Anthony Bourdain chows down in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of CNN.
"Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever." - Anthony Bourdain
Of all the individuals who have fallen under Vietnam’s spell, no one’s obsession with Vietnam outmatches that of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Through food, the Emmy award-winning host introduces obscure destinations to the masses. But over 206 episodes and two shows (Travel Channel’s No Reservations and CNN’s Parts Unknown) no country has enraptured the brazen itinerant more so than Vietnam, a country he calls “one of his favorite places on earth.”
I didn’t have to watch Bourdain's show to be convinced of the exceptionality of Vietnamese cuisine. Having lived in Vietnam for over nine months now, I’ve been tuning into the Vietnamese episodes to map out my own dietary expedition by way of Anthony Bourdain.
Early in his television career, Bourdain made his love of Vietnam known, taking viewers on an espionage-themed tour around the northern region of the country in S1.04 of No Reservations entitled “Vietnam: The Island of Mr. Sang". Channeling his inner James Bond, Bourdain discovered what the “squeasel” was (spoiler alert: it’s porcupine) and also learned the potency of the local brew, rượu đế, Vietnamese moonshine, for better or for worse.
A few seasons later, he returned to Vietnam for a homecoming of sorts, as implied by the episode’s title “Vietnam: There’s No Place Like Home.” At the end of the episode, Bourdain is seen contemplating expatriatism. When he transitioned over to CNN, he visited the imperial capital of Huế in Parts Unknown, sampling dishes like cơm hến (minced baby clams on sesame rice crackers) and the legendary Bún bò Huế, in its birthplace.
"All the modern conveniences, all the charms of the past. It fits perfectly with my over-romantic delusions and in general it does not suck."
His is not so much an obsession as it is an earnest love admiration for Vietnam and its people. In the season eight opener of Parts Unknown, Bourdain once again finds himself in Vietnam, this time in the capital of Hanoi. The day starts off with streetside bún ốc, and ends with the cheerful clinking of bia hơi. But the highlight of this episode is a guest appearance by US President Barack Obama.
President Obama and Bourdain break bread over a 70,000 VND assembly of bún chả, a Hanoian speciality made of rice vermicelli, fresh herbs and miniature pork patties. As Bourdain appraises the president’s chopstick techniques, the two bond over a shared love of the Southeast Asian region and the importance of cultural openness. Underscoring each episode is a story of tenderness and affection that is uncharacteristically Bourdain, yet understandable to those who have visited.
“All the senses are engaged here.”
Vietnam is leading the world in comprehensive eating. I first came across this word in Bourdain’s first Vietnam episode when he was traipsing around Mai Chau: “The Vietnamese believe in something called comprehensive eating, meaning eating with all five of the senses.”
It’s true. Never have I left a meal where my hair doesn’t smell like smoked meat, my lips aren’t prickling with the burn of chili sauce, and my fingers aren’t dampened by soupy residue. Vietnamese cuisine is so complete, it provides a balanced, multisensory interplay of flavours and textures and aromas. But there is also a humility to this cuisine. It’s not modest fare under any circumstance, but Vietnamese food needs no dressing up. On first glance, you know you’re eating Vietnam.
Bourdain has always celebrated cuisines with strong identities that don’t rely on pomp to create a statement, which explains his particular reverence towards Vietnamese fare. Inspired, I set out on a Bourdain-esque escapade to chart my own little miniature field studies.
It was exactly noon when we arrived at the famed Lunch Lady (23 Hoang Sa Street, Phuong Da Kao, District 1), whose stall is sequestered in an unassuming alleyway on the northern edge of District 1. The lunchtime grind was already in full force. Hoards of Vietnamese businessfolk out on their lunch break and tourists, undoubtedly guided by Bourdain’s show, were hunched over bowls of noodles, wiping away the sweat of their brow and taking swigs of trà da.
The Lunch Lady's stall sprawls out but you want the tables closest to the mobile kitchen where Ms. Nguyen Thi Thanh hurriedly orchestrates the operation. Sitting at one of these tables affords the diner a theatrical performance complete with the sounds of cleavers pounding against wooden boards and men barking out orders, fanning worn out Vietnamese dong to relieve themselves of Ho Chi Minh’s oppressive heat. The soup du jour from the famous rotating menu was none other than Bún bò Huế (40,000 VND), the same noodle dish Anthony Bourdain slurped up during his Saigon escapade.
The dark broth was was riddled with a generous amount of delectables such as fatty pig trotter, slices of beef brisket, and hefty log of cha lua, a type of Vietnamese sausage. Strong citrus notes came through from long-simmered stalks of lemongrass. It was less spicy than I imagined, but still seriously piquant for a broth. Every bite delivered the flavour Bourdain waxed poetic about.
“To Bún chả Hương Liên please,” I asked the driver. “Bún chả Obama!” he happily exclaimed. Bun Cha Obama. That’s what this small canteen-style joint located on Le Van Huu street is now popularly known as. Ever since the photo of President Obama and Anthony Bourdain perched on low slung seats was released back in late May, the unpretentious eatery has become Hanoi’s most bustling bún chả hotspot.
Under a yellow store sign, lines of people scurried into the store. The first floor was jam-packed. Every metal table was crowded with bowls of bún chả, plates piled high and saucers of nem rán. After fighting for a table, we sat down close to the wall and realized the laminated promotional flyer on the wall was advertising “Combo Obama,” a deal of a cold bottle of Bia Hà Nội, bún chả and seafood nem rán, all for the stunningly low cost of 85,000 VND. When the spread came out, we each had a personal banquet to devour.
Bún chả is unrecognisable to outsiders; it is the food of the Vietnamese middle class. However, its smell -- the smell of grilled pork patties -- hangs in the air and wafts out of canteens similar to this one. I was unaccustomed to seeing such a large bowl of bún chả’s unique broth consisting of nước chấm and sugar and laced with vinegar. To my added surprise, a smattering of maybe eight patties and grilled pork, were swimming around in the bowl. The serving of bún, rice vermicelli with a similar girth to spaghetti, was also generous. The only thing I found unimpressive was the plate of fresh herbs.
We sat in silence, lapping up the food almost ravenously. Bourdain did right by his endorsement of this street food item, as it is has easily become my favorite Vietnamese entrée and one I cannot believe has been overlooked by the masses. No matter how aggravatingly mainstream it has become, this spot is something you should not miss on a visit to Hanoi.