Riding with Bourdain in Vietnam

“One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam,”

declared Anthony Bourdain, mouth probably half full of noodles and half full of exhaust fumes. That quote was very likely what planted the dream in my ex-boyfriend Logan’s heart to one day blaze up Vietnam: lush, open country ahead, the current a fishbowl of traffic, me, the rugged backpacker damsel in the sissy seat. A seed that blossomed into a motorcycle license and then a plane ticket to Asia where we were to spend 3 months exploring by land, sea, and shitty motorcycle. I planned the visas and the Thai island hopping, Logan planned the motorcycle route up Vietnam. Before we knew it we had quit our jobs and raced to other side of the world.

Thailand was a blur of tropics and Cambodia a jumble of temples; soon we were crossing by bus into the Mekong Delta, the river winding through the deep south of the long, thin country. Bus ride to shuttle to boat ride to the back of mopeds and we had arrived: Vietnam, a place Bourdain had penned “His First Love.” And we could see why: the people were quick to smile, the land verdant, and a rollercoaster of elevation, the food always bright and multidimensional, the perfect combination of chewy and crunchy.

We celebrated Tet, the New Years Holiday, as a homestay in the Delta, learning how to wrap spring rolls and stuff bitter melon with raw pork before boiling it into salty, earthy soup. We traveled to Saigon by bus and wandered around the narrow alleyways following our noses. Finally we found Pho, in all its varieties. Vietnam’s staple food, a thin, floral, spiced broth holding together rice noodles and beef slices, topped with a mountain of herbs and capped with bean sprouts- it was to become our staple meal for the rest of the month.

We found partners to motorcycle with and a bike to do it on. This bike was no standard backpacker starter bike, aka a knockoff Honda, but a Lifan, built for more power. We had search on craigslist and on bulletin boards, in hostels and on street corners, and eventually haggled over this bike. Even though from the first time we rode it, it was clear something was off, we thought we had struck gold. What we soon learned was that 300 lbs of flesh and another 100 of baggage would stall any $400 motorcycle while chugging up mountainsides to Da Lat, or first stop.

We were about two thirds the way through our backpacking trip when we hit a wall. Not literally, but we might as well have. We had been chugging North for two weeks and our bike had broken down so many times that we were coming to the edge of our limit. It wasn’t a cause for nervous laughter and “what can you do?” anymore. If you throw a rock in Vietnam, you can hit an auto-repair stand, and we were lucky to have gotten this far.

Our golden piece of garbage Lifan had received several tows and many modifications that we didn’t fully understand. We sat on stools in the roadside dust, watching young mechanics laugh and tool around with our iron stallion. We couldn’t communicate, so we just had to trust that they understood the bike’s impediments. Laughter became a currency, and strokes of Logan’s thick black beard. We had yet to be stranded, but our wallets were running out of dong, and we knew the bike wasn’t going to make it to Hanoi.

We hoped the bike would make it to Hue, a city in the Central North of Vietnam, and its third largest. On the last day of riding, anxiety about the bike’s stamina and adrenaline from climbing the Hai Van- or, Ocean Cloud- Pass mingled in our gut. We wound up the ridge, through clouds and over the East Sea- and came to quiet terms with the ending of our bike journey would be ending in Hue, a place Bourdain waxed:

“My Place of Dreams. My Spirit House. The city of Ghosts.”

Though neither of us believed in ghosts, in countries haunted by genocide and war, the blanket of displaced life seems to hang like clouds on every cliff, the skim on the rice paddies, the stir of every spoon.

As we sailed down the pass, the sun was setting, but we were far from our destination. Though we had brought camp gear with us, we were surprised by the lack of opportunity to live our non-traditional bike camp plan. Much of the land in the small country- roughly the size of California- was unsurprisingly being utilized, for agriculture, for houses, for roads. But on this night, after the high of clearing the pass, one that had traditionally divided both kingdoms and climates, we decided to squat for the first time in the trip.

The sun was fading and the light on our bike had long burned out; we were running out of options. A small road leading down from the mountains had one quiet pull-off: a graveyard, and our makeshift camp for the night. Our rations of water and high calorie snack foods depleted in our stomachs as we took in the silence of the countryside from within our tent. We were both scared, unprotected from the elements, the mysteries, the graves. My dreams were milky and lucid. Ghosts did not appear, but the unsettling rustling of mysterious woods creatures did.

As the sun cast light through our tent, we breathed in the cool morning air. Shaking off sleep and the feeling of being watched, we rolled the bike out from behind a grave, kickstarting towards Hue. Our bike was spewing fumes by the time we arrived. It was not even 8 am and the city was still waking up, little streets filling with men spoking cigarettes and women stirring pots. And those pots were overflowing with what we had come all this way for, the most famous regional pho in Vietnam. After all, Bourdain had spoken its praises, in the casually passionate manner he was so known for:

“On the hierarchy of delicious, slurpy things in a bowl, Bun Bo Hue is at the very top.”

A noodle soup from none other than the city we had arrived in, made unique with lemongrass, chewy crab wontons, fermented shrimp flavor, and topped with blood paste. Immediately the stress of our past few days melted faded away into the buttery pho; the rich, spiced broth, stringy noodles, perfectly chewy seafood balls, and thin, rare slices of beef.

Refueled the city’s fame broth, we wandered the city. A mesh of curved Chinese pagodas and French flourishes fallen into rubble; the city had been one of the heaviest hit with bombing during our war in the 70s. Parts of Hue had been rebuilt, but others lay in pieces. This was the part of the country where the haunting Vinh Moc Tunnels were built, pitch-dark underground pathways barely bigger than bodies, that kept families safe for years, while the world above ground was on fire. As we took it all in, then we check into our hotel, a Vietnamese family’s faux-marble high rise, empty of travelers on a random February weeknight. The adrenaline of the night before’s adventure wearing off, we settled into bed. When we checked our phones, a gloom cast on our next day’s travel: rain all day, starting at midnight through the evening.

We had just a week left on our visa and a lot of ground to cover- and we planned to spend the next day near Hue on a last bike trip. We dreamed of taking the dreadful-but-beloved Lifan on its last voyage out to the coast, and to see a small seafood village along the way. This region is known for its estuaries, where salt and fresh water mix, the perfect climate for fish, shrimp, and crab to live and be farmed. But the rain destroyed our plans, a memento mori for our bike, and the dull city of Hue.

Then Logan had an idea: if we couldn’t go to the sea, it would come to us. We hovered over my iPad in our cheap hotel room, watching the man who had in part inspired us to take the journey take on Hue. Over gloomy days, he soaked up the laid-back nature of this quiet city, one dish at a time, “shit eating grin” on his face from beginning to end.

The next day, we woke up to what seemed like buckets of rain splashing against our window, We rolled our bike into a garage, donned knockoff North Face jackets, and began our day’s new mission: to eat everything. After watching Parts Unknown, we’d mapped out Bourdain’s favorite dishes and weren’t going to stop until we’d had enough.

We even made a Bourdain-style video documenting every bite we had (until my phone died, that is).

Beers for breakfast, followed quickly by an onslaught of dishes featuring that coastal seafood we craved. Who knew shrimp prepared in so many ways: boiled in broth, fermented in paste, friend and dried, wrapped in tapioca then steamed. There was Banh Bot Loc La (shrimp in banana leaf), Bánh cuốn (steamed rice cakes filled with pork), Gỏi cuốn (summer rolls), Bánh xèo (fried, shrimp-stuffed pancake) more Bun Bo Hue, Chè (jelly pudding), fried crab legs in tamarind sauce, and Cơm hến, a soup made of clam broth poured over rice noodles, fried pork rind, roasted peanuts, crisp cilantro and crispy garlic. We even made a Bourdain-style video documenting every bite we had (until my phone died, that is).

“All the things I need for happiness: Little plastic stool? Check. Tiny little plastic table? Check. Something Delicious in a bowl?”

On this day, unlike any other of our trip, we had all the things that made Anthony Bourdain happiest. And we were right there with him. As heavy rain dumped on tin roofs, we crouched on chairs like school children, tasting everything this city had to offer. It was a beautiful day tucking from stall to restaurant and street to alleyway, dodging rain and letting the flavors of Vietnam flood our senses.

By the afternoon of next day we had sold our bike to a relative of our hotel’s owner and we were on a bus to Vinh to transfer to an overnight train to Hai Phong where we would take a ferry to Cat Ba Island, where we would take another bus across the island until we arrived at one of the wonders of Southeast Asia, and Vietnam’s most famous natural beauty, Ha Long Bay.

The still-gray, crumbly, and oft-forgettable city of Hue disappeared behind us in the rear-view of the sweaty bus. We felt lighter without the bike that inflicted burns up and down my calfs and lead us to a spin-out; the bike that had worn us down and pushed us to the edge of our limit as travelers; the bike that had pushed itself to, and then over, the edge of a hull, leaking gasoline all the while (that’s a whole ‘nother story). But those wheels that had taken us up half of the country, to new friends, unbelievable circumstance, through national parks and from mountaintop to coastline in the same day. We were richer in experience because of the Lifan, and it had lead us to this city, the city of ghosts.

In our stomachs, the indulgences of yesterday’s feast wiggled around to the rhythm of potholes. In our hearts, the traditions of Hue, and forever now, the memory of one of our heroes, Anthony Bourdain.

“Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.”

No words describe how robbed we feel- as writers, and eaters, a people who love life-in a world without you, Tony. Rest Easy, you craziest diamond.

Read more about my journey in Asia, including why Vietnam Checks all the Boxes, here.

Writer, designer, traveler. www.mariagotay.com

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