On Thursday morning, Eric and I woke early and joined an overnight tour to Halong Bay. Halong Bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin and was about a 3 hour drive to the east of Hanoi. When we arrived, we boarded a ship that would be our home for the next two days.
The boat was great (I will admit to be a little nervous ahead of time since the whole trip only cost $35). It had three stories and Eric and I shared a room with hard, but pretty comfortable beds and our own bathroom. There was a large area on the top of the boat with sun chairs and a covered area where we ate all of our meals. The boat had its own kitchen too and the meals were pretty good, considering we where we were.
Speaking of our location - it was beautiful. Halong Bay was about 10-15 degrees warmer than Hanoi (so it was probably mid 70s), but it was very misty and overcast. The whole bay had a very ominous look to it - it was very gray and foggy and the islands that fill the bay appeared as shadows in the distance. For some reason I thought of Pirates of the Caribbean and I was waiting for a ship of cursed pirate ghosts to come out from the horizon. I can't even imagine what it would have been like under the bright sun. Despite the weather, it was all very beautiful - there are over 3,000 islands in the Bay and they are very small and tall with sheer cliffs. I'm not sure my pictures will do them justice...
When we returned from Halong Bay on Friday night, we showered up and embarked on a very strange evening. In my parent's guide book I had read about snake restaurants that exist in a town called Le Mat, which is a few miles outside of Hanoi. Needless to say we were a bit intrigued and decided to check it out (along with a couple we had met in Halong Bay). Since we were going to eat snake, I donned by AC/DC t-shirt - it felt like it would be appropriate attire.
Getting there proved to be part of the adventure. The first few cabbies we asked had no clue what we were talking about. Finally I approached a guy and said "Le Mat? Snake? We want to eat snake." He got a little twinkle in his eye and that wicked smile that told us he knew exactly what we were talking about. We piled into his cab and he called "his friend" on the phone. Pretty soon Eric was using the skills he picked up in the negotiation class he took in Bangkok to get the price of our meal to $5 per head (down from an opening offer of $20).
Le Mat turned out to be a dirty side street about 6 miles outside of Hanoi. As we turned down it, we quickly came upon a motorcycle gang wearing jackets with cobras on the back (it was all very Cobra Kai). When they saw us in the cab, they quickly converged on us and started grabbing on to the cab and shoving business cards through Eric's open window. Our cabbie sped away as Eric rolled up his window - as they ate our dust, our cabbie said "That's marketing" and we all had a good laugh.
We arrived at the restaurant and the owner was soon showing us cages with different snakes. He took a few out and knocked them around with a stick. They were certainly snakes and they were most definitely alive. None of us were very brave, we all stayed well away from the hissing and squirming and let the owner pick out a snake that would meet our needs. They quickly decided on one and then without any warning the owner smacked its head on the ground and they started cutting it open. The drained the blood and bile into glasses and then cut out its heart and liver. The heart kept beating and continued to beat as we took it upstairs while the owner prepared our drinks.
The drinks turned out to be whiskey with bile and then another that mostly consisted of snake blood and a little whiskey. He didn't say anything about it putting hair on our chest, but we knocked it back anyways. It basically tasted like very strong whiskey and we soon had a nice little buzz going. Then over the next 45 minutes or so, the owner brought out a succession of 8 dishes all made from the snake. Definitely check out the pictures to see everything. The snake mostly tasted like slightly rubberly chicken. Most of the dishes were dipped in a mixture of salt, pepper and lime so they also had a very salty taste. It was good, not great and I'm not rushing out to have it again, but it was definitely an adventure and a lot of fun (in that taboo type of way).