Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Trip to a Vietnamese Snake Restaurant with the Gang of Five

Destination Vietnam

December 2006

By Dylan Foley

"Are you ready for the Snake Restaurant?" asked the artist Tran Luong, as we sat in the Mai Gallery, in an alley near Tran Hung Dao Street in Hanoi. Before I could consider it, I was off in a caravan of scooters to the snake village outside of Hanoi. We went with several members of Duong Tuong's art group, the Gang of Five.

We passed over the Chuong Dong Bridge and traveled 10 minutes on Nguyen Van Cu Road. Luong and our caravan cut through various side streets and over several dikes until we arrived at the edge of a brilliant green rice paddy. We had arrived in Le Mat, the famous snake village.

Le Mat is in Ha Bac Province, which is eight or nine kilometers from the center of Hanoi. Luong said that I could ask anyone along the main road for directions. "Everyone knows where the snake village is," Luong said. We got off our scooters and went into a whitewashed villa with two courtyards. The name of the restaurant was Le Khanh and the family that owned the place welcomed Duong Tuong and his men as regulars.

The woman of the house went into one of the courtyards and showed us that the snakes were dozing in the trees. She climbed up one of the trees and shook the branches, knocking some snakes out. About a dozen snakes -- cobra and a smaller, garden variety of snake -- had been collected in a burlap bag in anticipation of our arrival. The son, who was about sixteen, calmly took the sack and methodically killed each snake by smacking their heads on the concrete floor, collecting the blood and bile separately. "They are immune to the poisons, after being bitten so many times," said Luong.

"This is a traditional family restaurant," Luong added, "where people go to enjoy the food. There are at least 15 other snake restaurants near the main road, but this is thought to be the most authentic. People are said to come from all over to eat snake because snake is considered an aphrodisiac.

We started the meal with some hard crackers. We had a toast of rice wine with blood mixed in, then the courses of snake started. First, we had pieces of snake meat broiled, then we had snake that had been grilled and we washed it down with wine mixed with the greenish-brown snake bile. As hard to stomach as this may sound, it tasted good and strong.

The room was open and clean and the six of us sat around a large, white table. We were given skinned snake heads that had delicious white meat attached to it, with a plate of greens from the spinach family. While eating the snake, I thought to myself that the meat tasted like chicken.

It may have been the rounds of rice wine and blood, but the mood was jovial and friendly. Duong Tuong is a well-known translator who quit school in 1945 at the age of 13 to join the Viet Minh. This didn't stop him from becoming fluent in French and English. The Gang of Five is a group of artists that Duong Tuong named and mentored. The group, which includes Luong and the painter Dang Xuan Hoa, has been working together for almost 20 years.

The snake restaurant itself consisted only of two rooms for customers, with a large round table in each. In the larger room, there was a table with six or eight large jars on it. More rounds of snake were served -- tiny, delicate snake ribs that were quite crunchy and steamed white meat. Duong Tuong pointed to a jar and ordered more wine. Each jar had a different kind of snake, neatly coiled and fermenting in the wine. "They say that the second batch of wine from the same snakes is better than the first," said Duong Tuong. When it was poured out, the wine had a yellowish tint to it, and fine particles that were reptilian residue. The jars themselves contained a greenish liquid reminiscent of those found in the Chinese medicine shops. There was one jar with lumpy black things in it that contained an especially pungent wine, with a sweet taste to it. I asked what those black things were. "Ah, those are birds that feed on snake." Sometimes it is better not knowing what you are drinking, feathers and all.

The Trinh family has lived in this villa for several generations. According to Trinh Xuan Suc, the establishment's proprietor, the restaurant has been open for 20 years. The only dishes that didn't appeal to me were the snake liver and the snake skin, which was steamed but in texture was still reminiscent of old truck tires.

After the meal, we moved to the room next door. We were given tea and we sat and chatted while a television played silently in front of us. The small size of the restaurant gave it a very informal feel, like we were sitting in the home of an aunt. We rested for a while, fully satiated. As we were getting ready to go, I was quite glad that someone else was doing the driving back to Hanoi. As a parting gift, the restaurant presented each of us with an old Hennessy bottle filled with snake wine. My palate is not so refined yet, but I believe it was the cobra.

For information about the snake village Le Mat and the restaurant Le Khanh, call Mr. Suc, at 8273-385.

No comments: