Despite being celebrated for its inconspicuousness, I was expecting more of a fuss at the bun cha shop where Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama famously dined together in Hanoi.
In the eighth season premiere of Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown, Bun Cha Huan Huong Lien is painted as a modest hole-in-the-wall at the outskirts of the city, though I didn’t know that when I began walking in that direction from the Old Quarter. My main objective for this journey was to see a new part of town, one that hopefully included sidewalks that allowed an inch or two for pedestrians, and didn’t exist solely for the parking and maintenance of motor scooters.
In reality, the “outskirts” of Hanoi was just a 15 minute walk from the city center, and a pleasant one at that, with wide boulevards and, blessedly, enough space to stand on the sidewalks. I arrived at Bun Cha Huan Huong Lien without fearing for my life once, and when I walked inside, the place was alive with activity. Not tourist activity specifically, but beneath the harsh glow of fluorescent lights buzzed a full dining room of Vietnamese diners, with sloshing bowls of bun cha being carried out by the armload before it was washed down with cold bottles of Saigon beer.
I hadn’t researched the restaurant too deeply before I came, though I did remember seeing something about Bourdain and Obama’s table being covered in glass. I originally interpreted this to mean that the table had a protective glass sheet covering its surface, perhaps to preserve some photos of the two of them. You know, like a collage?
I was wrong, as usual. It turns out the restaurant’s proprietors actually enshrined the entire set up—table, chairs, dishes, drained beer bottles and all—in a large glass box, just as a curator might preserve an ancient set of Egyptian earthenware at the Met. Ew, but also, when a couple of the West’s most beloved luminaries eat at your restaurant, what are you going to do? Just throw those scraps away? (Maybe, but you’re not Bun Cha Huan Huong Lien, alright?)
I saw no evidence of any glass—table covering nor box—on the bottom floor, and anyway, it was full. I walked up a flight of stairs to the second floor, and found another dining area appointed identically to the one downstairs. This room, however, was completely empty, save for the detritus of meals past littered all over the metal tables and gleaming linoleum floors, like the aftermath of a violent food storm that left no survivors.
But there it was: Hung over table 23, a large blown up photo of Bourdain and Obama. Seeing them preside over the wreckage felt like a metaphor, though the ragged mounds of half-eaten soybeans and picked-over herbs would soon be whisked away by restaurant staff, allowing a new hoard of diners to come in and start from scratch. The world that both men departed—Bourdain, physically and permanently; Obama, spiritually—would not be recovered quite so easily.
Obama was in Vietnam in May of 2016, fulfilling a long-held promise to visit the country before his term expired just a few short, fateful months later. Despite the brevity of the trip, he still found time to meet Bourdain for his wildly popular CNN show. Since every table was available when I arrived, I chose the one adjacent to where the photo hung, both for ease of gawking at it and because, frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to sit in the spot they sat without bursting into tears.
I stared at the photo for a long time, sipping my Bia Hanoi slowly. Obama is the one talking, gesturing with his beer. Though you can see Bourdain only in profile, he appears to be listening intently, the way he did with just about everyone, fishmonger or FARC rebel or president alike.
I thought about what the world looked like when that episode of Parts Unknown aired in September; about how pitched and nasty the election battle had at that point become. It was a critical moment, that September. It was the month of The Emails, yes, but it was also the month that Clinton handily destroyed Trump in the first presidential debate. To many of us in blue states (myself included), the Trump sideshow was transitioning from a credible threat to a very unfunny joke, soon to reach its grotesque punchline. The end, it seemed then, was in sight. Back then, it was still possible that all of this could still just go away.
Two years have passed since the two slurped noodles on the second floor of that bun cha shop. Their encounter was only a small piece of a larger episode about Hanoi, but their chat was forthright and sincere. Bourdain expressed concern about a mounting desire to build a wall around the country. Maybe, he suggested, we’d would be better off if more people had passports. Obama agreed.
“It confirms a basic truth about our society, that people everywhere are pretty much the same,” he’d said.
Eventually, more people found their way upstairs, and I was no longer alone with Bourdain and Obama and my thoughts. A foursome of tourists with indiscernible European accents snagged The Table, and asked me to take a photo. They smiled broadly, which for some reason struck me as crude, the way it feels crude to grin in front of a grave.
That photo, to me, represented a bygone era; an era before the ugliest, most execrable parts of America had been laid bare. A time when intelligent, thoughtful discourse still reigned. A time when it seemed like the mess could still be cleaned up, washed away and made clean, when we could still start over. Two years later, that seems impossible. What’s there to smile about in that?