How Anthony Bourdain Stirred Up Western Interest Vietnamese Cuisine

When asked how he selects which foods to share with viewers, Anthony Bourdain told CNN, "We'll ask locals, 'What's the food you're proudest of? The food that, if you were away from home for a few months, that you would miss most ferociously? The most typical, everyday, beloved thing that expresses your personality, your personal history, your past.'" The interview took place while he was hosting "Parts Unknown," but Bourdain certainly demonstrated this philosophy years earlier in 2002 while visiting Vietnam during his first series "A Cook's Tour." The episode "Eating on the Mekong" might have unofficially started the U.S. pho craze and put Vietnam on the map as a food tourism destination.

Bourdain spent his career testing the boundaries of what "fine dining" was or should mean. To drive this point home, he was joined in the episode by Philippe Lajaunie, owner of NYC restaurant Les Halles where Bourdain worked as executive chef when "Kitchen Confidential" was first published. In fact, Lajaunie says that when he heard the news of Bourdain's death in 2018, he was on a trip across the Ho Chi Minh Trail and decided to move to Vietnam right then and there. Over the course of his career, Bourdain influenced many foodies with this degree of magnitude, shifting the spotlight from establishments few people could afford to visit to the then-unsung delicacies that locals (aka real people) were enjoying every day. But, in 2002, he was simply eating his way through the Mekong River Delta.

Spotlighting local dishes and culture

In the episode, Anthony Bourdain visits Can Tho, calling it "the Vietnam I've seen in movies." He praises the river life and its masterfully engineered houses built along the water like Venice, Italy. More than that, the entire episode is a wide-eyed celebration of the country's traditional local foods. He sips coffee brewed on a small boat that serves local merchants. He dines with a family in their home, eating water apples and a whole duck wrapped in clay and roasted over a fire. Lajaunie is moved to rapture by the dish: "My mind is racing right now. I can't imagine how to do that in New York." He eats Birds Nest Soup, a dish enjoyed by Vietnamese royals, made from a swallow's nest, quail eggs, rock doves, wolfberry, lotus root, silver ear mushrooms, and a whole coconut.

Bourdain explores Vietnamese farm country sans cutlery and napkins, reveling in the way the meal, the community, and the heritage are inextricably interwoven. The scene is displayed with the utmost reverence, not in a "shock and awe" way. It was a showcase of the reality, good and bad, of the traditional dishes of a people and their land. Even after the bird's nest soup makes him violently ill, the chef remarks, "Never mind my moaning. I've been completely seduced by the Vietnamese cuisine and the life that surrounds it."

The beginning of an era, led by Bourdain

In 2002, Anthony Bourdain was way ahead of the curve. Today, the Vietnamese food scene has debuted on the world stage as an epicenter of international food tourism. Last September, in a Tasting Table Exclusive Survey, readers named Ho Chi Minh City as one of the top destinations they'd visit just for the food. Vietnam sings its own inventive flavor, mixed with the influence of ex-pats flocking to the country in troves. It takes a few cues from Chinese and Thai culinary stylings as well, plus some lasting influence from the French occupation. (Bourdain enjoyed what he called one of the best baguettes of his life while on the Mekong River.) In 2020, Vietnam Insider also reported that most of the travelers who opted for traditional local dishes during their trips to Vietnam were millennials and Gen Zers. (Gen Xers, consider this a formal challenge.)

For the first time ever, Vietnam has attracted the attention of the most prestigious culinary platform in the world as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City joined the Michelin Guide in June 2023. "Supported by locals where eating out has always been a true way [of] life, as well as by talented restaurateurs, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are two gourmet gems that deserve to be fully celebrated," shared Gwendal Poullennec, International Director of the Michelin Guide. Pho and banh mi are just the beginning.