Photo: Author “Eat your heart out.”
That’s what the guide’s shirt said. The cartoon snake lay sedated in a submissive position near the hem, his big, Disney-esque eyes staring brightly from the chest. His fangs dangled like wet noodles over an anthropomorphized smile with comically exaggerated dimples. Back at the snake’s body, a Valentine heart pumped through a slit in the scales like a Loony Toon in love, while a small Vietnamese man stood next to it in awe, mouth watering.
It was the most adorable scene of mutilation and torture ever.
The shirt was being sold for 40,000 VND as a complement to the tour of the Hanoi Snake Village. The “village” would turn out to be little more than a bamboo restaurant along the river, but the draw didn’t hinge on some grandiose architecture with glittering walls – it was the tradition that went on within it. What the village offered, what the shirt marginalized into something the kids can get behind, was the opportunity to eat cobra.
More specifically: biting the beating heart out of a still-living cobra’s chest, then draining its blood and bile into a shot of rice wine to chase it down. Eat your heart out.
The ride to the village was a slow one. Traffic in Hanoi, like most of the places in Southeast Asia, is driven by the motorcycle, but the lane-splitting benefit they offer doesn’t hold much weight when two million people shove themselves into a road with no lanes to be found. There’s order to the chaos, to be sure, but as I watched pedestrians step out into the aether without care for whatever mass of metal and death came hurtling towards them, I couldn’t figure out where the hell it was. Instead, we became lodged in a traffic jam that looked more like ants scrambling to climb into a plugged anthill. We crawled across the concrete, watching pedestrians overtake us in the afternoon sun. It gave plenty of time for contemplation.
I had read about the village back in Hoi An, where it was sold as an ancient tradition. Fantastic. I love traditions. When I arrived in Hanoi, I roped three others into the experience. Many more were turned off by the idea and declined the invitation, but – call it hubris? – I didn’t let that dissuade me.
More than any other country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam carries a heavy Chinese influence dating back to the earliest days of their existence. Being located directly next to each other tends to have that effect – Vietnam is essentially China’s Mexico, right down to the knockoff Chinese products being peddled in Vietnamese streets and the history of annexation of territory. One of the more unfortunate implications of this is the propagation of the more superstitious aspects of Chinese culture, particularly regarding the bullshit healing powers of inert animal products. The beating cobra heart is said to increase vitality, to make your dick as hard as it’s ever been for long enough to please your lady. It’s the easiest way to draw people in; sex has sold since the beginning of time. it’s the reason just about every animal product, from rhino horn to balut, is said to give you the best woody you’ve ever had. People want confidence and will do anything to get it.
The second thoughts started rolling in as we pulled up to the village. Vietnam isn’t some spiritual Shangri-La, free of litter and with an aura of the ancient ways saturating its ceilings. I didn’t expect it to be a monastery. But the snake village I was sold didn’t exist. Standing in the ashes of its image was a neon-plated bamboo shack, surrounded by the rotting corpses of old apartments. Old men in Lakers jerseys squatted against walls, smoking cigarettes until they burned their upper lips and throwing the stub in the street. As the taxi pulled away, the dust of the road mixed with the sour taste already forming on the tip of my tongue. This was a tourist trap, through and through.
The place was empty as we entered, greeted lazily by a woman who spoke no English and who waited several minutes before wandering off to find somebody who could help. It was the owner who emerged – crisply dressed with in a suit, rings of perspiration gracing the edges of his armpits. He spoke perfect English (having, I’m sure, plenty of experience with tourists), and explained that each snake would be 200,000 VND. I lost interest in what he was saying, seasoned so well with the timbre of a used car salesman as it was, opting instead to look around the room. The wall was lined with crates, and inside each crate was an emaciated animal. Porcupines with bristling spines, rabbits sitting just out of reach of desperately needed food. I tore off a leaf of lettuce and held it to the cage. The rabbits pounced like desperate gladiators, inhaling the food before resuming a cold-blooded meditation once again. The scent of animal shit wafted across my nose, creating a vortex of odor as it mixed with the smells of the kitchen nearby. I sneezed.
When I turned around again, the snakes were out of their cages. These weren’t cobras – rather, they looked like harmless garter snakes. The owner was draping the snakes around Alex’s neck, where they coiled playfully. Alex smiled as he felt the snake’s smooth scales slide over the nape of his neck, then laughed as the owner pulled out the second snake and pushed it into his pocket. I cringed at the force the owner used, pushing his stiff fingers into the snakes sides, undoubtedly cracking ribs for the sake of a cheap “trouser snake” joke. I felt like the coyote surrounding a wounded duck. Not quite ready to eat, but certainly not letting go.
I shouldn’t have gone through with it. It was wrong. But in my early-20s enthusiasm for rice wine and ridiculous situations, I had committed to the trip with hostel shots and chest-thumping bravado. I was going to eat the beating heart of a live snake, if for no other reason than I’d already said I would.
Before I knew what to do, the owner had another employee by his side, pulling the writhing snake from our hands and stretching it out like a surgical board. The tip of the snake’s tail, the only part of it’s body not immobilized by sheer tension, whipped back and forth, leaving tiny red marks on the owner’s hands that quickly faded back into a deep tan. With one quick motion, the owner pulled out a straight razor. He held his fingers to the snake’s upturned stomach to locate the heart, then plunged the razor into the scales just above it. There was no reaction by the snake, only the quiet continued thwip-thwip of its wild tail. The knife slid smoothly down through the skin. The owner twisted his knife, pulling it up perpendicularly through the open rib cage, and with it came a long, pink organ. The heart.
I was beckoned.
And my mouth went to the snake’s open chest.
The snake’s heart was long and sinewy, much colder than I had anticipated against my tongue. I would have thought it already dead were it not for the rapid bump bump pulsing through it, tapping under my tongue in a feeling I have to imagine is similar to the suspicious pangs a mother gets when her child is in jeopardy. This snake wasn’t being eaten. It was being tortured. And the snake knew it. The heart rested behind the front of my teeth, the arteries leading to and from the organ resting gently in the concave dips of my canines. I bit down hard and pulled away.
I had expected it to be easy, like biting into cooked chicken. But the living body has a tendency to desire its own corporeality, and the effort I put into ending that snakes life was woefully inadequate on the first tug. I had to bite down harder and rip my face away from the flesh until the heart was yanked free from its proper place. It sat in my mouth, damp and soft like a coagulating nosebleed at the back of the throat, and I choked it down without chewing as blood dribbled down my chin. I heard cheers around me, echoing hollow against the tin roof of the shack we stood within.
The owner clapped me on the back and handed me a cheap bottle of rice wine to wash it down. I drank. Smiled for a picture that came out with bright red eyes. My stomach swirled with a mixture of shame and excitement, and my heart beat at the same accelerated rate as I had felt the snake’s within my mouth. The little serpent was hopefully already dead, and the owner stretched it thin, pouring the still running blood into a cup of alcohol. He made another slice further down on the serpentine body, from which flowed a greenish liquid–the bile–that he also drained into a separate cup. As the flow slowed, he squeezed the body with his thumb and middle finger, as if trying to push the last bits of toothpaste from a drying tube. The snakes limp body was handed to the assistant, who carried it away, and I watched in silence as the process was repeated with the second snake. Alex bit the heart while the girls watched, their lips curled back in a mixture of drunken disgust and nervous laughter.
While the snake was prepared, we sat at the table, talking about everything we could except what we had just done. The blood and bile of the snakes had been poured into shot glasses, which we considered not taking at all until the incessant suggestion of the owner overpowered our hesitation. The rest of the snake was cooked into, admittedly, delicious dishes – from roasted snake rib to snake and curry rice. But the prepared meal couldn’t wash the taste of the first course from my mouth, and that night, I didn’t sleep.
Make no mistake, what I did was wrong.
I’ve always considered myself an animal lover. As a kid, I was inspired to travel by watching Jeff Corwin and Steve Irwin on TV, and I was convinced I would grow up to be a zoologist, traveling the world and discovering new animals. The theme song for my show would have been “Wild Thing,” by the Troggs.
I know I said I’d do everything for the experience of it. I got so caught up in this ethos that I didn’t stop to consider that some things aren’t worth doing or shouldn’t be done at all. The “tradition” of biting the snake heart is a farce. My group was the only one in the building, which simply wreaked of white man money. It was a trap, and the victims are the snakes, who could be tasted in a much more ethical manner without the pomp and circumstance that goes into goading naïve westerners into torturing them in the most gruesome manner imaginable.
I had read that often the snakes used are cobras. Perhaps the place I went to was one of the more forward thinking ass-backwards places, but I don’t doubt that I could have found cobra if I wanted to. I can only do what I can and hope that the industry dies before it’s too late. It’s already biting Vietnam in the ass – the last rhino in the country was killed a few years back for its horn.
But people are working to fix it. I support the efforts of the people behind the cause, and I only hope that the exposure I give here can do something to help.