist hotspot and serve its delicacy to the public once again.
The foreigners look around the restaurant. Incased in glass cabinets sit massive jars filled with a cloudy yellow liquid. Inside, cobras are perfectly coiled. Their eyes are open and their tongues stick out as if they are taunting onlookers.
An elderly woman leisurely walks into the restaurant. ‘She is my great grandmother-in-law. She drinks snake wine every day. She’s still very strong at 88 years old,’ Tung says. She laughs and nods.
Many consider ruou thuoc ran (snake wine) as a natural medicine and it dates back thousands of years. It has been used to treat different ailments such as back pain, rheumatism, and lumbago.
‘I’ll tell you a story about the village,’ says the old woman. She motions the guests to sit with her at the coffee table while Tung pours tea. ‘Long ago, the king’s beautiful daughter was on a boat on the river. Then, suddenly, a giant snake circled around her.’ The elderly lady takes a sip of tea and gestures the foreigners to do likewise. ‘The snake was so strong that it created a whirlpool and the boat flipped over. Hoang Mat, a young farmer, jumped into the water and wrestled the snake before slaying it, saving the princess.’
She takes another sip of tea. ‘The Emperor rewarded Mat with gold, jewels and a court title, but he refused. Instead, he asked to reclaim land west of the capital for himself and a number of poor people. The land then became 13 prosperous agricultural settlements, including this village.’
The woman slaps one of the guests on the back. ‘You need to come back here on the 23rd day of the third lunar month,’ she says. ‘We have a festival here. You can see a big bamboo snake and somebody in the village is Mat. And the most beautiful girl here plays the princess. It’s a lot of fun.’
One by one, plates of food stream out from the kitchen: grilled snake skin, snake bone broth, stir-fried snake meat and intestines with lemongrass and chili, snake spring rolls, and minced snake with garlic and snake porridge. The visitors sit down and eagerly begin to sample the banquet.
‘Do you eat snake every day?’ asks one of them as rice is brought to the table. ‘No, we save the snakes for the restaurant. It’s a luxury to eat snake in Vietnam,’ answers Tung.
After six different interpretations of snake, the visitors are left full and satiated. Another woman enters the restaurant with bags full of groceries. It’s Bich’s mother, Hien’s grandmother, and the elderly lady’s daughter. Four generations of fearless snake enthusiasts under one roof. ‘My daughter and granddaughter cook very well, right?’ she asks the guests. ‘I taught them everything.’
To the naked eye, Le Mat is a ‘snake village’ where crazy tourists show their bravery by digesting hearts that still are beating. Underneath, Le Mat has a proud history that the locals love to tell. Their trade secrets are passed on from parent to child and the village’s longevity can be attributed the mysterious healing powers of their slithering creatures.