There are a lot of heavy hearts around the world these days because of the recent passing of Anthony Bourdain – the premier global ambassador of food and travel journalism whose love for Vietnam has been well chronicled over the years.
Vietnam? That’s right – Vietnam is in the handful of countries he most visited to film his travel and food shows with eight trips over the years. Only culinary and tourism powerhouses France, Italy, and Spain were slightly more popular for Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain started his “No Reservations” show in 2005 and jumped on Vietnam in just the 4th episode, then kept coming back for more. At one point he even considered taking residence in picturesque Hoi An with his family for a year to write about the country.
I started watching “No Reservations” that first year and was instantly hooked. Most travel/food shows seemed boring and superficial, without any in-depth look at food and the culture tied so closely to it.
Anybody can find a fancy restaurant in an exotic destination and put together a decent clip of a classy meal while tossing in a few shots of the prettiest attractions.
But most lovers of gastronomy and travel wanted an in-depth cultural perspective and that’s why we gravitated to his show so quickly. It was the real deal. Within weeks Bourdain’s show reached the coveted “drop everything and watch it every week” status in my home.
He would dig until he found something unique – an eatery that with its food and feel would capture the local vibe, often with a charismatic chef and owner with whom Bourdain could relate so well. Often he’d use his personal network to come up with collaborators he didn’t know beforehand and off they would go into an evening of culinary adventure.
Most importantly, he’d ask endless questions, not just talk about what he knew or had heard about second-hand. As an executive chef he knew the food game very well but some exotic ingredients and methods were new to him, so he’d pop question after question about how dishes were prepared, cooked, and presented.
Then he had a knack for capturing food, people, and culture and tying them into a neat package, far beyond food on a plate.
“I like delicious food,” he said. “But I’m just as interested in who’s cooking it and why.”
This is from his visit to Vietnam in 2008 where he nailed the essence of Madame Gao, owner of the “Com Nieu” restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, with one short sentence:
“She’s a mixture of Yenta, Jewish mother, and 6 cylinder Gambino family hoodlum.”
Yenta is a slang term used to describe a busybody or gossip, the reference to Jewish mother means intensely fussy and caring, while Gambino refers to an infamous Mafia crime family indicating Madame Gao is a skilled and polished businesswoman with a knack for convincing people.
The specialty at Com Nieu is rice baked in clay pots which are smashed apart after cooking, with the crusty brown blob of rice sent flying through the air from one server to the next, then garnished with scallions and fish sauce before serving.
When Madame Gao passed away a few years ago Bourdain made a point of visiting her burial shrine together with her son to express his gratitude and respect.
Or how about this one? Bourdain’s description of “Bun bo Hue,” the quintessential Vietnamese dish – beef noodle soup originating from the ancient capital Hue. It’s absolutely heavenly – round, slurpy rice noodles in a spicy soup with beef shank, oxtail, and congealed blood:
“The broth that the gods were suckled on.”
Fast-forward to the now-famous scene in 2016 pictured below: The restaurant “Bun Cha Huong Lien” in Hanoi’s bustling old quarter. Two guys sitting on plastic chairs enjoying a meal and a beer – both men on the tall side, so luckily the place had full-sized stools instead of the kiddie-sized version that we often find in such humble noodle joints in Vietnam.
To put this in a personal perspective, I can almost count the people that I consider as heroes in this world on one hand, so it’s the height of irony to see two of them in the same photo – in my beloved Vietnam of all places.
The impact on locals was as unforgettable as the scene itself. Bourdain later described the impact of that meal:
“Hanoians would literally point and say Mr. Bun Cha! Mr. Bun Cha! They’d sob and burst into tears, in halting English, trying to explain that they couldn’t believe the President of the United States didn’t choose to eat pho or spring rolls or go to a hot-shot upscale fusion restaurant.”
And that was textbook Bourdain, not something cooked up as a publicity stunt or photo op with President Obama, as if either one would need the exposure. Indeed, the plan for that evening was a closely-guarded secret for a year. Even the film crew learned of it just a couple of days prior.
Bourdain expressed his love for Vietnam this way: “Maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape, and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet, a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let me go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”
“From the very first minute I came to this country, I knew my life had changed. My old life was suddenly never going to be good enough. I needed a new one where I could keep coming back here.” Although he never did manage to spend that year writing a book about Vietnam he did keep coming back over and over.
On only his second trip to Vietnam: “As with a love affair, you don’t realize you’ve fallen in love until it’s too late. The three of us walked out of the airport to get in a car, and as we were heading into Hanoi we all burst into tears.”
“I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more.”