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Photo of meats to baffle the tourist on display in Hanoi: Jed Sundwall

Vietnam’s been on the tourist radar for about a decade now, thanks to its amiable climate, hospitable people and fantastic cuisine. Delicious as they may be pho and banh mi start to feel like they lack substance after a while. If you’re in need of something heartier, it might be time to eat a live cobra heart.

Photo (and feature photo) of cobra liquor
on offer in Vietnam: Augapfel

Munching on cobra parts is likely an adaptation of the Chinese medical belief that ingesting an animal will endow the eater with its positive attributes. This is why tiger penises are so expensive nowadays, and no, I’m not kidding.

The ritual is primarily a northern Vietnamese thing and tends to be far more elaborate around Hanoi. Snake restaurants rarely advertise to foreigners, but ask any tour guide in the Old Quarter and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.

It’s possible to find cobra in the south, but it’s mainly in the form of carcasses pickled in rice liquor and trust me, the novelty factor does not make up for the taste. Your best bet for strange eats in Saigon is the Jungle Barbecue (Lang Nuong Nam Bo, off Cach Mang Thang 8). They usually use smaller, non-venomous snakes, but you’ll also be able to order up plates of porcupine, iguana, weasel and other things you’ve never even thought about eating. Be sure to call ahead and reserve your dinner.

Picking Your Cobra

Photo or an array of powerful liquors: ashleyt

When you first arrive at the restaurant you’ll be ushered into a large room full of terrariums and wire cages. Don’t let the rabbits, dogs or turtles distract you – they’re delicious, but you can eat dog anywhere.

When picking a cobra it’s tempting to go with the longest one, but what you’re really after here is girth and attitude. When you’ve selected the tastiest looking snake the host will pull it out of the cage, throw it on the floor and start poking it with a stick. If it starts hissing like a punctured tire and tries to kill everyone in the room, you’re good to go.

Appetizers

After taking a seat (preferably away from the cobra) you’ll be offered a choice of fine apertifs. You’ll be able to choose from a large array of dead things in rice liquor – scorpions, lizards, other snakes – but as this meal is all about strength and virility, I’d suggest you go with the bull testicles. Slightly sweet, but with a savory edge.

Prepping the Snake

Cobra being wrangled. Photo by the author.

Your snake will arrive with a half-full bottle of rice vodka, a funnel and two waiters with huge knives.

First the head comes off and the venom is drained into the bottle (don’t worry, it’s only dangerous when taken intravenously), then the blood from the rest of the body is added.

The heart, still beating Indiana Jones-style, is placed on a saucer and offered to the most distinguished diner. Being foreign, this will be you.

Cobra butchering in progress. Photo by the author.

Man up. Drop it in a glass of blood and venom liquor and down it like you’re back in college.

You might feel it beating in your throat.

The Main Course

As if heightened virility and cobra powers aren’t enough, your reward is a multi-course meal made from the remains of your victim. You’ll feast on snake soup, snake spring rolls, barbecued snake and just about any other culinary option the chef can dream up.

And yeah, it tastes a little like chicken.

Video of the heart the author consumed:

Community Connection

Even if eating a beating cobra heart is too far out for you, you can still find pages of information about traveling in Vietnam on Matador’s Focus Page Travel Southeast Asia. For thrills that require skills, read about surfing and cycling in Vietnam.

Food


 

About The Author

Ross Tabak

Ross Tabak is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southeast Asia. He runs the adventure blog We're Lost and Everything is Dirty.

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  • http://www.thejetpacker.com The Jetpacker

    When it comes to food, we prefer to live in blissful ignorance. I mean, we feel bad for eating burgers after we see a live cow. I don’t think I could ever eat something that was killed in front of me… even a bug. I’d be wracked with guilt no matter how good it tasted.

    • http://wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

      Really? What about fresh trout pulled from a stream into the camp kitchen? Yum.

  • http://www.trailofants.com Ant

    This article crossed the line. What next — how to hunt a snow leopard?

    Needless. Pointless. Careless reporting on Matador and Ross’s parts. No one needed to know this, let alone the SE Asian ecosystem that relies on these snakes.

    Why couldn’t you just uncover the truth about eating cobra, and get some local perspectives instead of going in all guns blazing.

    “Man up. Drop it in a glass of blood and venom liquor and down it like you’re back in college.” should have read “Man up. Say no and don’t act like you’re back in college”.

    Shame.

    • Ross B.

      You make some good points, Ant. I agree with “…get some local perspectives”, but I think the “how to hunt a snow leopard” comparison is a little out of control.

      Right or wrong, I have always gauged my compassion for animals as a relation to their intelligence, which is why “The Cove” really made an impression on me, yet I don’t feel bad when I reel in a salmon (who has to suffer a much more painful, drawn-out death (being reeled in for 20 minutes and left to die in a cooler), than a snake does when you cut off the head). Is a snake much smarter than a fish? Certainly nowhere near the intelligence an (endangered) snow leopard!

      Whether or not it’s ethical, this is a custom adopted by locals, not targeted at tourists. Although Ross sounds a little enthusiastic about the whole thing, to me this was an investigative report and you can’t make too many judgments on something without doing it yourself.

    • http://yesthereissuchathingasastupidquestion.wordpress.com/ Kate Sedgwick

      Animals are eaten every day. We (meaning those of us that eat meat) are seldom ever part of the process of the slaughter of the animals we consume. In my opinion, this article explores being a carnivore without guilt, which is the author’s perspective.

      The thing about Matador is that if someone experienced this in a different way and could write about it as well as Ross has done here, we’d publish that, too.

      Do we really need to go all public radio on your ass and put a personal disclaimer on everything we publish (this article and the opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of this website or its editors)? Is it our job to condemn those travelers who experience parts of other cultures we may not all be prepared or willing to experience ourselves?

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsp100677/ Gsp

        I read this article with interest, and am glad it was published by Matador.

        However, I don’t agree with Ross B. and Kate Sedgwick’s defense against Ant’s criticism – this article is neither “an investigative report” (by any stretch of the imagination), nor does it “explore being a carnivore without guilt”.

        The subject matter of this article is fascinating, but is treated superficially, and the tone and writing is gratuitous. The fact the locals have even more gratuitously macho attitudes than that of the Ross (the author) doesn’t excuse these 2 critiques of this piece that I mention, and that I think Ant was trying to get at.

        I don’t think anybody has suggested anything about wanting a “personal disclaimer on everything”, nor that you “condemn those travellers who experience parts of other cultures we may not all be prepared or willing to experience ourselves”, and I’m surprised & disappointed to read Kate resorting to such defensive arguments, in response to a critical comment from Ant that made no such suggestions.

        An actual exploration or ‘investigative report’ would have been far less superficial in it’s treatment of such a complex situation and therefore covered many more of the associated issues and in greater depth…such as how much of this actually does occur for the tourists (not just a casual opinion, without explanation or supporting information – I would argue there is strong evidence that tourist money is a significant motivation, that is now closely intertwined with the historical cultural motivations); or perhaps a discussion of the conditions the snakes are kept in (not to mention the turtles, rabbits and dogs) – greater ethical issues than eating snake heart are alluded to by a passing mention of these animals kept in room full of wire cages in the restaurant; maybe a more considered discussion (not necessarily negative, but balanced) of the baiting and stressing of the cobra to agitate it for the sake of the machismo & bravado that is tied up in the whole thing; etc, etc.

        Overall I think it was a missed opportunity that such a complex and fascinating subject was treated superficially at best, and with gratuitous machismo (perhaps even callousness) at worst.

  • http://everythingisdirty.com ross lee tabak

    a) The cobras are farm-raised.
    b) The “truth” is that “local perspectives” are about eight times coarser than this article.
    c) Snow leopards are delicious.

  • Nick

    Agree with Ant, not the kind of thing I expect from Matador, Shame.

  • Jo

    great article, it’s a long time since I was entertained like that!

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    I think I’d take this over fried insects anyday.

  • http://www.trailofants.com Ant

    @Ross: If the cobra’s are farm-raised, why isn’t that in your article? In my opinion, that makes it worse. They live a miserable life, have their heads chopped off and get eaten by you and others. And who are you to judge an animals intelligence? No more than I am to judge yours, or vice versa. That doesn’t mean we’ll eat each other’s beating hearts. I hope.

    I hasten to add, I’m not a vegetarian, nor a radical on this matter. I just cannot see the purpose of this article. What does it bring to anyone’s life? To me, it’s like the dickheads who choose to bazooka cows and other animals in Cambodia.

    I wouldn’t want this in my country, so why would I promote it in others.

    @Kate: What sort of a response is “Animals are eaten every day”? Go figure. Ross hasn’t experienced it in a different way — true, his article was well written — he experienced it the same way as the other people that choose to, especially since The Beach took it to the masses.

    And, “Do we really need to go all public radio on your ass…” Yes.

    That’s all I’m saying, if our paths ever cross I’ll be happy to debate it over a beer — but I’m not the type to get fired up on a blog comment thread. Looking forward to reading more of your work, Ross.

    • http://yesthereissuchathingasastupidquestion.wordpress.com/ Kate Sedgwick

      My point is that this eating an animal in a way that seems to be no more inhumane than the way we eat cows or any other animal and that the fact that this slaughter happens in front of people at least allows them to understand where that meat is coming from.

      Also, there are two different Rosses in this comment thread. Confusing!

      I just figure it goes without saying that the author’s opinion is the authors opinion and experience. I never write my opinion into an article I’m editing. In fact, I haven’t had a drink in more than 6 years and edit a webpage featuring about 40% content about drinking and clubbing. To each their own, I say.

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    I saw snake-blood shots being served in Taipei, but I was afraid I’d have a gag reflex and spit it right back up. Did it go down smooth?

  • http://wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

    I’ve got no problem with this article being published on Matador. It’s informative and well-written, and I’m a big fan of Ross Lee Tabak’s travel writing and photography. Check out his blog. I read it almost every day.

    Would I eat cobra heart in Vietnam? Probably not. It’s repulsive, not in the sense of the deed itself, but in terms of the gonzo, dare-devil attitude it represents. I agree with Ant that the tone of this article is a bit reminiscent of the scene at the shooting range outside Phnom Penh.

    Travel in developing countries carries a tremendous weight of responsibility. We can do almost anything, and tell any story we want. What we choose to do, and what stories we choose to tell, will have a lasting impact.

    • Matt K.

      As I was reading this, it seems like a gonzo, diving-in-headfirst approach is the only way to approach this sort of topic. Anything less than experiencing what the locals would experience would make thisfar more shallow. After all, this is a website about the experience of traveling: rule number one is to live as the locals do, as far as your morals/values allow. This piece definitely highlights that sort of cultural experience we all strive for, just in an extreme way.

      The tone of the article is a little gung-ho, which fits with the subject manner. Trying to write about eating a beating cobra heart in a serious, analytical, news-y sort of way would never work. This isn’t meant to be an investigative report, or an analysis of animal rights. It’s a foreigner’s perspective on the experience of a bizarre local custom, as brutal and ridiculous as it might be. The emotions shown through the words chosen reflect the cowboy feel of the entire process of snake eating.

      That said, I really enjoyed this look into life in another, totally distant part of the world. Thanks for bringing a totally odd part of the planet to my laptop!

  • somsai

    I’m glad I stopped back at this one to see what happened.

    Some thoughts.

    I’m glad Ant made the comments he did and has the thoughts he does, it speaks well for the Matador community.

    In the grand scheme of things eating cobras is probably not that terrible a thing, they aren’t endangered even if there realy are no farms.

    For me eating wild food is a big deal. I shoot big animals and our freezer’s full. But I never eat game at a restaurant, usually at a home, and I get very uncomfortable when even the lowest form of animal suffers needlessly.

    In the end the story generated some interesting thoughts, and I’ve found a great new blog to follow.

    • JAKE

      FUCK U ASSHOLE-

      START COUNTING YOUR DAYS ASSHOLE, CAUSE SOON U ARE GONNA END UP ON THE DINNER TABLE TOO!

      YOUR DAYS ARE “NUMBERED”

      EXACTLY 365 DAYS IS WHAT YOU GOT TOO LIVE U MOTHERFUCKER..

      GOD IS WATCHING YOU ALWAYS AND U WILL REGRET IT AND HE’S WATCHING YOU AND YOUR LIFE S GONNA BECOME SO MISERABLE!

      DIE IN HELL U FUCKING DEMON

  • http://www.thetraveleditor.com Kevin Evans

    @Ant
    I think I may have missed the blazing guns you referred to. Can you elaborate?

    Also I don’t agree that raising cobras on farms is necessarily bad. You mention getting some ‘local perspective’, yet don’t seem interested in understanding *why* the locals raise cobras on farms. Maybe it’s safer for the farmer? I can imagine hunting wild cobras is pretty dangerous. Also, do we know that cobras live miserable lives on the farm? I don’t know whether this is true, and I reckon no one else on this thread does either.

    Look in your own backyard – ever seen a battery chicken farm? Ever seen a pig hung, have its throat cut and left to kick and jerk while it bleeds to death? These are nasty nasty facts of our own meat industry. Decapitating cobras seems positively humane in comparison.

    Ross, sounds like we need a follow-up article….history of cobra cuisine, insights into the cobra industry, cobra distilling methods.

    Great article. I haven’t squirmed like that in a long time.

    • JAKE

      FUCK U ASSHOLE, GO FUCK YOUR WIFE’S VAGINA

  • cj

    well man, sorry you dont really have an air of culture about you, but not everyone is a peta enthusiast, as a matter of fact, i fully endorse this kind of cultural expirience as it really puts you outside the box. last, do you know how many cobras there are out there, eating a snake really isnt going to harm the ecosystem, they have been doing it in these countries for hundreds and hundreds of years. maybe you should try it. smiles

  • http://MaxTheITpro.com Maxwell

    Fascinating article…well written. I felt as though I were in over THERE. :-)
    OTOH, this isn’t something I’d try (er eat) as it’s not my cup of tea. However, if word got out that snake/cobra meat packs a lot of protein and good fats that’ll benefit my workouts, then who knows, I might just just dive in with my mouth wide open. lol. :-)

    - Max “The IT pro”

  • amellia

    you’re my hero. i dont have the balls(oh irony) to try cobra or any form of snake. or reptile for that matter. not even frog. which is an amphibian but well thats not the point.

  • Ben Freedlander

    Well written with some humor and as I assume this meal wasn’t designed for blood loving tourists what’s wrong? It’s just seeing how something is done half a world away. If you don’t like the idea blame the Vietnamese, not the author, and if you do not like learning about other cultures do not read the articles posted here. Not approving of this article is like an American reporter being bashed for reporting on a war between two other countries. While I missed out on this in Vietnam, I did try snake wine in China, tasted like gasoline… Keep up the good work, Ross. -Ben

  • Bryan

    They are quite delicious. If you get it out in farm country, they aren’t raised. And it’s also illegal depending on what type of snake you’re eating…. We did the same thing while I was in Dinh Quan except one of the cousins did the cutting and draining.

    The blood/venom liquor actually goes down pretty smoothly. I didn’t get the heart though, my uncle did.

  • http://www.rubiconadventures.com bill

    cobra, does it really taste like chicken?

  • DHarbecke

    I can’t agree with this at all. I have a huge problem with eating something that’s not humanely dispatched, much less for the purpose of proving some nebulous aspect of “virility.”

    With all due respect, compassion should be based on suffering, not intelligence. The subtle nuance is that I’d feel sorry both for the snake, which suffered for someone’s insecurity, and for the diner, who may get the chance to “man up” when told they’ve contracted hepatitis. If pathos were based on IQ, I wouldn’t give a crap about either of you, so I’m glad it’s not.

  • DHarbecke

    I don’t mean to be too harsh. I enjoy your writing, Ross – just didn’t dig the topic. Everyone’s got an opinion, but I’ll try to be less abrasive with mine in the future. Sorry. Be good to yourself…

    • Amal6817

      it is so eeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwww
      my ma once ate a snake and she is alright

  • Amal6817

    i hate this eeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwww!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Amal6817

    how can u eat a snake , that, my friend is disgusting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

  • Bigkev

    frickin disgusting dude…

  • Martyholley
  • Rachel

    Yuck.

  • Hikkilove94

    this sounded so cruel. almost made me want to be a vegetarian.

  • http://theparallellife.com/ Ashley

    This is fantastic and just gives us more ideas for Justin’s food challenge for when we get to SE Asia!

  • Cash111

    “you can eat dog anywhere”, you are seriously deranged and this is so inhumane.

  • Rudolph.A.Furtado

    Will be visiting Vietnam in December-2013.Good writing on the bizarre culinary specialties of Vietnam.

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