Bourdain Day: remembering a true friend of Việt Nam

June 25, 2023 - 07:38
In total, Bourdain filmed eight episodes in Việt Nam across his culturally and critically acclaimed time on our screens, making it the country he covered most prolifically.

By Alex Reeves


Five years since his passing, today, his birthday, Anthony Bourdain is remembered by fans, friends, and family across the world.

“Vietnam: It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever. I’ve been coming here since 2000. The first time I’d been in this part of the world, and it’s held a special place in my heart and my imagination since. I keep coming back; I have to.” – Anthony Bourdain

Where do we even start? Would I be here writing this if it wasn’t for the subject at the heart and mind of anyone who reads or clicks this with purpose? Or would I be doing something else entirely? I’m surely not the only one who has had some change in direction that can be traced back to the man.

TRAVEL COMPANIONS: Lajaunie travelled with Bourdain as far as Myanmar in his final show Parts Unknown.Photo courtesy of Parts Unknown: CNN

I mean, look, I could write a whole piece bemoaning the passing of the modern Kerouac; someone who translated the experience of travel – and the highs and lows it brings – to the masses in a way that hasn’t been shared so authentically since.

I could spend the next 800 words or so of whatever I’m allowed today lamenting the tragedy, wallowing in the collective (as I know many still are), but today is Bourdain Day. It’s his birthday for goodness’ sake.

It’s been five years, Tony. Where have you been? Where has the time gone? I – like many here – first visited Việt Nam partially due to your work, but was driven to make it work because of the depth of your words.

While the fans who were motivated to move, write, travel, or even just imagine more from their world owe a debt to the profound nature of his work, he felt he owed a debt of his own to the country that we share; the place where (for him at least) it all changed: Việt Nam.

“From the very first minute that I came to this country, I knew my life had changed. My old life was suddenly never gonna be good enough. I needed a new one, where I could keep coming back here.” This is a feeling all too familiar to many of us who now call Việt Nam our home.

In total, Bourdain filmed eight episodes in Việt Nam across his culturally and critically acclaimed time on our screens, making it the country he covered most prolifically. And as we can see and feel from the intensity and endearment of his words, this was no coincidence.

THE EARLY DAYS: Phillipe Lajaunie appeared on Bourdain’s first series ‘A Cook’s Tour’.Photo courtesy of The Travel Channel

However, things could have been very different.

After shooting the debut episode of his first series of A Cook’s Tour in Japan, he was all but ready to throw in the towel. Unable to develop a free and natural rapport with the natives, the shoot went badly, and Tony’s awkwardness on camera in more formal scenes had the production team with one hand on the plug.

Phillipe Lajaunie, friend and former owner of the famed and now-closed New York brasserie Les Halles – where Bourdain was executive chef – was brought in for episode two. Les Halles is the site which so many will visit to pay their respects today.

A combination of Phillipe and Tony’s on-screen banter and the easygoing smiles of the Vietnamese people disarmed him, and kickstarted the 16-year television career which reached the eyes of so many, in a way that perhaps his books never could.

Monsieur Lajaunie – now a resident of Hà Nội – made the decision to move here almost immediately upon hearing the fateful news five years ago. In the most bittersweet of coincidences, he was in Hồ Chí Minh City at the time. He has since revealed this was always his intention, such was the impact that the country had had on both men.

“Việt Nam was always the place,” said Lajaunie. “Tony and I had this little dream: that when things quietened down, it would be extraordinary to move over for a few years. We experienced happiness and joyfulness here.”

In Roadrunner – the recent documentary about Bourdain’s life – Lajaunie went on to say, “We had a common desire to spend time in Việt Nam, maybe forever. That was our secret bond.”

Eric Ripert, his best friend, fellow chef, and partner-in-crime for many episodes, along with fellow culinary compadre Jose Andres, pursued the idea of marking today as one of remembrance, rather than one of sadness. This is a decision I choose to respect, despite the temptation of an annual return to what’s already been said and done.

PRESIDENTIAL: Bourdain dining with Barack Obama at the now famous Bún chả Hương Liên. Photo courtesy of Parts Unknown: CNN

Tony, Anthony, Mr Bourdain, Chef, or whatever else you wish to call him, doesn’t care any more; he’s gone. But with almost all the best material he created – both literary and visual – he leaves us with a choice: Multiple lenses through which to view the many aspects of life. His passing is no exception.

Death leaves us with many questions. The one that his fans (of which there are many) must contend with is whether to celebrate the life he lived and the influence he had through eyes open to the world around us, or to let the overpowering sadness of loss and the nature of how it occurred dominate our memory.

I choose the former. The finality of his decision leaves us with an inevitably limited span of work. As frustrating as that might be, he was prolific; his body of work is vast and will always be worthy of revisiting – more so, perhaps, than many of his literary heroes who inspired him.

In the same way that Jack Kerouac inspired thousands of road trips across the United States, Bourdain sent people across the world to places of which they would never have otherwise dreamed. He brought the perspectives of The Other to our screens and pages, and into our homes. In a world of growing nationalism, isolationism, and conflict, his work is now more important than ever.

From the man who took a US President to dinner on Vietnamese soil, and who protested for peace between the two nations during his own youth – seemingly symbolising a new, modern era of peace and cooperation – I leave you this:

“I love Việt Nam. Maybe it’s a pheromonic thing. Like when you meet the love of your life for the first time, and she just, somehow, inexplicably smells and feels right. You sense that given the opportunity, this is the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with.” VNS