Mist drifted across the dark pond. It cut between the bridges and platforms that made up the restaurant, hidden in some obscure corner of deepest, darkest Hanoi. Each platform was littered with tables and stood only a few inches above the water. The pond was speckled with lily pads, and housed a thousand midges and dragonflies. We were ushered to our table by an elderly man dressed in full military regalia, surely a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army, or perhaps even the Viet Cong. How many GIs did he take out in the war? Maybe none. Maybe a thousand. Who knows?
We sat down and were immediately presented with 4 bottles of Bia Hanoi. “Snake wine?” our unusual waiter asked. We all nodded. He returned with a bottle of clear fluid and poured it into four glasses. He then appeared with a cobra outstretched before him. He grabbed it by the head, forcing the cobra to show its fangs. He plunged them into a cork. Then, with a mighty tug backwards, ripped them from its mouth, the snake writhed around in fury. He paraded the snake around a little more. Two of our party turned very pale.
Next he held down the head of the snake while a younger man pulled its tale up high. The vet pulled out a large bowie knife from under his jacket. He plunged it into the snake’s chest. Slowly, he pulled it up. The skin and bone cracked and tore as he worked the knife up, cutting the snake open. Blood poured out into a carefully placed bowl below. A few quick, short, sharp jolts of the blade and something plopped into the bowl. He picked it up on the tip of his knife and walked over to the table. It was the still beating heart of the snake. Pulsing ever so slightly. He dropped it into shot glass and poured some of the snake wine over it. We all looked at each other. Nobody seemed keen. I took the glass, raised it to the rest of the table before tipping it back down my neck. It tasted like vodka, and was permeated with the taste of blood. As I swallowed I could feel the heart slowly working its way down my throat. The beating seemed to have stopped.
The vet wasn’t finished. He hurried back to the snake, cutting higher and deeper this time. More blood came gushing out and into the bowl. He stopped briefly and took a small vial. As he jimmied his knife around it started to fill up with a strange yellow fluid. He brought it over and poured it into shot glasses, along with some more of the snake wine. It was the snake’s bile. He nodded and motioned for us to drink. We all took a deep breath and knocked back the yellow drink. He returned straight after with the bowl of blood. He poured it into the same shot glasses. Again with some snake wine and four more hearts that had mysteriously appeared. He nodded once more and motioned for us to drink. We all dutifully obliged.