"It's the Obama after-party!" said a Ukrainian expat, dancing on his little plastic stool, so common in Vietnam, with his Vietnamese friend.
Less than 24 hours after Anthony Bourdain and the President of the United States shared a table at Bun Cha Huong Lien—a traditional Hanoi joint that, according to translations of local newspapers, has been open for two decades—the place looked like the bitter end of a rager.
All the tables on the first floor were occupied by either diners or piles of bowls and napkins. Climbing a barely marked narrow stairway in the back of the restaurant, I had that house party feeling of "Should I be walking up here? Should I be here at all?"
Dozens of empty green bottles of Saigon beer—a Heineken approximation—sat indiscriminately along the second floor landing next to several ten-gallon buckets filled to the brim, by the bussers, with leftover broth. Every couple minutes the staff would load crates of empty beer bottles or the broth buckets onto an elevator.
Everyone stepped over the mess and into dining rooms to the right or the left of the stairway.
Adding to the fading house party vibe was the fact that the restaurant looks like a big house. It's got at least three levels, each with multiple dining areas. In the rooms, which felt like they'd previously been big bedrooms or studio apartments, you could hear "Obama" uttered between non-English words, always emphasizing different syllables than we do in Americans. O-bam-A, not o-BAM-a.
I'd spent the last few days circling the administration's visit to Hanoi. On the morning after Barack Obama dined with Bourdain, I'd tried to get into his speech intended for the people of Vietnam but ended up being perpetually pushed forward, around the massive convention center, by the Vietnamese military; I dodged the raindrops in the open storefront of a restaurant with two waitresses who never pushed a menu on me. We watched a couple dozen wet, mildly enthused Vietnamese Obama supporters crane their necks over a barricade.
A few hours before Obama landed in Hanoi, I'd unknowingly had a conversation with Michael Froman, the US trade czar, at a restaurant known for its banh cuon, a traditional Northern Vietnamese dish that consists of pork, mushrooms, and shallots wrapped in a loose blanket of fermented and griddled rice batter. I was drunk off 20-cent beers—a.k.a. bia hoi—and remember writing him off as boring. I saw him on television the next night, speaking with Vietnamese powerbrokers.
Bourdain and Obama drank Hanoi Beers and ate bun cha—a traditional Hanoi dish that involves dropping vermicelli rice noodles, herbs, and sometimes spring rolls into a bowl of sweet yellow broth, along with charcoal-grilled pork patties and grilled pork slices. To me, the pork patties taste like miniature hamburgers.
They were taping for Bourdain's CNN travel show Parts Unknown. The President had emerged from the restaurant to a small cheering crowd.
Bun cha's history is not readily available, at least in the English language. Thanh Niên, a big Vietnamese newspaper with an accompanying English edition, claims that the origins of the dish are unknown. They cite a Vietnamese writer who, in 1959 (just years before the thick of the Vietnam War), wrote that Hanoi was obsessed with the dish.
A guy from Denmark with bleached-blond hair, a leopard-print pocketbook, and a Michael Jordan Space Jam jersey asked me what to order, like that guy who shows up to the party but isn't even sure whose house it is. I pointed to bun cha, pretty much the only thing on the menu.
"Are you here because of Obama?" I asked.
The room filled with laughter. "Yeah, we saw the picture."
Bourdain and others had tweeted pictures of himself and Obama sitting among Vietnamese diners in an impeccably clean and well-lit room.
Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. pic.twitter.com/KgC3VIEPQr
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 23, 2016
Now the floor was covered in napkins and herbs. A cigarette butt lay below a "no-smoking" sign. Hundreds of beer bottles and half-empty bowls lined the simple metal tables. There was not an empty table that wasn't heaping with trash. The guy from Denmark asked the waitress to return his beer when he realized it was warm. She just placed it, unopened, next to dozens of empty beer bottles on the adjacent table.
When I asked the waitress, in English, if I should order at my table or down at the front, where the owner was pumping out bun cha, she just tiredly held up fingers, asking how many bowls I'd want, and returned with the vermicelli.
I drank a warm Saigon and walked into another room. I asked the Ukrainian guy, who was watching a Vietnamese couple getting their photo taken, if this was the room where Bourdain and Obama ate. Again, the room broke into laughter.
A pink "Happy Birthday" banner hung next to the seats in question. The banner appeared, from photos, to have preceded their visit, and diners were using it as a reference point for their own photos.
For neurotic but wannabe adventurous travelers in Vietnam, TripAdvisor is king and Bourdain is queen. Their weird owl logo is often painted, in large scale, onto restaurant signs, trying to lure in the xenophobic or diarrheaphobic Westerners. Bun Cha Huong Lien only has eight reviews but, with the help of Bourdain, and the most powerful man in the free world, that's bound to change.
Staff at Bun Cha Huong Lien seemed unaware that this kind of rush may be the new normal once the episode airs, apparently in September. A busboy, wearing a dark blue shirt printed with two majestic white horses, looked shell-shocked. Aside from the piles of dishes, empty bottles of beer, and Westerners taking smartphone pictures, there's no sign, no plaque, nothing denoting the visit.
A local who'd been to the restaurant many times before Barack Obama said it was a quiet, traditional joint; but given its broad hours—from 8 AM to 9 PM—it wasn't unprecedented for the tables to fall into this kind of disorganization. He and his Ukrainian friend, who called himself a bun cha addict and said he woke up that morning dreaming of the dish, raved about the restaurant. I should note that, despite the strewn bottles and dishes, everything looked sanitary. For whatever my untested palate's worth—I've only had bun cha twice before—I thought it was great.
Out in front of the restaurant, a BBC television reporter snapped at a Vietnamese reporter for stepping on his shot. Surrounded by a bunch of white onlookers, he noted to the camera, in that bullshit television tone, that when on foreign trips, Obama loves to deviate from his schedule to eat with common people.
"Let's go in and see what he ate," he said, pretending to walk inside for a meal, over and over until they had their shot.