I spent 8 weeks eating the favorite meals of Vietnam's famous foodie, spy and writer Vu Bang, following his book Hanoi Delicacies (Mieng ngon Ha Noi).
This autumn, a global audience watched writer and chef Anthony Bourdain eat bun cha with a sitting American president. In the same episode, Bourdain happily patronized a middle-aged woman offering verbal abuse and “hot-tempered noodles.”
The episode raised eyebrows in a city both proud of its cuisine and worried about the way the world views it.
Decades-old concerns about the use of dyes, pesticides and preservatives in food vanished into anxiety about the coarsening of the culture. While many dismissed those worries as frivolous, they exposed a nostalgia for something lost.
During the abyss of Vietnam’s struggles with French colonialism, pho, bun cha and other street delicacies blossomed, providing succor to workers, intellectuals and aristocrats alike. This opening invited a generation of energized young writers to interpret the explosion of a culture thriving in chaos.
“Vu Bang was the first of his contemporaries to create an integral and comprehensive work on Hanoi’s cuisine,” claimed Ngo Van Gia, an expert on the writer’s work. “So far, no one has surpassed him.”
Pioneering literary critic Pham Xuan Nguyen describes his work as transformational: “Today we read Vu Bang to mourn a time when eating wasn’t just a way to fill one’s stomach. Eating was an art.”
Read the full series on VnExpress.