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Toronto Globe and Mail
October 11, 1997

Some Snake Wine with My Snake

By Dylan Foley

        "Are you ready for the Snake Restaurant?" asked the artist Tran Luong, as we sat in the Mai Gallery, in an quiet alley near in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam.
       Snake for dinner? Well, life isfull of experiences, so Luong took me on my scooter in a caravan of scooters with Duong Tuong, the well-known critic and translator, to the snake village outside of Hanoi. We went there with several members of Duong Tuong's art group, the Gang of Five, a band of successful Hanoi painters in their late 30s.
       We passed over the Chuong Dong Bridge and traveled four or five miles into the suburbs of Hanoi. Our caravan cut through various side streets and over several dykes until we arrived at the edge of a brilliant green rice paddy. We had arrived in the Le Mat, the famous snake village. Luong said that I could ask anyone along the main road for directions. "Everyone knows where the snake village is," he 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 ranches, 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. He cut them open with a razor blade, 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 these are places where they serve Western liquor." Like Taiwan and mainland China, snake is considered an aphrodisiac in Vietnam.
        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 broiled snake meat, 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 meat that is neither beef nor pork tastes like chicken.
       I think it may have been the rounds of rice wine and blood, but the mood was jovial and friendly. The Gang of Five, my dining companions, is a group of artists that the translator Duong Toung named and mentored. The group has been working together for almost 20 years. They gave support to each other during the bleak years of the government ban on all modern art styles except impressionism. More artistic freedom developed in the late '80s, leading to the modern art boom Vietnam is experiencing today.
        The snake restaurant itself only consisted 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 were reminiscent of those found in the Chinese medicine shops, a greenish liquid containing god knows what.
        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 livers, which is based on a personal, lifelong bias against 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 a parting gift, the mistress of 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

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Copyright 1997 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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