Pastoral scenes of farmland with high-rise Hanoi cityscapes looming in the background cold opens the eighth season of CNN’s award-winning travelogue Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Sunday night’s episode in Hanoi, Vietnam was long anticipated for its special guest, President Barack Obama, who reportedly met with Bourdain at a noodle shop during a three-day trip to Vietnam. The meeting scales up POTUS’s "cool factor" as the type of guy you’d really like to have a beer with. While we may never have the opportunity to share a meal with the president, one gets to live vicariously through Bourdain, who’s clearly loving the chance to walk Obama through the finer points of eating bun cha.
"Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever."
Of course, the Obama interlude is but a piece of the full episode, which leads with a Graham Greene quote from The Quiet American focusing on the sense of smell in experience of a place — one that’s marked by colonialism and war. Bourdain seems to take this to heart, frequently commenting on the various aromas he encounters during his visit as he meets with locals and fixers over copious noodle dishes to discuss the history of war and the current peacetime in Vietnam. Hanoi, he says, is the fragrance of "motorbike exhaust, fish sauce, incense, the faraway smell of something — is that pork grilling over charcoal?... It could be no place else." As the gawky host zooms around Hanoi on a motorbike, he notes that Vietnam is a place that "grabs you and doesn’t let you go."
Throughout the episode, the host visits the Old Quarter and feasts on street-side snail noodle soup called bun oc. He also visits a local shop called Cussing Noodles, known for its no-nonsense proprietor, and travels to the popular tourist destination of Ha Long Bay, where he charters a steamer ship and eats squid. In one of the episode's more interesting chapters, Bourdain breaks bread with a family in a traditional floating fishing village to discuss the changes in Vietnam’s culture and economy — as well as its tumultuous history. Here, now, are 18 of the best quips from Bourdain’s Hanoi holiday.
1. This seems like a missed opportunity for the filmmakers: "No Zumba for me. Breakfast though sounds good."
2. On dining at Cussing Noodles, a restaurant where the proprietor yells at customers: "You put up with the abuse for this glorious steaming bowl of rice noodles with spicy chiles, a rich hearty, porky broth with pig knuckle and snout. It’s the only item on the menu and it’s good."
3. In response to the beer not being very strong: "Ah, so we need to drink a lot."
4. On cheap beer: "45 cents a beer? I can afford that! I’ll have another."
5. Bourdain’s reaction to touring Ha Long Bay in a rebuilt Emeraude steamer: "A big freakin’ boat. And it’s all mine — along with friends and crew of course."
6. He’s very enthusiastic about this boat: "All the modern conveniences, all the charms of the past. It fits perfectly with my over-romantic delusions and in general it does not suck."
7. On the privileged simplicity of chartered cruises: "A drink or two on the top deck. Check. Now for the rest of the day, try to do as little as possible."
8. Breaking the fourth wall: "Cue the majesty of the squid."
9. On eating cephalopods: "They say because of global warming all the fish are dying, but the squid and cuttlefish populations are increasing, so soon the whole sea will be filled with plenty of squid. You’ll be eating it every day."
10. While eating fresh-caught, whole grilled squid aboard his cruise ship: "Those are cute little squid. Oh those are going to be tender. Oh yeah, the tentacles are the best."
11. Standing around waiting for POTUS to show up: "The lady selling vegetables and cigarettes, taking a nap under a piece of corrugated tin has no idea what’s about to happen."
12. Bourdain to Obama on why he loves Vietnam: "This country when I first arrived here it smelled like a place that I would like. Certain countries I just, pheromonically, they just smell good and I know they’re going to be good. You kind of smell that?" Obama replies: "Yeah, there are certain spices you can smell in certain countries that you just don’t smell back home. Now, there’s some smells that aren’t as appealing, as well, but that’s part of the mix."
13. On taking the president to a family-owned noodle shop in Hanoi: "Dinner and a beer costs about $6. I’m guessing the president doesn’t get a lot of state dinners like this."
14. Bourdain questioning Obama while enjoying a different kind of Beer Summit: "How often do you get to sneak out for a beer?" Obama replies: "Very rarely. First of all, I don’t get to sneak out period, but once in awhile I’ll take Michelle out on a date night. The problem is, part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere and too often we end up getting shut into one of those private rooms in the back." Bourdain, toasting the meeting: "Well, I’m glad I could help. To many more cold beers."
15. Bourdain on adding chilies to the bun cha, a grilled pork and noodle dish: "If you have an important state function after you probably do not want to go to heavy on them."
16. The host on POTUS’s noodle chops: "It takes some skills, by the way, to handle these sticky cold noodles. But whatever your opinion of the man, the president has those skills."
17. Bourdain asks the tough questions: "Trickier question fraught with peril: Is ketchup on a hot dog ever acceptable?" Obama says: "No. No I mean I mean that. It’s one of those things like, well, let me put it this way. It’s not acceptable past the age of eight."
18. Bourdain on his daughter’s questionable eating habits: "My daughter is eight and she put ketchup on eggs the other day, and I didn’t know what good parenting called for." Obama adds: "An intervention. I think you’ve just got to say ‘You know what. At this point, it’s not acceptable.’ I’m sorry."