My friend Nora and I began our trek in the middle of the afternoon. She had found the location of Bun Cha Huong Lien, the restaurant Anthony Bourdain shared a meal with President Barack Obama at during our best (yeah, I said it) President’s first visit to Vietnam. It was only 20 minutes away from our office in Hanoi – and of course, we had to see it for ourselves.
If you love food, travel, knowledge, and culture, there’s a really good chance you know and love Anthony Bourdain. His passing last year sent shockwaves of sadness across The United States and beyond, and President Obama himself eulogized him on Twitter with a picture of the $6 meal they shared at Bun Cha Huong Lien.
I didn’t know this until I touched down in Hanoi, but of all the countries he had visited, Bourdain himself also had a particular love of Vietnam. And now that I’m here, I completely understand why.
I don’t know how to describe this city other than calling it ALIVE.
Close your eyes and imagine warm wet air scented with grilled meat, fresh herbs and just a little hint of motorbike exhaust. Hear the laughter of children, the rapid exchanges of Vietnamese mixed with the friendly honking of scooters. Every block dense with restaurants preparing food two feet away from where you sit and eat it. Papaya salad, grilled sparrow, hand-wrapped spring rolls and, of course, all the pho. The traffic, on the street and in the sidewalks (which are truly just parking lots for the scooters), flows like water.
You don’t overthink it, you just step in and move with the current.
When Nora suggested the restaurant, I knew I needed to fully physically and mentally prepare my body to exist in the same place Obama had been. I pulled up the Parts Unknown episode as a first step. I could see Bourdain loved the city for what it was, and as a result, took Obama to the type of place you wouldn’t look twice at if you were walking down the street in Hanoi. The kind of place where, instead of a lengthy menu, they did one single dish incredibly well. There was no sense of self-importance or pretension of the kind you might expect of places Presidents go.
Everyone sat on the same low plastic stools. Sipped the same beer. Shamelessly slurped the same noodles.
And the result was the same: a meal that was wonderfully fresh, instantly delicious, and insanely affordable.
I was excited, and Nora and I laughed and chatted as we navigated people, motorbikes, cars and Google Maps to get to Bun Cha Huong Lien. As we turned onto the street Google indicated, we passed a group of Vietnamese themselves sitting on low stools, scrubbing dishes in wide, plastic bins of soapy water. They saw our telltale tourist moves: that thing where you check your phone, then raise your whole head and squint critically at the awnings above. One of the men scrubbing, no doubt tipped off by our melanin and searching eyes, asked with a smile, “Obama?” Was it that obvious? We laughed and nodded as he pointed to a restaurant a few doors down. I hit him with a wide grin and Black Power salute as we made our way over.
Now up until this point (a few days), I had yet to see a single other Black person in Hanoi. Here I saw three, right outside. I peered within and the tables were filled with Americans, white folks, and all manner of foreigners. Locals were the “minority.” The menu taped to the glass outside had been updated to include a picture of Bourdain and Obama and the walls inside were adorned in the same way. It dawned on me that by bringing Obama to a place that epitomized the true nature of Hanoi, Bourdain had low-key turned it into the very opposite: a tourist trap.
Nora and I took cheesy photos inside and marveled at the pictures of 44 and Bourdain inside. But we scanned the menu and since both of us didn’t eat pork, we realized we couldn’t actually going to eat there. We gave the place one final look then returned to the street in search of lunch.
Not five minutes later we walked by talkative diners sitting in familiar stools in what seemed to be an alleyway. There was no signage or menu to speak of, everyone sitting and eating was Vietnamese, and the woman in the front had to grab someone from the back when we started speaking English.
We ordered to the best of our ability, joined the locals in the narrow alleyway and put our knees to the test as we squatted on stools of our own. The owner talked to us about his job teaching in the city and his desire to visit the US. He brought us papaya salad and spring rolls that tasted even fresher than they looked, which I thought impossible. As we munched away happily we realized that Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama don’t make a Vietnamese restaurant worth visiting. They are already drool-worthy before any cameras roll up. I think we let celebrity distract from the truth of what Bourdain was trying to say: You don’t have to go specifically to Bun Cha Huong Lien to have an amazing Vietnamese dining experience.
The whole city of Hanoi has got you covered.