Bourdain’s Field Notes
HANOI, September 2016—We started talking internally about the possibility of shooting a scene with the president of the United States a long way out—nearly a year before it actually happened.
Some people at the White House had reached out and hinted at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we might find a time and a place where the two of us could sit down to a meal together. These discussions were, out of necessity, very closely held until the very last minute.
CNN didn’t know.
The producers, even the camera guys who were to shoot the scene, were not told until the day before.
At no point did the White House, CNN, or anyone else, offer guidance, suggestions, or ground rules for what I might talk to the president about.
There may or may not have been an offer of a ride on Air Force One at one point. I figured we’d look totally in the bag if we did that. Ride in a man’s car—or his plane—you owe him something. And it just seemed weird.
I’m not a journalist. Or a foreign policy wonk. My politics are my own.
I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians, Israeli settlers, to Ted Nugent.
You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality? I will sit down with you and break bread.
So I wasn’t going to “interview” the president. And though I may admire him, I wasn’t going to be a platform for discussion of foreign policy agenda.
Barack Obama was apparently interested in sitting down for a meal with me—and I intended to speak to him only as a father of a 9-year-old girl, as a Southeast Asia enthusiast (the president spent time in Indonesia as a young man), and a guy who likes spicy, savory pork, and noodles with a cold beer.
But where was this to happen?
When Vietnam came up, as one stop on a multi-country state visit to Asia in May, I knew where I wanted it to be.
I love Vietnam. Everybody on my crew loves Vietnam. We have a lot of experience working there, we have friends, connections, favorite dishes, favorite restaurants. We know we can reliably do our best work there.
Bún chả is a beloved local specialty of Hanoi. It’s basically bits of marinated, charcoal-grilled pork patties and pork slices in a room-temperature dipping sauce with rice noodles and herb garnishes. It’s delicious.
I thought if the president is willing to play with us, then I should show him the best time I knew how, feed him something that I would want—in the kind of setting I most enjoy.
The president, I guessed, had spent more than his share of time in the banquet rooms of major chain hotels, slogging through long state dinners, eating representative menus of “national dishes.”
Bún chả is NOT a national dish.
I got the definite impression that the Secret Service was initially less than delighted with our choice of venue. The location was… sub-optimal, as far as they were concerned. It was tight, with minimal exits, not particularly clean—and set off a narrow street. But they persevered. I’d like to thank them. They were, all of them, very nice guys with thick necks.
What can I tell you about what it’s like to sit across from the president of the United States and drink beer from the bottle?
I can tell you that Barack Obama was, in spite of having had a high-ranking leader of the Taliban whacked in Pakistan a few days previous, very relaxed and at ease. He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks.
The next day, I was suddenly recognizable to the Vietnamese who rode their scooters and motorbikes around me. They’d seen me in the newspapers and would point at me, shouting “Mister Bún chả!”
A few young Vietnamese who spoke English approached me and told me, with tears in their eyes, how shocked—and how proud—that the president of the United States had come to their town and eaten not phở, or spring rolls, which they would have expected—but bún chả.
Bún chả! It was THEIRS! Their proud local specialty! And Hanoi beer! They couldn’t get over it. And in the kind of place they always ate.
And as the show will remind you, Vietnam remains an extraordinarily beautiful place. It is enchanting. Its people, every time I have been there, have been hospitable, food-crazy, and proud. Halong Bay, where we shot much of the show, is one of the most breathtaking locations on earth.
I will sure as shit remember this trip to Vietnam. Not very long ago at all, I was a 44-year-old guy still dunking french fries with no hope of ever seeing Rome, much less Hanoi—much less sitting across from the president of the United States, talking about hot dogs.