Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown: Vivacious in Vietnam
Boi Tran is a painter and something of a throwback, an anomaly, a creature from another, earlier time in the life of the onetime Imperial City. She lives in an area called Thien An Hill, in a magnificently restored compound. These traditional wooden houses were once part of the regal style, with sloped grooves to handle the rainy Hue weather. But most importantly, she features a garden at the centre which follows the eastern philosophy that all things originate from a single source and expand in all directions.
She also cooks, magnificently from a repertoire of Imperial Hue-era dishes numbering over 100. Back in dynastic times, the Emperors demanded variety: in wives, of whom they would sometimes have over 100, and in food, the menus of the 19th Century Imperial Palaces boasted new dishes every night. Small, flavorful, and beautifully presented. And that culinary tradition, which gave Hue its reputation as a food capital, continues today.
The former imperial capital of Hue sits just below what was once the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam and was, near the end of the war, the site of some its fiercest fighting. You’ve seen it in newsreel footage—and recreated (in England) in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
It’s one of the few areas of Vietnam I’ve never been.
Hue is, in many ways, a city of ghosts, of memories and spirits—and we play on that in Sunday’s episode. It begins with a camera movement inside a “spirit house,” the dollhouse-size shrines that many believers keep outside their homes and businesses. The Vietnamese are largely ancestor worshippers. Helping your deceased relatives into the next life—and making sure they are happy while there—is important. On special days and holidays, families visit temples and pagodas and leave offerings—often food, sometimes replicas of money or appliances or luxuries—for the departed. Things they liked in life that might make the afterlife more comfortable. Spirit houses, as I understand them, are designed to deal with the problem of hungry, dissatisfied spirits who may not be settled, who have, for one reason or another, left behind unfinished business. The structures sit out front, or near the house or store, usually filled with incense and offerings, in the hope of distracting the spirits away from the main destination.
In the weeks following the initial North Vietnamese taking of the city, many hundreds—if not thousands—of citizens, deemed dangerous or counterrevolutionary or otherwise undesirable, were summarily executed and buried in unmarked mass graves by the communist forces. When the United States Marine Corps and the army of South Vietnam retook the city, it was only at the end of brutal house-to-house fighting and, finally, air strikes. Much of Hue had been flattened in the process. Many, many people were lost, their bodies never identified or recovered. This—the inability to find the physical remains of a relative—is a particular agony to Vietnamese.
For this reason, this episode is haunted by ghosts. We hadn’t intended it to be so. But that definitely emerged as a theme. You feel it as you drive the streets and early morning rice paddies on a scooter, walk the parapets of the ancient citadel, and look at the flag hanging in the mist across the Perfume River. At one point, a young woman I’m having dinner with casually mentions that her mother doesn’t like her to go out after dark. Too many ghosts. Under almost every square of pavement…
And we descend down into the tunnels beneath a small village where a whole generation of children were born—and raised—in total darkness.
I don’t want you to think that this episode of Parts Unknown is some kind of a bummer, a depressing discussion of a war about which there are still strong feelings and disagreements here. It’s not. One of the crazily awesome, incongruous things about Vietnam, which I’ve found from the first time I visited, is how friendly, welcoming, quick to move beyond the past the Vietnamese are. It is an incredibly beautiful country. One filled with passionate, proud cooks. And opinionated, enthusiastic eaters. You will see me with some old friends—and you will, as always in Vietnam, see me eating some amazing food.
And if you thought Phở was the best thing… ever? Wait till you see Bún Bò Huế.
How does Huế differ from the rest of Vietnam?
Wonderful architecture and very quiet people.
If you stay some time in Huế, after some days you feel quiet, you take your time.
Traditional Imperial Huế Cooking
How much of that persists? Those Imperial roots that need for variety?
Yes, the tradition has stayed, and it will stay forever here to cook all these different things all the time.
We start with Bird’s Nest Soup, a delicacy to which I am usually immune. This one is unusually flavorful. These are swallow’s nests from high up on cliffs near Nha Trang. They’re soaked in water, cooked in chicken stock, and served with crab meat. Lotus seeds, a symbol of purity, nobility and patience, from a nearby lake. Steamed. Crab roe is mixed with red onion, pepper, and seasoning and added to the soup. And simmered.
The special thing about Hue cuisine is that we use very few spices. The ingredients are so fresh and good, they require very little seasoning.
Gỏi Huế is a traditional dish that’s seldom made these days because of the complexity and the time needed to do it right. A fish stock is made from Cao Bằng, a fish from the Perfume River. Pineapples, onions, chilies, shallots, and coriander. A salad of quickly cooked prongs, rice noodles, ginger, red chili, garlic and galangal. Layer of rice noodle, banana flower, then the prawn, garnishes. The strained fish stock is brought to the table with the salad in separate bowls and combined just before eating.
Much of Vietnamese cooking abides by the principles of Yin and yang, heat and cold. This one, a lobster dish with five spices, balances the coldness of the lobster with the heat of the spices. Red onion, ginger, lemongrass and chilies are added to the boiling water to cook the lobster. Once the lobster’s cooked, it’s presented in a bowl of lime leaves. And the stock is poured over it.
Boi Tran spoils all of us with a succession of dishes.
But the past, as it often does in a place like this, intrudes.
Smiling, but of course, they remember everything.
They have to remember the war in 1968.
It’s dealt with a lot of suffering. The people here are very withdrawn in some ways. I was visiting my grandfather’s house, and I got goosebumps because I knew during the war in 1968 lots of people were killed. And they were buried on all the sidewalks there. And I’d walk around there and I feel it. It’s dark, it’s sombre, and the history is there.
Nguyen Qui Duc
Vietnamese-American Radio Broadcaster, Writer, Editor, Translator
It’s such an honour to have an actual artefact from the artist who touched me so deeply while I was there. Your grace and hospitality were so appreciated for the television scene we filmed. I know Tony and the whole were very, very moved. When we returned one of the following days, that’s when I was able to really feel the weight and the love. It started with the simple gesture of bringing out the finest iced coffee set-up, I’ve seen ever (ask Ha – I drank a lot of iced coffee in Hue). Something about the perfection and detail of it was moving (maybe it was close to the end of the trip). But then when we moved inside and spent time at your son’s shrine – it started catching up to me. When Ha suggested we light some incense for your son, I really took pause and really felt both the sadness of his early departure, but also the strength of his presence. We talked so much about wandering spirits while in Hue, your son is not one of them – he is so well looked after. He has a home and love in his afterlife, next life, and spiritual life. Your maternal strength and personal resilience filled the room. I was warmed by that feeling, but the height of the moment was later. You, Ha and I were talking – soon, Ha and I was crying talking about your loss. But your instinct, knowing something so personal was touching Ha, was to pull her into your embrace and comfort her. She needed it. And only you, maybe more than anyone in the world, could provide that solace and peace for her. Ha appreciated and I was so touched by your selflessness, grace, warmth, and infinite love as a young parent it is a model for me. Having your painting in my house, and keeping an eye on my young family and I is such a gift. Thank you. I’m so lucky to have the memories of the experience with you and a tangible artefact to keep in our home.
These field notes are excerpted from Anthony Bourdain’s Tumblr, posted on October 18, 2014. They have been edited for length and clarity.
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