Hanoi's most popular snake restaurant beckons adventurous diners

Text by Stacey Lastoe; video by Diana DiroyUpdated 25th October 2019
Hanoi (CNN) — Hungry parties can order the cobra, but diners with more moderate appetites will probably want to select a smaller snake from Nguyen Van Duc, a popular restaurant in Le Mat -- aka "Snake Village."
This quiet, residential neighborhood in Hanoi, Vietnam, is famous for offering cuisine centered around the slithery reptiles, and 20-year veteran Nguyen Van Duc is one of the most popular for first-timers and locals alike.

Medicinal properties

Van Duc manager Nguyen Hoang Long, who oversees the sprawling property, tells CNN Travel the village has been catching and breeding snakes for around 200 years.
After seating a group of twentysomething backpackers, he explains the history of snakes in Vietnamese cuisine, saying it all began with blood.
"In ancient times, villagers used this [snake blood] to heal headaches," says Long, adding that snake bile, another healing agent, is good for sore throats and "bone problems."
Long is vague on the details surrounding proper dosage and consumption, but under his watch diners aren't so much consuming snake for its ability to cure ailments as they are for the adrenaline rush -- and a story to tell back home.

Cage-to-table

07 snake village Hanoi
Courses are served family style and the entire snake is used to create the various dishes on offer.
Diana Diroy
For locals, snake is familiar and expected, a natural part of their diet. For foreigners, it's perhaps the ultimate foodie thrill ride.
Van Duc's snake dishes draw on Vietnamese culture and flavors -- helpful in getting fearful diners to give it a try. The intrepid traveler preparing to taste snake for the first time may be comforted by the familiar aroma and taste of fresh basil, fish sauce and garlic.
However this doesn't apply to the fresh snake heart, a one-bite dish reserved for the truly adventurous, non-squeamish eater.
The rest of the dishes at Van Duc are served family style and considerably more palatable. There's no printed menu and restaurant staff speak limited English so can't explain much about the cooking styles.
But use your nose and you'll get a whiff of chilies and coriander, while dishes cooked in a hot, oil-coated wok smell smoky and rich.

Interactive dining

05 snake village Hanoi
Snake sauteed with morning glory is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes.
Diana Diroy
The menu-free experience at Van Duc means diners get to choose which snake is going to end up on their table.
There's no rule that says you have to watch the snake meet its timely death, but many choose to witness the expert handler navigate his way around the slithering, hissing creature.
Once the snake is cut and killed it's ushered into the vast kitchen, where it's chopped, sliced and ground, its bones pulverized, and its skin cut into strips for a quick fry.
However, snake consumption isn't without controversy. Animal welfare groups have called out the practice as inhumane.

Sauteed snake meat and more

Lemongrass, an ingredient found in many traditional Vietnamese meals, shows up in a few of the snake dishes at Van Duc.
Lemongrass, an ingredient found in many traditional Vietnamese meals, shows up in a few of the snake dishes at Van Duc.
Stacey Lastoe/CNN
The entire snake is used to create a plethora of dishes -- a cobra at Van Duc can feed about 6-8 people for $60.
Snake spring rolls are filled with ground reptile meat and served piping hot after spending a minute in a sizzling oil-filled wok. These are tasty, fresh with herbs found in all Vietnamese cuisine.
There's also snake meat wrapped in la lot leaves, a kind of green that's neither bitter nor bland.
Long says one of the most popular dishes is sauteed snake meat -- perhaps because its texture is the closest thing to poultry or pork -- though he maintains that snake can't really be likened to either.
It can also be poisonous. Long admits guests sometimes express apprehension about this.
"We tell them truthfully that, from the beginning until now, there have been no cases of allergic reactions or poisonings after eating snakes," he says.
Long then smiles, gestures around the leafy green outdoor terrace where the boisterous backpackers are coaxing their buddy to eat the raw heart, and says guests trust the restaurant.
"The snake meat is very special," he says.
To get there, rent a motorbike yourself or take a taxi to Nguyen Van Duc, about a 15-20 minute ride from the center of town.
Nguyen Van Duc, 16 Viet Hung, Long Bien, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84 24 3652 0788