On June 8th 2018, the death of Anthony Bourdain marked a huge loss as of the world’s greatest culinary ambassadors, and today would have been his 62nd birthday. As the hours and days following his passing have melted away, a staggering outpouring of grief, sadness and an overwhelming level of respect was flowing freely from such a wide variety of individuals and institutions. His loss will be felt keenly by those within the culinary scene, but far, far beyond that – Bourdain’s appeal was always on the human level, nigh on universal. His distinct sense of irreverent humour, his vital command of the English language and his humanity opened the eyes of millions to broader, bolder horizons. Whether through his writing or his shows, he made food fucking cool and never failed to fuse his own defiant rebelliousness with an undying curiosity for the lives of people everywhere.
Spending over 250 days on the road out of the year was doubtless draining, but the unbridled happiness that Vietnam seemed to bring him reinforced the point he was making with his work. He wanted people to not just get out of their comfort zones, but to get the fuck out of their own countries and devour the world. “I urge you to travel—as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them—wherever you go.” He never shied away from the extremes of the world and his time in Vietnam was no different. He looked sanitation in the eye, lit up a smoke and laughed, we were just lucky enough to be along for the ride through his words. For many Americans, Vietnam was just another place their countrymen had invaded some time ago, but Bourdain pushed far beyond and succeeded in capturing the rich tapestry of culture here.
While superficially, he sought to entertain and was wildly successful at that, it’s clear to anyone with eyes in their head that, at the heart of everything he did, he was trying to humanise the unknown, to give a face, a story and a life to places that usually only conjure up one or two things for people back home. People like Linh, his governmental fixer in Vietnam, whose warm-hearted generosity enabled Bourdain to go beyond the tourist tracks and off the rails into the wide-ranging realities of Vietnamese life. Nguyen Thi Thanh, better known as Saigon’s now famous Lunch Lady, is another larger-than-life character who Bourdain catapulted to international renown. “She’s something of a maverick, she does a different soup every day.” It’s impossible not to envy Bourdain as he wolfs down the Lunch Lady’s Bun Bo Hue. “Like all truly great soups, it soon becomes the centre of the universe, you pass through an event horizon of pleasure with moments ticked off in mouthfuls – everything else ceases to exist.”
Hoi An’s Madam Phuong enjoys a steady stream of customers courtesy of Bourdain’s eloquent summation of her banh mi in his show No Reservations. The more obvious mark that Bourdain’s antics left on Vietnam is partly in a glass shrine at Bun Cha Huong Lien Restaurant, also known as Bun Cha Obama, so named after the New York chef took the 44th President of the United States of America for a bowl of Hanoi’s flagship street food dish. Even when sat down with arguably one of the most powerful men on the planet, Bourdain’s quest to humanise those who lie beyond the boundaries of the average CNN viewer extended not just to Obama, but to those serving him food on the streets of Hanoi.
Upon learning of the death of his friend and famed Vietnamese restaurateur, Mom Gao, Bourdain demonstrated the depths of his feelings and presented us with a rare moment of sombre compassion. Following in Vietnamese tradition, Bourdain accompanied Mom Gao’s son to a local pagoda to pay a spiritual tribute to his friend in a way that brought understanding on an emotional level to Vietnamese ancestral customs.
He presented Vietnamese people, not as “the other” or as living spectacles, but as the smiling inhabitants of the great, messy, ensnaring beautiful land that it is. You too can experience their delicacies, their generosity and their warmth, if you open yourself up to it. His love for Vietnam was unabashed, genuine and heartfelt. “One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam, to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography. Thousands upon thousands of people — families, friends, lovers — each an individual story glimpsed for a second or two in passing, sliding alongside, pouring like a torrent through the city. A flowing, gorgeous thing.”
One of the saddest parts of Bourdain’s demise is the places he left untouched and although they were few, he was only 61 years old and held within him the capacity for opening peoples’ eyes and minds to the myriad possibilities that lie beyond. In 2018, we needed that more than ever. Exploring Vietnam and intimately engrossing himself in the local culture, Bourdain strived to travel down the road not taken and in doing so he brought Vietnamese cuisine to the attention of the world, highlighting the indelible mark that each street vendor leaves on their meals. “I keep coming back, I have to.”
His work here stirred an international compassion for the Vietnamese, for how they work, cook, eat and live. Despite his privileged New York lifestyle, he was never afraid to dive right into the swirling chaos of Vietnam, whether treating Obama to bun cha in the Old Quarter or swerving around the mountainous roads of the northern regions or sauntering through Saigon in search of street food legends, he took it all in his stride and his enthusiasm for the madness here was infectious. “I’m back, back in Vietnam, shit-eating grin for the duration: A giddy, silly, foolish man beyond caring.”
“You smell that? Motorbike exhaust, fish sauce, incense… the far away smell of – is that pork? Vietnam, it could be no place else.”
Throughout his visits to Vietnam here, he never romanticised the realities of life here, he was – as ever – frank and forthcoming with his passion for delving into the complexities of the history and ultimately, the lives of people here. “Listen to me. There is no other way to see Hanoi than by motorbike or scooter, to see it any other way would be to miss it.” He never shied away from the parts of Vietnam that are less likely to make it into travel brochures and I think that’s why his influence here was so profound.
He opened Vietnam up as a destination to people who, otherwise, may have simply lumped it in with South-East Asian backpacker gap-year yuppies and a shock defeat for the American military. He was an inadvertent cultural ambassador for Vietnam, a tear-away gastro-diplomat roaming the nation with an insatiable hunger for not just the food, but for everything. It’s hard to watch his videos and not get caught up in the rip-tide of his genuine giddy excitement. There may be no statistics that can directly link Bourdain to Vietnam’s tourism guide, but for me personally, he stirred up an undeniable desire to hunch over a plastic stool, in some forgotten corner of Hanoi and marvel at the sheer miracle of being a part of the mystery that is Vietnam.
“Once you love Vietnam, you love it forever.”