No mention of food in Vietnam is complete without a heartfelt nod to the trail blazing of Anthony Bourdain. I dedicate this post to his memory.
As “George Washington Slept Here” signs are the folksy cliche of US inn travel, “Anthony Bourdain Ate Here” designations are the foodie badge of honor in Vietnam. From a modest noodle shop in Hanoi, to a hole-in-the-wall banh mi sandwich shop in Hoi An, to a Saigon street food vendor who’s become a brand unto herself since she was “discovered” by Bourdain, his Vietnam footprint is omnipresent.
The rough and raspy globe-trotting bon vivant smoked, drank and ate his way around the world many a time. In doing so, Bourdain developed a deeply passionate affair with Vietnam. With its food. Its people. its beauty and raw vitality. Bourdain wasn’t a Vietnam veteran. But he felt like one to me. I think of him as a brother who instantly recognized the traditional, earthen soul of the land. And to the people of Vietnam, in particular in the South, Bourdain was literally the 2nd coming; GIs of the Vietnam War being the first.
Vietnam was on his lips, his tongue and in his heart, from his TV shows to his writing. Here is how Bourdain described breakfast at a Nha Trang fish market in “A Cook’s Tour”; a chapter called “Can Charlie Surf?”, a reference to the Vietnam War Air Cavalry officer played by Robert Duvall in the movie “Apocalypse Now”:
“I sit down at a table with a large group of fishwives and their kids.The cook smiles and carefully places some cooked fish, some rice noodles, a few fish cakes, chilis, sprouts, peppers, and cilantro in a bowl, then hands me some chopsticks, a dish of black pepper, a wedge of lime, some additional chilis and huac nam and chili sauce. There;’s a pot of coffee brewing over coals and she pours me a cup. As with almost everything i’ve tried in Vietnam, it’s fresh-tasting, vibrant and delicious. Women keep coming over to the table and introducing their children. What they want, I have no idea. They ask for nothing except to allow their babies and small children to touch my arm, shake my hand, wave, the kids gaping wide-eyed and confused as the women scream with laughter and obvious delight. All these women have been up since way before dawn, many of them out on the water for hours, hauling in fish, loading them into their little round basket boats, unloading on shore.Yet no one looks tired. No one looks beaten down or defeated by their work. New arrivals stand upright in their dangerously pitching basket boats, smiling broadly as they heave pound after pound of dripping fish onto the market floor. The cook asks me if I’d like more coffee and pours me another cup, making sure my can of condensed milk is not empty. Fish blood runs across the wet concrete floor; a basket of squid is dropped a few feet away, then another basket of fish.The channel is filled with incoming fishing vessels, the awkwardly bobbing thung chais. Clouds cling to the mountains surrounding Nha Trang like tufts of white hair. I love it here.”
“….I love it here.” I mouth the words with him.
Bourdain’s modest meal at Cha Huong Lien with President Barack Obama in 2016 is legendary, especially in Hanoi where this hole in the wall joint is one among thousands. They drank beer and ate Bun Cha, the pork based noodle soup which is to Hanoi, what thin-crust pizza is to Naples: ubiquitous. Truong Giang, our Hanoi guardian angel, smartly pointed us away from that place last February. Even then, most nights it was impossible to get a table at Cha Huong Lien because of its new-found fame. Good luck if you try to go there now. The table that Bourdain shared with POTUS has actually been enshrined in Plexiglas for posterity.
Instead, the BW and I ate Bun Cha with our own famous chef, Ms Mai, at an equally non-descript but extraordinarily tasty Hanoi storefront restaurant, where we savored the fatty goodness of cleanly-raised pork, perfecto-cooked noodles, fresh veggies and herbs, and the fragrantly sweet and spicy broth….oh the broth.
As he did all around the world, Bourdain put many Vietnam restaurants on the map. None more humble than Banh Mi Phuong, a vest pocket sandwich shop that has since become a tourist mecca within the tourist mecca that is the ancient port city of Hoi An. Bao Huy, our photo-foodie translator in Hoi An made sure ours was a short in and out stop for banh mi sandwiches–roast pork, what else?
Phuong is now so popular, there is simply no hanging around. Instead, with the remnants of crusty baguette still stuck in our teeth, we didi-maued to a calmer, quieter side street bistro, Mi Quang Ong Hai—AKA Mr. Hai Noodles—where we enjoyed another of Hoi An’s famous specialties: Cao Lau. There’s many ways to enjoy this dish, which has no broth but can be made with a variety of greens and meats and accompaniments. Cao Lau is all about the crispy fried noodles made from stone-ground rice and mixed with ash and water. In theory, the ash is from Cham Islands firewood, and the cooking water from specific wells in Hoi An. Cao Lau is as local as local gets.
Truly the most characteristic echo of Bourdain in Vietnam is found on a shady Saigon street corner where Nguyen Thi Thanh— “The Lunch Lady” plies her noodle soup trade. Lore has it that Bourdain’s “No Reservations” crew found her in 2009: “This is a broth the Gods were suckled on,” said Bourdain, as he slurped away at one of her particularly potent concoctions. The proprietor was savvy enough to take such a world class endorsement and run with it. Everyday she features a different soup. The Thursday that the BW and I stopped by, accompanied by our new friends “Kevin” Khang Huynh, and Khoa Nguyen of In Country Tours, a pungent brew called bun mam was on the fire. Loaded with pork and shrimp and eggplant and so much more, it was a robust and spicy cauldron brew, perfect for a hot and humid day in the South—washed down as it was with plenty of cold Tiger beer. Some say her $4 soup is overpriced for tourists, and there’s better next door and elsewhere. But nobody does a photo op like The Lunch Lady. Or has such an inviting smile and is so convivial. And of course there’s the signed souvenir cookbook. Tony would be proud.
Bourdain was a talented chef, with something to say above and beyond the food he loved to cook and eat. And he had a superior gift of communicating his mind and his heart intelligently and soulfully. His capabilities were truly a recipe for greatness in a storyteller. Bourdain was also a bad boy given to seeking limits by constantly overstepping them. And he defied the odds for quite a run—from his journeyman kitchen days to his celebrated media career. In sports, we’d say he left it all out on the field. In his case, Bourdain left it all out on the plate, so to speak.
Then, something dark caught up with him. Perhaps Bourdain learned he was ill. Perhaps we’ll never really know. What’s so is that Vietnam lost a good friend. And we all lost an adventurous and worthwhile voice of worldwide fellowship. What sad sad news we had last week.
To leave it on a brighter note, I propose a popular Vietnamese drinking toast to Anthony Bourdain: “Mot Hai Ba Yo!” (literally,”1,2,3 cheers!”). Say it, next time you lift a Tiger or a “333” or Saigon or Huda or Bia Ha Noi or LaRue or….well, you get the picture.
Samples from a Vietnam Food Map…..
In Anthony Bourdain’s first published writing, 1999 in the New Yorker magazine, he said this about pork (compared to chicken):
“Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare you’re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis. Pork tastes different, depending on what you do with it, but chicken always tastes like chicken.”
So forgive me if the sample dishes below are, ahem, a tad porky. I plan to devote another food-related post entirely to seafood in the near future.