Published on Monday, 11 June 2018 16:00
Written by Dan Q. Dao.
I landed Friday night in Saigon just in time for the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing lighting up my phone in a jumble of tweets, texts and news alerts. As details emerged about the chef-turned-travel show host’s apparent suicide at 61, an outpouring of grief and shock flooded the internet. I’m sure many of us will remember exactly where we were at the moment we learned of his death.
Over the weekend, I wasn’t surprised to see my media colleagues penning their finest words for the beloved food-world rockstar, who was considered a friend to many. “Everyone has a Bourdain story,” wrote Cassandra Leandry of Chefsfeed, nodding to the touching personal anecdotes and memories surfacing in editorial tributes from the likes of the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner, Food & Wine’s Kat Kinsman and Saigoneer’s own Mike Tatarski. Rosner recalls: “Bourdain felt like your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad—your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there.”
As I joined a group of locals raising a glass to Bourdain at a bar in District 1, I recognized how far he had reached beyond the often elite, inaccessible circles of food magazines and fine dining to speak to the ordinary diner and everyday cook. His particularly strong affinity for Vietnam, which he once called his “first love,” was well known to the people who live here, as well those born Vietnamese elsewhere — those of us who remember bringing “stinky” lunches to school and never seeing a face like ours on TV. For us, Bourdain’s passion for Vietnam and his desire to share that with the world made it easier for us to be Vietnamese.
As a Vietnamese American, this moment always stuck out to me. Growing up and bringing Viet food to school for lunch, I was always bullied. But whenever Viet cuisine was featured on an Anthony Bourdain episode, it made me so so proud to be who I was. https://t.co/pBOqjZ4TQS
— Vivian Nguyen (@VivianNguyenPR) June 8, 2018
Growing up, I often struggled to explain what it meant to be Vietnamese-American to my friends — many of them knew nothing about Vietnam other than what we learned in history class during a chapter on the Vietnam War. So when Bourdain’s No Reservations aired on the Travel Channel in 2005 with three episodes in Vietnam, he inspired new conversations about the country, which he once called his first love.
“It’s mysterious, it’s beautiful, it’s unknowable. It’s one of my favorite places on earth,” he said of Vietnam in an early episode. “It’s a crossroads where nearly every aspect of the culture—religion, government, and cuisine—has at some point in history been influenced by a foreign power. Yet it remains something uniquely more than a sum of its parts: a place of few culinary inhibitions and endless hospitality, with a stronger inner identity. There’s no other place like it.”
Bourdain would return many times, eventually to film episodes of his second series, Parts Unknown, which he hosted on CNN from 2013. The most famous of these visits involved Bourdain sharing what would become a legendary bowl of bún chả with none other than then President Barack Obama in 2016. And the more Bourdain featured Vietnam, the more his fans traveled and grew to share his excitement. No longer were people scrunching their faces when we talked about cooking with fish sauce — in fact, I think I have Bourdain to thank, in part, for all the assignments I get on the Vietnamese food beat these days.
But beyond making people want to buy a plane ticket to try a magical bowl of bún bò Huế, Bourdain’s earnest, expressive enthusiasm for the little details of a place inspired us to seek out deeper, more nuanced experiences of other cultures, and in some cases, reconnect with our own. His colorful musings on Vietnamese soup (“any country that can produce this is a superpower, as far as I’m concerned”), smells (“motorbike exhaust, fish sauce, incense, the faraway smell of something—is that pork grilling over charcoal?”), and even scooter traffic (a “mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography”) made me appreciate the essence of Vietnam in an entirely new light.
That table where @obamahitsback and Bourdain ate bun cha in #Hanoi was encased like a museum piece at the restaurant. @bourdain did much for overlooked causes and cuisines, including that of Vietnam. RIP anh Tony. https://t.co/e3flhwAzOR
— Andrea Nguyen (@aqnguyen) June 8, 2018
I can’t and won’t speak for all Vietnamese-Americans, but as far as I can tell, Bourdain was a much-loved figure in our community — someone who could simultaneously reignite the older generation’s passion for a country they left behind and speak to the younger first generation who never felt like they belonged.
When the Vietnam episodes of Parts Unknown aired, we excitedly shared and passed around clips from the show. Even my older relatives, aunts and uncles, for whom the memories of Vietnam are much more painful and complex, embraced the growing excitement around the home they fled. When I got my first gig in food writing, they’d congratulate me by saying: “I hope you become the next Anthony Bourdain!” And after the news broke of his death, I saw countless Instagram posts and Facebook statuses from Vietnamese-American friends and family, describing how Bourdain had helped them find pride in their cuisine and culture.
Bourdain was aware of this effect he had on people, specifically those who’d never had their time in the media spotlight, telling Roads & Kingdoms in a 2017 interview about the way Hanoians responded to his dinner with Obama:
“They would literally point and say, ‘Mr. Bún Chả! Mr. Bún Chả!’ and would sob, would burst into tears, in halting English, trying to explain how they couldn’t believe that the president of the United States didn’t choose to eat pho or spring rolls or go to a hot-shot upscale fusion restaurant,” he said. “That the president of the United States went to this particular restaurant in the Old Quarter and ate bún chả, their thing, their local food, which they really see as theirs and nobody else’s, drank a Hanoi beer out of the bottle—they were so proud and so stunned that he would do this.”
I remember watching this episode of @BarackObama & Bourdain eating noodles in Vietnam w/ my young sons who are half-Vietnamese & who hadn’t yet been to Vietnam. They were so excited to see their worlds come together. Reeling from Bourdain’s death but grateful for all he showed us https://t.co/U6aQBB66CJ
— Vanita Gupta (@vanitaguptaCR) June 9, 2018
Many visible minority groups found an ally in Bourdain: prominent African-American food writer Michael Twitty tweeted that Bourdain “called Africa the cradle of civilization, took his cameras to Haiti, honored the hood with Snoop, broke bread with Obama like a human being.” Gustavo Arellano of the Los Angeles Times called Bourdain “the eternal compadre of overlooked Latinos.” And the Houston episode of Parts Unknown again spoke to the Vietnamese diasporic community, highlighting the Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boils we grew up with in the Gulf Coast. But what consistently made Bourdain’s coverage of global, immigrant, and minority foodways special was the respect and empathy he displayed. You never saw him discovering “exotic” cuisines, but rather you’d see him having honest conversations with people about their food.
We often credit Bourdain with telling us where to travel, but he did much more than that. He left us with wisdom that changed how we travel: traveling isn’t always glamorous; some of the best friendships are born over a cheap meal on a plastic stool; the places you’ll never forget are sometimes the places you never thought to go. He inspired us to discover the world — and in doing so, embrace our place in it — with no reservations.
Dan Q. Dao is a Vietnamese-American food and travel writer based in New York City.[Top photo by David Scott Holloway via Travel + Leisure]
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