Le Mat is only seven km from Hanoi’s Old Quarter. After a 30 minute drive, you will find yourself in the ancient village in Viet Hung ward of Long Bien District, where snake restaurants are abundant.
The most popular snakes served in these restaurants are grass snakes and cobras — the cobra is ten times more expensive than grass snakes, of course — and they are all alive.
At the restaurant, you will have the chance to see how your chosen snake is prepared. Its heart and gall are poured into glasses of wine to drink. Other parts of the snake are cooked in different ways to make around ten dishes. Preparation methods include grilling, frying, steaming, wrapping in leaves and even soaking in traditional medicine.
Snake alcohol is quite popular because it is believed to be good for one’s health. Truong Khac Lap, owner of the village’s Ran Rao restaurant, is proud of his restaurant, which has been open for 20 years.
“Our customers can choose the live snakes in our farm. Then we will prepare dishes from those snakes following their demands,” he said.
At first, visitors to the restaurant “were overwhelmed with their fear of snakes.” So the restaurant prepared the snakes out of sight to avoid scaring the already anxious clients.
Snake meat, he said, is quite similar in taste and texture to eel meat. Popular dishes include stir-fried crispy snake skin, pan-fried backbone with rice crackers, snake with fried vermicelli, snake wrapped in la lot leaf, snake soup and snake spring rolls.
Adventurous diners can taste snake wine, which is rice wine mixed with blood and heart of the snake.
“It is very good for health, supporting immune function and bone health. Snake wine is especially good for male sexual vitality,” he explains. “We have more and more people coming here to visit snake farms and enjoy the many snake meats, not just for the taste, but also the considerable health benefits.”
No one knows exactly when villagers in Le Mat began to breed snakes. But for centuries, they have told each other a legend explaining the origin of the job.
Legend has it that one day while the daughter of King Ly Thai Tong (1072-1127) was on a pleasant boat cruise with her maids on the Duong River, a big snake, which was considered a water monster, overturned the boat and caught the princess.
The crew could do nothing to protect the unfortunate princess. But a young man in the Hoang Family from Le Mat Village dove into the water, fought against the monster and, in the end, succeeded in killing it and saving the princess.
King Ly Thai Tong was deeply impressed by the young man’s feat and gave him a reward of gold and court titles. But the hero graciously rejected the reward and, instead, requested the King allow him and a number of poor people to reclaim land in the areas west of the capital in Thang Long.
As the King gave his assent, the young man led the poor to reclaim their land and established 13 prosperous and famous agricultural settlements in the neighbourhood of Thang Long. When the man passed away, the locals honoured him as the village’s tutelary god and every year organize a festival to commemorate him.
Following the example of the man, inhabitants in Le Mat began to breed snakes.
Le Mat Village Festival consists of many unique rites and folk activities, such as the water offering ceremony, the snake killing dance – one of the ten ancient dances in the imperial capital of Thang Long—and the rite of catching carp.
A lucrative, recognised speciality
There are roughly 100 snake-farming households in Le Mat.
It is hard to believe that not long ago, the business of snake breeding and meat production almost disappeared. From the 1960s to 1990s snakes around Le Mat were bred for restaurants and pharmaceutical purposes.
Then, in 1993, Vietnam ratified the international convention on the protection of wildlife and imposed restrictions on the snake-breeding industry. Snake meat disappeared from menus. In 2007, aware of the negative repercussions on the local dining economy, Vietnamese authorities granted Le Mat ‘craft village’ status. On this basis plans for development were drawn to turn snake breeding and meat production into an experience that would be popular with tourists eager to sample this most unique Vietnamese specialty.
If you are brave enough to experience meat, just jump on city Bus No. 10 to Long Bien Bus Station and walk a few hundred metres to Le Mat Village.
Please visit our website to explore more about Vietnamese cuisine.