Why you should care
Because locals say it could help you in the sack or with your aching back.
The stars are coming out over the Mekong river as I accept my neighbors’ invitation to join a round of front-stoop drinking along our shared dirt road in Luang Prabang, Laos. I plop down with a Beerlao, but my plywood-thin, shirtless mate presents something more serious: an oversize glass jug filled with clear rice whiskey and, sunk to the bottom, a gaggle of plump Chinese beetles. “This one is not good for man,” my pal informs me, making a fist to show he’s talking about sexual performance. “But it’s good for health!” With that, the rounds continue: Take a swig, pass to the left. My limited Lao and their limited English repeatedly run conversation aground, meaning that with each awkward pause — and, lo, there are many — comes the cry of “Nyok! Nyok!” (Cheers!) and the next victim takes a sip.
There have been reports of snakes emerging from the bottles after months to bite would-be drinkers.
Beetles, snakes, scorpions, geckos and all manner of creepy-crawlies can be found embedded in alcohol throughout Asia, with varying medicinal promises attached. The additives are occasionally endangered species that are often alive when dropped into rice wine or whiskey to steep for months. Scholars Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweera found in a 2010 study in the Journal of Threatened Taxa that Vietnamese snake-wine dealers preferred poisonous snakes “in the belief that the snake poison will dissolve in the liquor and add more medicinal value.” Venom isn’t the only fear: There have been reports of snakes emerging from the bottles after months to bite would-be drinkers. Yet to many committed locals and curious travelers the rewards outweigh the risks. Among the late-night-infomercial-worthy health claims surrounding snake wine are its ability to fight hair loss, back pain, hemorrhoids and even leprosy.
As far as taste, it’s not swirl-your-glass stuff, but snake wine goes down surprisingly easy — if you have a Y chromosome. On a visit to Hanoi, my wife tried to order a glass for herself and was told firmly it was not an option. Far less interesting apricot wine was forced upon her as a substitute. Apparently our Vietnamese barkeep was doing his best Food and Drug Administration imitation by limiting access to the drink’s alleged Viagra-like qualities. As for the beetles in Laos, my neighbor added an addendum to his good-health boast: No hangover, guaranteed. It was just a one-man sample size, but my throbbing head the next morning suggested this pledge was hokum. At least I wasn’t bitten.