Exploring jaw-dropping landscapes and sampling mouthwatering local cuisine is all an important part of the travelling experience. Yet, there’s a lesser-known side to travelling, one with a far more morbid tone – dark tourism.
As the name might suggest, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, far from it in fact. While many are content staying snug within their comfort zone, others prefer venturing into the murky waters and experiencing the darker side of life. For better or for worse, I am one of those people.
Vietnam had just the kind of experience I was looking for. It was one that would garner disapproving looks and vitriolic anger from some, particularly from animal rights activists. Regardless, I would be ticking a major item off my bucket list – eating a live snake’s heart. Bon appetite!
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Table of Contents
A Bit of Backstory
I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I found out about the practice of eating snake in Vietnam back when backpacking was just a distant dream. It might have been a travel documentary, or it could have been Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach, but either way, it seemed to be a Southeast Asian delicacy.
It was one of those things that only a true adventurous soul would attempt. I was fascinated by the idea of eating a snake’s beating heart, and for years had my own heart set on doing it (pun very much intended).
I was surprised to learn that there was a similar practice in Taipei! Though it was certainly a taste of the real thing, it was just a weak imitation. It felt a little too touristy – bish bash bosh, there you go, now move along.
I was left slightly disappointed. Though a year later, I got what I was finally looking for. Once I knew we were heading to Vietnam, the first thing I researched was where to get a hold of a snake, and without any of the touristy crap. Fortunately for me, I found just the place!
“Hello, This Is Dragon”
After a bit of research, I came across another blog that happened to visit a restaurant in Hanoi that served snakes. The more I read, the more I knew I had found the exact kind of place I wanted. It was also the first place I got introduced to the restaurant’s eccentric owner, a man who went by Dragon.
After a bit of digging, I got a hold of his number and messaged him to see if I could get what I wanted. I was quickly reassured that I had the right place and that he would “give me the best snake”.
The Night Of
For some wild reason, Jess had no interest in eating snakes. Crazy, right? That meant I’d have this wild experience to myself as she’d spend her evening enjoying the serene tranquillity of a luxury spa.
To begin the sketchy adventure, I had to make my way out of the city and deeper into the smaller villages on the outskirts of Hanoi. The Grab taxi (Uber for this part of the world) quickly left the lights of the city behind and soon found itself delving down dark alleys until it reached a set of bright lights that marked the entrance to the restaurant.
A man approached the taxi and opened the door.
“Are you PJ?” And just like that, the insanity began.
After Vietnam, check out Taiwan’s market notorious for eating snake meat and glassfuls of blood and venom!
From what I had seen written about it, I pictured just a typical medium-sized family-run restaurant. Yet I arrived at what seemed to be a multi-function outdoor venue with multiple rooms and separate small buildings. It looked like a place that locals might hire out for weddings. Though tonight, there were no weddings, no people at all in fact…it seemed I was pretty much on my own.
Before we even got the chance to attempt some small talk, Dragon guided meacross the courtyard towards the back of the restaurant. We arrived at a chain-linked gate, behind which were several cages with a few slithery creatures hiding within. Without a word, he opened a gate and revealed the snake that would be mine.
I assumed I would have been sitting inside a regular restaurant alongside visitors, but not so. I was shuffled to a little room situated right in the back of the restaurant’s complex. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Wait here,” he said. To say that things seemed a little sketchy at that point was an understatement, though I stayed regardless.
If there are any vegans or tree-hugging activists still reading at this point, this is your cue to leave. Things will only get much worse from here.
Some may find the act I was about to participate in as cruel, and even more would find it to be repulsive. What I will say though, as a meat eater, who am I to justify what is and isn’t acceptable to eat? Having lived in Asia for the longest time, there are plenty of animals and body parts I never would have imagined on a dinner plate. Just because YOU don’t eat it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And at the end of the day, is it really any crueller than battery-farming poor little chicks?
On top of that, this is a genuine cultural practice for people who lived in this village (as Dragon would later explain to me). It was something that the villagers consider an important part of their everyday lives. So, calm your shit, and get ready to have your mind blown and your stomach churned.
Shit’s About to Get Real
This is when things took a dark and twisted turn. It was a moment I was prepared for and was actively hoping to witness. I didn’t find it shocking per se, it was more surreal. It was something I couldn’t believe I was seeing with my very own eyes.
A member of staff brought out the snake for my inspection as it rapidly slithered across the ground. At one point it even whipped around and bit the guy on the thumb. His reserved reaction pretty much confirmed the snake couldn’t be venomous.
Dragon came along and placed 2 tumbler glasses and a shot glass on a nearby chair, each filled with a harsh spirit that I figured was rice wine. Then, with little fanfare, the handler whipped out a knife, and cut straight down through the snake. He reached in, tore the snake’s heart out and dropped it into the shot glass.
Immediately after, the snake’s blood was drained into one of the awaiting tumbler glasses. The knife then continued to the snake’s stomach before spilling out a radioactively green bile into the second glass. By now, you should have figured out what these were for.
To Become the Snake, One Must Consume the Snake
As the snake went off to be prepared, we returned to my private room. Dragon sat on the opposite side of the table and placed each glass in front of me. Without a word said, we both knew what was next. But before that, there was something important I had to do.
As the snake’s heart sat in the shot glass, I carefully picked it up with my chopsticks and placed it in my hand to see a mind-blowing phenomenon. The heart kept on beating. The little organ continued to rhythmically pulse in defiance of the situation it was in. That is what I read about, that is what I had waited all these years to see.
After a few minutes of gazing in morbid fascination, I slipped the heart back into the shot glass, and without hesitation, I swallowed it down in one as I felt its rhythmic beating disappear down my throat.
Followed by a chaser of blood and bile, I leisurely placed the final glass down to a surprised-looking Dragon, who was stunned at my lack of reaction. Perhaps it was fear on his part.
A Friendly Host
For the next hour or so, Dragon took it upon himself to sit opposite me and do everything in his power to make me feel at home. Bear in mind, he was the owner of the restaurant. There were a few (though not many) other tables there that night, and he did have things that he could have been doing. Though instead of attending to restaurant matters he made the effort to actually sit with me and chat.
He adamantly reminded me that drinks were on the house, free of charge, and I couldn’t leave until I had finished at least 10! We sat and discussed his restaurant, life in Vietnam and the mindset many people would have towards the tradition of his village.
He also went on to detail why this tradition exists. The act of eating snake is only permitted in certain regions of Vietnam, one of them being this village on the outskirts of Hanoi. The legend goes that a princess was once kept captive by an enormous snake. Many people tried to save her but alas, the snake was too mighty. That was until one brave individual from the village stepped up, slayed the snake and saved the princess.
Since then, the village celebrates this momentous day each year with an enormous celebration where they re-enact the event and naturally, consume the ancestors of that beastly snake.
As such, the village has always reserved the right to eat snakes as part of their culture and tradition and is still something the villagers partake in regularly to this day.
Time to Take a Hit
Before I could delve into some delectable reptiles, there was something else I was very eager to try. All around Hanoi placed randomly nearby side-street eateries, rest stops and everywhere in between, I kept seeing a unique-looking pipe. They were mostly used as communal pipes for whoever wanted to use them.
I was fascinated by this new and unfamiliar smoking tool. I happened to pass one on the way to my private dining room and politely hinted at permission to use it, to which Dragon happily agreed.
As I’m a person who is very much experienced with tobacco…amongst other things…I thought nothing of puffing on something that was basically an oversized Sherlock pipe. How wrong I was.
It effectively looked, and functioned, as a bamboo bong, minus the psychoactive element. A small pouch of tobacco packed into the “bowl” and water sat at the bottom. As I pulled on it with every ounce of my breath, I was stunned at how I instantly became incredibly lightheaded, to a degree I’d never felt before.
My fingertips began to buzz and my lips tingled. Suddenly I became fully aware of the peculiar and unfamiliar situation I was in. What the fuck did he put in that pipe?! Within a few seconds, the levity subsided, and I was shuffled back to my booth with no idea what just happened.
Afraid of eating snake meat in Vietnam or any kind of street food?
After some pleasant conversation with the soft-spoken Dragon, a young waitress began to bring dish after dish of snake-related cuisine. At first (much like Taiwan’s snake alley), I expected it to be a kind of novelty. I didn’t expect much effort or anything in the way of flavour. Yet, to my surprise, it was fucking delicious!
No word of exaggeration, it was one of the best dishes I had during my time in Hanoi. It was even better than the luxury cuisine I had on the Halong Bay cruise! There was no tourist bullshit with this one, they truly put every effort to make some mouth-watering dishes.
They weren’t even purposefully stomach-churning; they were just the kind of dishes you’d expect in any Asian restaurant. Snake meat spring rolls, snake fat fried rice, snake throat, and snakeskin and muscle stir fry were just some of the dishes on offer. They even served snakeskin and bones spring rolls, and pulverised ribs, which you would have assumed would have been inedible but turned out to be glorious.
Such a meal was supposed to be shared between at least 3 people, so Dragon was stunned at the fact I managed to finish the majority of it. I still think about that lone snake meat spring roll I left behind.
A Happy Ending…Not That Kind
As my stomach filled to the brim and Jess neared the end of her time in the spa, it was time for me to be on my way. Dragon took it upon himself to arrange some transportation for me and seemed truly grateful to have my patronage. With a quick photo, a warm embrace and a doggy bag filled to the brim with some reptile snacks, my time in the snake restaurant came to an end.
Till my final days, I will always be grateful to Dragon for the experience and for allowing me to achieve one of my greatest bucket list goals. Regardless of what others might think, it was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had. So head down to your local market and grab some snake spring rolls today!
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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.