Snakes alive!

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Last Sunday, in Hanoi's Old quarter, a young, blue-eyed Australian backpacker sat cradling his head in his hands and complaining of a hangover.

He said he'd had a wild night and produced a small digital camera from his pocket to prove it. He cycled through images of a small bamboo thatched restaurant suspended over water and then, he began to play a video.

The clip showed him crouched before a Vietnamese man who had pinned a roughly two-foot snake, upside down, on the floor. A crowd of Western tourists stood around cheering and yelling.

Next, he knelt down and dove his mouth into a slit in the creature's belly.

"I ate the still-beating heart right out of the snake," he said, with some pride. "I could feel it beating as it went down my esophagus. It was pretty cool."

The previous night, the young man and a group of his friends had paid the staff at the Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel on Ngo Huyen Lane US$15 each to participate in a packaged tour called "Snake Village Feast."

T-shirts emblazoned with a cartoon cobra and the words: SNAKE VILLAGE"”EAT YOUR HEART OUT are sold on a rack near the front desk. Every night, a sign up sheet is posted on the wall of the lobby.

According to Rick, one of several hostel employees who take backpackers on the tour, when six people sign up, they go.

"We usually have enough," he said. "It's a great cultural-alcoholic ritual - you should try it."

According to the posted description of the tour, participants are invited to hold live venomous snakes and pose for photos.

Non-venomous snakes are also on offer for staged photos.

Tourists are invited to eat the heart and gall bladder of the still-living creature. Blood is poured into shots of rice wine. More rice wine is served and the snake is cooked up and eaten.

When asked about the origin and nature of the snakes served, a manager named Rian McGill provided the number to a restaurant in Le Mat Village.

"It's not really our tour," he said.

Irresponsible if not illegal

Three conservationists working in Hanoi expressed exasperation with the latest development in culinary adventurism.

"Basically, we've come full circle," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature Vietnam the longest-operating conservation non-profit in the country. "Now we have Westerners coming into Vietnam interested in eating wildlife for the same reasons we've tried to dispel locally."

Hendrie said that most snakes of the cobra species served at Hanoi restaurants are fairly common and are most frequently consumed by locals.

"Foreign tourists probably represent a small fraction of the consumption," he said.

Vietnamese law requires all wildlife served at restaurants to have a certificate of origin though, Hendrie says those certificates are often recycled and abused.

Scott Roberton, Vietnam's Country Representative for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said he was equally exasperated by the growing interest in eating snakes.

"It's irresponsible at the very least," said Roberton. "There's no way of verifying whether it's illegal or not.

In Vietnam, common species can be caught in the wild, with requisite permits. Some "protected" wildlife can be farmed, so long as the restaurants serving them provide certificates of origin.

But a 2008 Wildlife Conservation Society survey of 78 wildlife farms in Vietnam found that "42 percent of farms surveyed (with existing breeding populations and reliable information) were regularly bringing in animals from the wild."

Restaurant owners consistently abuse government permits by re-using them over and over again creating a kind of catch-22 for enforcement officers.

"The hostel has a responsibility to make sure they're not promoting a tour for its customers that is in violation of Vietnamese laws or that threatens wild populations of Vietnamese wildlife," Roberton said.

Snake village

For generations, the residents of Le Mat Village in Hanoi's Gia Lam District have been known as expert snake catchers and handlers in the same ways that other outlying villages have been prized for their calligraphers, barbers and potters.

The village has held its reputation since at least the end of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1945.

Meanwhile, snakes and snake-steeped wine are rumored to hold invigorating properties, particularly for men, and are consumed throughout the country.

Roughly ten years ago, curious Westerners got into the act.

In 2002, a blogger named Katinka Kim Nielson posted an item about chartering a xe om (motorbike taxi) out to Le Mat for a snake meal. Even then, she noted, most of the waiters did not speak English, but did have bilingual menus.

"Don't worry so much about which is the best restaurant," she wrote. "They are all more or less the same."

Trong Khach (literally: important customer) Restaurant has been operating for ten years in Le Mat, according to Huong, a restaurant employee who described himself as the descendent of three or four generations of snake slaughterers.

He claimed to have been bitten, by venomous and non-venomous snakes, more times than he could count.

Lately, Huong said, most of his business was being done with foreign customers.

"We serve about seven tables a day, with 10-20 people per table," he said. "We serve about five tables of foreigners a day and more are coming every day."

Many more foreigners opt to eat snake hearts than Vietnamese, he said.

Huong named three species of snake served at his restaurant though there were others.

"We serve the customers what they want," he said.

One of the species, Ho Ngua (rat snake) was prohibited from "exploitation" by a 2000 government decree protecting animals that consume rats.

(The decree was never really enforced.)

Huong was unclear about the origin of the restaurant's snakes. At first he insisted he caught them all in the wild. Later, he said they were purchased by people who had caught them in the wild.

"This is a completely legitimate business regulated by the government," he said. "We have valid papers."

In a follow-up call, Nguyen Anh Quynh, 36, son of the restaurant's owner, said most of their snakes were purchased from farms. Sometimes, he added, locals catch them from the wild and sell them to the restaurant.

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