A man peels the skins of snakes at the Tam Nong Market in the southern province of Dong Thap. The reptiles are later dried and eaten.
In the Mekong Delta, where snakes are considered a specialty, Tam Nong Market in the center of Tram Chim Town, some 40 kilometers from province's capital Cao Lanh, is a special place for snake dish lovers.
Numerous species of snakes are sold at dozens of kiosks here, and the Tam Nong Food Market is known locally as "the snake market."
At around 5 a.m., many traders deliver sacks of snakes to the sellers and hundreds of the reptiles are poured into containers at the kiosks.
At around 6 a.m. the market starts to get bustle as hundreds of retailers from other provinces like Tien Giang and Ben Tre, and even Ho Chi Minh City and Dong Nai come to make purchases.
Tam, who owns one of the biggest kiosks, says most snakes sold at the market are native species like ri ca (puff-faced water snake), ri voi (Enhybirs bocourti), and bong sung (rainbow water snake).
They are provided by hunters who catch them around the nearby Tram Chim National Park and areas bordering with Cambodia.
She said the supply is "immense" during the "floating" season when more water from the Mekong Delta River flows into its tributaries in Vietnam the Tien and Hau rivers between the seventh month and the tenth month of the lunar calendar.
Sometimes they also buy venomous snakes like Chinese cobras as ordered by customers, but it is "very rare," she said.
The snakes fetch a wide range of prices at the market. A ri voi weighing one kilogram can be sold for up to VND1 million (US$47.39). If it weighs less than half a kilogram, it is priced between VND400,000-600,000 a kilogram.
Water snakes are sold at VND100,000-400,000 a kilogram.
Tam said she has be selling snakes at Tam Nong for more than ten years, but the market was founded such "a long time ago" that she cannot remember.
Nam Nga, another snake seller, has also been in the business for many years.
Her experience and expertise was soon evident, as she sorted out 50 kilograms of snakes delivered from a border area.
Holding the snakes with bare hands, she put them in three glass containers in accordance with their sizes: large, medium and small without using any scale and without dropping them to the floor even once.
The Tam Nong brand dried snake is a specialty product at the market.
Cuong, who runs a kiosk in the southern corner of the market, said every day he buys some 400 kilograms of snakes. But, some of them are dead or injured with "broken heads, bodies or tails", and are not wanted by any customer.
So, he, like other local sellers, makes the dried snake dish that sells very well and has become a favorite among drinkers.
From ten kilograms of fresh snakes, one kilogram of dried snakes can be made. They are peeled, dried under the sun for three days and then seasoned, said Tu Dinh, another seller.
Dried snake flesh is now priced at VND350,000-400,000 per kilogram while those made with bones are roughly VND100,000 per kilogram.
Snake skins are also sold as fertilizer or fish food, so no part of the reptile is wasted.
Asked if snakes will survive in the wild, given the current consumption, one local in Tram Chim, where various snake dishes are served during drinking parties, said: "There's nothing to be worried."
"The Mekong Delta never runs out of snakes. God grants the delta with rivers, he must give snakes to us for eating," he said.
In response to the same question, a snake hunter said: "It is agencies' responsibility to warn people against poaching, but it is hunters' own business to catch snakes to earn a living."
Meanwhile, Nguyen Van Hung, director of the Tram Chim National Park, said snakes sold at Tam Nong market, like ri voi, also come from snake farms.
"We encourage locals to farm snakes for economic purposes, and absolutely prohibit them from catching them in the wild, especially in the Tram Chim National Park," Hung said.
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