Welcome to the third and final installment in my three-part series on adventure eating in Hanoi, Vietnam. If you missed Part I (which showcased balut – fertilized duck eggs) you can find it here; for Part II (insects, amphibians and arachnids), click here. For this installment, we’re pulling out all the stops and I’ll be sharing my experience eating cobra.
Fair warning: Some of the following images are graphic.
Our evening started with a 30-minute taxi ride to Nguyen Van Duc Snake Restaurant on Le Mat Street, “across the bridge” from our hotel. We knew we were in for an interesting evening once we got off the main road and began a series of twists and turns through parking lots and down dark alleyways. When our taxi finally stopped, my husband and I looked at each other like, “This can’t possibly be it.” But our driver, who spoke no English, assured us we were there by persistent head-nodding and enthusiastic pointing.
He directed us towards an alleyway dimly lit by Christmas lights in a few oddly appointed palm trees. As we began our way down the passage we soon realized we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I got the distinct feeling I was an extra in “The Deer Hunter” and was about to turn the corner to see Christopher Walken donning a red bandana and pointing a revolver to his head.
Upon entering the restaurant we were immediately greeted by the Maitre d’. He was smartly dressed in a black suit which seemed contradictory to the surroundings of rusted metals cages filled with doves, geese and of course, snakes. Even the snake handlers were nicely dressed – aside from the thick rubber boots they wore to protect their lower extremities from venomous bites.
We got down to business right away, and after establishing that we wanted the cobra, our handler chose one by size, according to our party of three. He removed the snake from its enclosure with his unprotected hands and dropped it to the tile floor. He stepped on its tail to keep it from slithering off while he closed and secured the lid.
Continuing to hold it by the tail he lifted it and placed it on the metal railing that stood between us and him. The cobra instinctively commenced to wrap itself around the railing putting on a bit of a show just mere inches from where we were standing. After a short time the handler withdrew the snake and removed its fangs (which was the only gruesome part of the experience).
From that point things moved along rather quickly as the cobra’s heart was removed, its blood was drained, the head was cut off, and then its gallbladder was extracted. I was given the heart (still beating) and I obliged by swallowing it whole. Because I did not chew it, there really wasn’t much taste – only a slight irony hint of blood.
The blood was mixed with a few ounces of vodka, as was the bile from the gallbladder – in separate bottles, of course. The blood-diluted vodka tasted only of vodka, and since I am a vodka drinker, I enjoyed it quite well. The bile infusion had a slightly acrid taste, and although not particularly unpleasant, was not something I’d normally enjoy with an olive.
At this point we were escorted to our table and our dinner experience began. When ordering cobra at Nguyen Van Duc Snake Restaurant you are served 11 courses, each using various parts of the snake and cooked by differing techniques, from the head to the liver to the skin. Our cobra menu included:
- Cobra soup
- Sautéed cobra with onion and fragrant spice
- Pan-fried cobra rolled in lot leaves
- Cobra spring rolls
- Fried cobra ribsbritable served with dry pancake
- Crispy fried cobra skin
- Cobra pied
- Cobra chitterling and liver
- Stewed cobra with cobra head and Chinese medicinal leaves
- Deep-fried cobra
- Cobra gruel
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know what each of these courses is. And unfortunately, no one there seemed to know more than a few words of English, so asking for an explanation was a waste of time. From the research I’ve done since returning, “lot leaves” appear to be betel leaves – the same thing chewed along with betel nuts to get you high. “Ribsbritable” and “pied” are still a mystery to me.
Nothing on the menu was distasteful. Everything was quite good, including the chitterlings. In fact, my absolute favorite of all was the liver. It was rich and moist and very akin to a chicken liver, which is one of my favorite foods.
For those who squirm at the thought of eating snake, Nguyen Van Duc Snake Restaurant also offers many other, more mainstream entrée choices. Our traveling companion, who accompanied us on this adventure, ordered the fried prawns, which looked and tasted delicious.
All-in-all, this experience was one of best culinary bargains I have enjoyed to date. All 11 cobra dishes (plus the prelude to dinner), the fried prawns, four beers, two soft drinks, tax and tip totaled less than $90 US.
Even if you’re not an adventure eater, I would highly recommend Nguyen Van Duc Snake Restaurant. The experience – from the trip getting there to the hustle and bustle of the wait staff within the restaurant – is one you will remember and appreciate for a lifetime.