As we mourn for the loss of Anthony Bourdain, we also look back on his life – the life that had inspired so many of us to go on an adventure, to look for themselves, to understand others and to contemplate on the meaning of being alive through the local tastes. Anthony Bourdain was no simple chef: he was a chef that had changed the entire world’s narrative about the cuisine of an entire country. For that, he became the ‘international tour guide’ of Vietnam, as some said.
But the journeys of Anthony Bourdain in Indochina hadn’t stopped in only Vietnam – the one place he loved so much that he wanted to spend there the rest of his time. He went further, exploring the upstream of the mighty Mekong in Laos and Cambodia in Parts Unknown and No Reservations, going deep into the daily life and the very real struggles of the people. Behind each dish, there were always a story of the land and the people he yearned to know. And Anthony Bourdain was just an excellent story-teller – a fact that was proven through each of his journeys.
Inspired by his ideas, his philosophy and each of his journey, as a tribute to Anthony Bourdain, let’s retrace his footsteps in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on an incredible journey to see what Anthony Bourdain had seen, live the moment what Anthony Bourdain had lived and go beyond.
Anthony Bourdain in Vietnam
‘Vietnam grabs you and doesn’t let go. Once you love it, you love it forever.’
The Story of Hanoi – Bun Cha with Obama
Anthony Bourdain was a famous dining companion to all kinds of people, as he wrote, people just had to be nice and love food to have him at the same table. When POTUS invited him for a quick meal in Hanoi during his Vietnam visit in 2016, Anthony Bourdain just decided to talk to the president ‘as a father of a 9-year-old girl, as a fellow Southeast Asia enthusiast, and a guy who likes a bowl of spicy, savory pork and noodles with a cold beer’. As usual, he was just doing what he usually did – like a local, introducing to the world all the good dishes from the region.
And as a local, Anthony suggested his personal most favorite dish at his personal most favorite place – Bun Cha at the small, family-run restaurant Lien Huong in the busy Hanoi Old Quarter. The place was not up to the standards of a presidential state visit but the food, nonetheless, could satisfy even the pickiest eaters, even if it was the President of United States. Anthony wrote: “He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks.”
And it is the familiar sight in Hanoi – instead of getting a Big Mac or McDonald’s hamburger, Hanoians enjoy themselves sitting on the cheap, low plastic stools, slurping noodles from a bowl. It was how Anthony Bourdain loved the place.
The capital of Vietnam has been around for thousands of years, through wars and peace, now Hanoi is just this city where you can just lose your thoughts at the sights motorbikes while sitting on the sidewalk enjoying Hanoi cuisine. He wrote poems about the motorbikes in Vietnam:
“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.”
The city offers a ridiculous amount of ridiculously good food, mostly made from rice, accompanied by all kinds of herbs and vegetables. Anthony immersed himself in the very packed, busy Old Quarter, filled with thousands of small alleys. In one of these alleys, he found another favorite dish of his – Bun Oc.
Anthony also visited Military Museum in Hanoi where he would learn more about the involvement of his own country in what’d happened in Vietnam – the land now he now he loved.
Like Anthony Bourdain once said, Hanoi has that certain smell, if the smell is good, you just know the place is an amazing place. Today, Hanoi has become the most developed city of the country yet it still has that smell of incense, of tradition and religious practice. The people of Hanoi get busy with life but never forget their families. As Vietnamese everywhere else, especially ones who are far from home, cooking and eating comfort food is one way to express their love for the homeland.
Anthony Bourdain Hue – The Citadel
Anthony Bourdain visited Hue in episode 5, Parts Unknown’s season 4 – a journey to the former imperial capital Vietnam, a part which he had never been before. His first impression about Hue was that it seemed like a city of the past – of ghosts and memories. War did rage hard in the place once had been the capital of Vietnam, Hue became one of the fiercest battlegrounds during Tet Offensive. All those horrors of the past can hardly be imagined when we see Hue today: a sleepy town lying by Perfume River and home to the richest heritage in culture, history, architecture, art and cuisine. The traditions left from the old time are still preserved and nurtured by the proud Hue people to this day.
Besides the Imperial Citadel, Anthony also visited Vinh Moc Tunnel Complex, located 100 kilometers away from Hue to understand more the life of Vietnam people during the Vietnam War. Vinh Moc was a defensive system functioning as a shelter from US bombs and living place underground for civilians where, as he wrote, ‘a whole generation of children was born in the darkness’.
Hue has one thing Anthony Bourdain loved so much – a spicy noodle soup which he felt happy every time he ate: Bun Bo Hue. He could easily have a bowl of Bun Bo Hue in Dong Ba market – the heart of Hue’s cuisine. Not only Bun Bo Hue, but Anthony Bourdain also enjoyed Com Hen (Rice with baby basket clams) which is the Hue’s very own dish.
The story of Com Hen is the story of a dish that was originally made for the working class and middle-class people, went all its way to the King’s dining table then back to the where it belonged. The dish is composed of all the most simple and easiest-to-find local ingredients: cooled cooked rice, baby basket clams’ stock, baby basket clams meat, mixed with herbs, mints, fish sauce, fried shallots, meat floss, roasted peanuts…. When eating the dish, eaters can easily find the flavors from all the familiar spices and herbs yet still feel the unique smell and taste from baby basket clams meat. This dish is the most excellent example of how creative the working class people in Vietnam were in making their everyday dishes as fancy, tasty as possible.
Anthony Bourdain in Ho Chi Minh City – There is no place like home
In 2008, Anthony Bourdain visited Ho Chi Minh City one more time, a place that hasn’t yet to become a hub for food lovers around the world. He had come to Sai Gon with a spirit of a discoverer without any idea that his visit would help to bring Vietnamese cuisine to the whole world. Anthony always gained more than just good food and the pleasure of eating it: he soaked up the culture, tried everything a local would and enjoyed engaging in conversations.
He ate Banh Xeo (Sizzling Crepe) at Dinh Cong Trang street, hooked by Madame Ngoc’s Com Nieu Sai Gon (rice in clay pot), enjoyed the chewy sea snails at Oc A Soi and praised The Lunch Lady to world’s popularity.
Indeed, Anthony was impressive with The Lunch Lady.
“This woman – Madam Thanh, goes to the market. All the vendors know her well. They save her the best cuts of meat, the noodles she wants, the best produce. All the ingredients ticked off like the periodic table, then she comes back here, to this corner, then it begins. She is known as the Lunch Lady. She is a legend.”
Even now when she’s famous worldwide thank to Anthony Bourdain, her rotating menu still remains the same. Her stall was the place that Anthony Bourdain tasted the very ‘best soup in the world’ – the spicy flavorful bun bo hue. With Madame Thanh, Anthony left a grateful memory as she remembered:
“His passing is a big loss to me. He is not only a guardian angel that helped me a lot with my business but also a friend to me. Because when he came to Vietnam, although there are times that he couldn’t visit me, he sent his greetings to me indirectly. But when he passed away, I couldn’t visit him to share the sorrow with his family. I feel sad about that.”
Not only Madame Thanh, Anthony also had a great relationship with Madame Ngoc who was the owner of Com Nieu Sai Gon as well. Just like that, to the people in this country, the impression of his was of an insider, much more like a local who gave more than he took.
In Vietnam, Anthony hadn’t only visited the cities above – he wandered the country, from north to south. He got himself to a floating market and enjoy a bowl of steamy noodle soup and a glass of Vietnamese coffee on a sampan boat. Not stopping there, Anthony went all the way to Central Highlands to get closer to the tribal ethnic groups who offered him nothing other than generosity and warmth from the heart. At Ha long Bay, he didn’t only enjoy a luxury cruise all for himself but also had a meal with the people of Cua Van floating village. He participated in all parts of the place he traveled to, leaving out nothing. The fact that Anthony Bourdain kept coming back to Vietnam and even thought of spending his life in the country proved how much he loved the life, the culture and the food here.
“I’ve been all over Vietnam, a place I feel a special connection to,” he says, calling it “my first love; a place I remain besotted with, fascinated by.” [Eater]
Anthony Bourdain in Northern Laos
“More than a few people came here for vacation and never went home.”
Like everywhere he went to, Anthony always tried to get the place – what happened there, how the people doing, lastly what were the stories behind the food. Anthony Bourdain acknowledged the beauties of the northern part of Laos, even though the country still felt the damage of wars and internal conflicts deep in its wounds. He’d spent most of his time in Laos digging the culture, history and food scene in major destinations such as Vientiane, Phonsavan and especially Luang Prabang. He moved place to place, met tons of people, sat with them on their meals and listened to their stories. Just usual Anthony Bourdain things to do.
“When we enjoy food, in Laos we say ‘Sep Lai’”
In Luang Prabang, he found himself in Phosy Market on a hunt for the best local food the place could offer. Like an animal instinct, when it comes to food, he knew and how he could get the place he needed to be. On Phothisalath Road, Anthony got to Phosy Market comfortably like a local knowing that he was going to have delicious exotic food to gulp down.
Phosy Market, the largest market bustled with all the noises and colors, filled with creatures, vegetables, people from the land of Laos. One thing was promised: the experience would be raw, real and very local. You would see things that would fascinate you, smell odors that would disturb your senses and taste food so delicious you would have to come back for more.
Khao Soi and Khao Piak Sen were the dishes Anthony tried at Phosy Market, of which Khao Soi was something right up his alley – Laos rice noodle soup. On a chilly morning in Luang Prabang, nothing would beat a steaming red bowl of Khao Soi filled with mince fatty pork, tomatoes, chili and soybean paste. Anthony once said that he felt happiness every time he was eating a bowl of spicy noodles. Khao Soi was no exception.
Mekong River and Boun Ok Phansa Festival
Since you are in Luang Prabang, it’s hard to miss its popular sites. Kuang Si waterfall is just unrivaled with its surreal beauty. The glimmering wats and pagodas attract visitors like no other places. Roads filled with roaming Buddhist monks giving alms every morning are one of the must-see things in Luang Prabang.
Anthony chose to wander along the Mekong River – a river which has become the lifeline of every country it passes through. Exploring the riversides of Mekong is the best way to immerse yourself in Laotian culture and way of life. Not forgetting his mission of discovering the tastes of Laos, he landed himself at Mekong Khem Khong Restaurant and enjoyed Beerlao and the stunning views along the Mekong.
It was such a lucky charm for Anthony Bourdain to come to Luang Prabang at the right time for Boun Ok Phansa – a lively and scared festival that celebrates the end of the monks’ three-month fast, often falls in middle or late October every year. The highlighted activity is the fireboat procession on the Mekong river. It is a magical scene to witness: the whole mighty river seems to light up when people send out the small boat decorated with flowers, lit candles and incense. Candles are lit and lanterns are hung around the temples. Both the sky and the river become aglow.
Ban Xang Hai – The Whiskey Village
In No Reservations, along the way from Luang Prabang, Anthony stopped at Ban Xang Hai for the ‘best Lao-Lao in the world’. Ban Xang Hai is also known as ‘the Whiskey Village’, famous for making Laotian rice whiskey, Lao-Lao, a staple drink in the country.
The name of the drink is now a repetition of the same word. First ‘Lao’ means ‘alcohol’ and the second simply means ‘Laotian’ – a Laotian alcohol.
Here in Ban Xang Hai, Anthony Bourdain met with a Lao-Lao maker, got to learn how the process of making the drink and of course, most importantly, tasting.
Lao-Lao is made by fermenting rice and distilling by boiling. First, the sticky rice is soaked overnight then steamed until cooked. The rice is combined with rice powder, yeast, water then left to ferment up to 20 days or even more. For distillation, a mo tom lao is used, the temperature during this entire process must be kept the same.
Anthony Bourdain was treated with a meal accompanied by this specialty and he enjoyed it like he enjoyed any other part of Laos.
Anthony Bourdain in Cambodia
“I’m overjoyed to say that Cambodia has changed a lot.”
Anthony visited first in 2001 when he was captured by the country for his show A Cook’s Tour, he mentioned that he had a difficult time handling the country and its dark story. Anthony revisited Cambodia in 2010 for the making of No Reservations. This time he listened to the recovery stories of the Cambodians he met during the trip, dived deep into the local food scene in Phnom Penh, and contemplated the ancient beauties of world’s wonder Angkor Wat.
Phnom Penh – ‘Happy Pizza’
In Phnom Penh, the improvement in quality of life from the horrors of Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields was most visible: the roadside restaurants were bustling with people enjoying morning dishes, the vendors filling the bowls with more meat and children being more lively, and healthy. While noodle soup was a must-try thing for Anthony, the chicken satay sold at the Phnom Penh riverfront was one of his favorites.
Indeed, the Sisowath Quay is the heart of tourist scene in Phnom Penh with a weekend night market offering street food like no other places. A string of Western bars and restaurants close to Royal Palace and National Museum adds more liveliness to city’s nightlife. This is the best place to take a stroll around and discover what the local food stalls can offer. Anthony found to his liking the cheapest choices: corn on the cob, barbecue skewers and maybe grilled fishes.
The night market is open on the weekends is the place to buy some clothing, souvenirs and even more food. Sights of families and friends gathering on big mats and sharing food with each other are so familiar in Phnom Penh.
Anthony Bourdain ventured even further to take up the challenge of trying ‘happy pizza’. We knew that being Anthony Bourdain, he would try the dish without any hesitation. Even before his visit in 2011, eating ‘happy pizza’ was considered an America expat tradition of eating ‘happy pizza’.
“What makes this pizza happy so happy?” he quipped. “Let’s just say there’s a powerful herbal component to this pizza…It’s the pizza that makes you insane in the membrane.”
In case you’re wondering yourself, then yes, this is a thing in Cambodia, famous even. Tourist can easily find quite a number of restaurants offering this kind of pizza. And in reality, the effect of marijuana infused inside the pizza was different to each person – some felt it and got a great time getting high, and many didn’t.
All in all, ‘happy pizza’ was one of a rare food adventure of Anthony Bourdain that leaned more to the forbidden side, proving one more time his belief – ‘food is an adventure’.
Angkor Wat – Land of Ancient Ruins
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”
From Phnom Penh, it takes 6 hours to get to Siem Reap, and from Siem Reap, only a few kilometers from Angkor Wat. The ancient ruins of Cambodia seem to be from another world, or, something that just defies the existence of time. This was the very place that had made Anthony stopped taking pictures for pictures couldn’t, in any way, capture Angkor Wat’s beauty.
One would hope to understand only when standing in front of the solemn picture of the most impressive religious construction on earth. Originally a Hindu temple of Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat transformed into a Buddhist Sanctuary in the 12th century. Nowadays, Angkor Wat has become the symbol of Cambodia, appearing proudly on the national flag. Stretching on a total area of 162.6 hectares, the complex is an immense wonder to explore.
Angkor Wat preserves immeasurable values of Cambodian culture, religion and architecture. A place to appreciate and contemplate the heritage of a whole country.
In Cambodia, Anthony also visited less touristy destinations like Kep, Kampot and Tonle Sap Lake. He stopped in Kep for few minutes to enjoy delicious fresh crabs. While in Tonle Sap Lake, Anthony found his way to the floating fishing village where he had a meal with a local family. His journey in Cambodia has inspired travelers from all over the world to come and discover the parts unknown of this beautiful country.
Our Tribute to Chef, Author, World-Explorer Anthony Bourdain
It goes without saying that we know about Anthony Bourdain, almost everyone in Vietnam knows him, a foreigner who traveled around and tried the food that we ate every single day, in a way like everyone did. He inspired us to travel with passion not just for the thrill, the exhilaration of eating good food but also for the conversations and the stories shared by the local people.
Our tribute is not only meant to say thanks to Anthony Bourdain, but it’s also a revisit to the trails, the Mekong River, the foods of his journeys in Indochina, all putting together into a 17-day package of the Anthony Bourdain Experience. An Indochina trip made for everyone who loves our hero, for travelers who expect sublime food experience and cultural immersion at the same time.
Our trip “Vietnam – Laos – Cambodia Retracing Anthony Bourdain Footsteps 17 Days” follows Chef Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, a special part of which brings us to different parts of Mekong River and the areas nurtured by it. The trip centers around the very destinations Anthony Bourdain had visited: In Vietnam, it’s Hue, Hanoi, Mekong Delta, Halong Bay; in Laos – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Xiang Khoang; in Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Tonle Sap Lake, Angkor Wat. It’s truly a trip that would change your life.
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