When the man bringing your meal to the table is missing most of his fingers and the main ingredient is not only still alive but also long and writhing and – hang on, is that a cobra? Well, that’s when you know this is no ordinary dining experience. Eating at one of Hanoi’s snake restaurants is as much a theatrical performance as a meal out.
The decor is way over the top. From a grungy side-street you enter a world of exuberant woodwork with mother-of-pearl inlay glowing in the lantern light. Bonsai plants are scattered artfully while off to the side glass jars containing snake wine hint at what’s to come.
When everyone’s settled, the snake handler – he with very few fingers – presents the menu. He kicks off with cobra, the most expensive item on the menu (and a choice photo-op), then runs through the other options, all very much alive and hissing. Traditionally, your chosen snake is killed in front of you, though it will be dispatched off-stage if you ask. The guest of honour (lucky you?) then gets to eat the still-beating heart.
The Vietnamese say it contains a stimulant and that the meat is an aphrodisiac. The jury’s out on both counts, however, because of the copious amounts of alcohol everyone consumes. By way of an aperitif you get two small glasses of rice wine, one blood red, the other an almost fluorescent, bile-ish green… which is in fact exactly what they are.
Things get decidedly more palatable as the meal starts to arrive. In a matter of minutes your snake has been transformed into all manner of tasty dishes: snake soup, spring rolls, dumplings, fillets, even crispy-fried snake skin. Absolutely nothing is wasted. It’s washed down with more rice wine, or beer if you’d rather, and to round things off, some fresh fruit and green tea – with no snake sorbet forthcoming.
Hanoi’s most famous snake restaurants are in the suburb of Le Mat, including the reliable Quoc Trieu (+84 (0)4 827 2988).