A Pedacito Of Bun Cha With Obama
Updated: May 19, 2021
In May of 2016, the host of CNN’s popular travel show, Parts Unknown, sat down with a special guest in a small restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, to eat a bowl of traditional Vietnamese soup called Bun Cha. The host was Anthony Bourdain, and the special guest was former President of the United States, Barack Obama.
I have always been a big fan of Bourdain and the former President, but upon my arrival to Hanoi in 2018, eating at the same restaurant where they ate was not my top priority.
The company I was working for at the time had put me up in a small hotel for the month until I was able to find an apartment. After a long flight and another two hours of traffic from the airport to my hotel, I just wanted a hot shower and something simple to eat.
The hotel where I was staying was in a small alleyway off of Le Van Hu’u. As I walked outside and surveyed my surroundings, I assumed that the larger main road would be the best place to find a good restaurant.
Apparently, I was wrong. The streets of Hanoi during rush hour are a nightmare to try and navigate. The streets are filled with scooters, motorcycles, and bikes, making it pretty close to impossible to cross the street as a pedestrian. After a full day of travel, the overwhelming amounts of people and constant honking of horns was too much for my jetlagged brain to deal with. It took me all of ten minutes on the main road before I gave up and walked back towards my hotel.
Out of sheer desperation, I decided to look for a restaurant on one of the tiny side streets, but most of them seemed closed. One of the few that was open was an unassuming restaurant serving bun cha. I was familiar with pho but had never heard of bun cha before. My growling stomach and fear of going back to the main road told me that this was the place to have my first Vietnamese meal.
As I entered the restaurant, nothing about the place seemed all that special. The few patrons inside sat in plastic chairs, drinking beers and eating big bowls of soup. When the smiling waitress brought me a menu, however, I was shocked. There, on the menu, was a picture of Barack Obama.
I began to look around the restaurant and realized that my very first meal in Vietnam would be the same place where the Parts Unknown episode had been filmed. I have no idea how Bourdaine and his crew discovered this place. It is a tiny restaurant, on a tiny street, in a very large and bustling city. In fact, had I intentionally been looking for the place, I’m not sure I would have ever found it. Fortuitously, it just happened to be located a block from my hotel and was the only place open at the time.
When the waitress came to take my order, I made things easy for myself and pointed to the “Combo Obama.” This was the exact meal that Bourdain and Obama ate and consisted of a bowl of bun cha, a fried seafood roll, and a Hanoi beer.
Five minutes later, the waitress brought my meal. Bun cha is a traditional Vietnamese dish that includes broth, pork meatballs, rice noodles, and various vegetables. In my opinion, it tastes similar to pho but has a little sweeter taste. I added copious amounts of greens and peppers to my soup, all of which were given to me on a separate plate so that I could add as much as I wanted.
I’m not just saying this because of the celebrity clientele. The bun cha was amazing! With every bite, my taste buds would experience sweet, spicy, bitter, and savory flavors all at the same time. Later, I would try other bun cha restaurants around Vietnam, but none of them compared to the quality of this first bowl.
After slurping the last bits of the soup down my throat, I paid the 85,000 VND bill (less than $4). Next, I decided to look in the small side room adjacent to the one where I had been eating. I began to laugh as I noticed that the restaurant had placed a bowl, glass, and chopsticks inside a plexiglass enclosure. It was obvious that this had been the exact table where Obama and Bourdain had sat, and the owners decided to preserve the moment in a sort of culinary shrine.
To be honest, I was a little afraid that Hanoi was going to disappoint me. My initial experience with the traffic and huge masses of people made me start to think that I had made a mistake in moving to Vietnam. However, having such a great meal in a restaurant where two of my heroes had once broken bread helped to instantly lift my spirits. The fact that it was pure dumb luck that I ate there made the experience all the more joyful.
So, if you’re ever in Hanoi, I recommend checking out Bún Chả Hương Liên. A single bowl of soup from this place was able to change my entire outlook on the country and start me on a wild and wonderful adventure.
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