Monday, October 10, 2016

Tell me lies about Vietnam

This post is about Anthony Bourdain and I'm not really accusing him of lying, just quoting this poem. I'm interested in Bourdain mostly because I really like his TV shows, but also because he sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard to be cool or manly or eloquent or authentic. I'm basically a fan, but a slightly skeptical one. So I was very curious to see what he would say about Hanoi, which I visited around the same time he must have been there. Basically I liked the show, but here are a few things I noticed that might give you pause:

1. Bourdain says that the first thing that hits you in Vietnam is the smell, which he describes as a mix of things like spices, grilled meat, and incense. My first experience of this smell was in Cambodia, or actually in the plane on the way to Cambodia. Not that Cambodian people smell, but if you cram enough people into a small space in a hot climate you will smell something. And Cambodian BO is not the same as American or European BO. (It isn't worse or better, it's just different.) When you land you notice a similar smell just about everywhere, coming, I suppose, from people but also from garbage and sewage, as well as cooking, incense, etc. Vietnam has the same smell, though less noticeably. Bourdain mentioned the smell idea to President Obama, who features in the show. Obama diplomatically agrees that certain smells come from spices that you only really find in one particular place. But he can't resist adding that there are other, less pleasant, smells around too. Bourdain, it seems to me, is sanitizing or romanticizing the experience (the smell) he claims to be describing.

2. He also says that the only way to see Hanoi is from a motorbike. If you don't experience it this way you "miss everything". I haven't ridden on a motorcycle in Hanoi, but I don't buy it. I have ridden on (the back of) a motorcycle elsewhere in Vietnam and, as fun as it was, it didn't transform my experience or open my eyes to anything I had overlooked before. Maybe I'm just blinder than Bourdain. But I think this is pure fiction on his part.

3. A big chunk of Bourdain's show about Hanoi is actually set in Halong Bay, which is several hours' (nearly 200 km) drive away.

4. In Halong Bay, Bourdain interviews a villager who says they would like to leave their village on the water (as the government wants them to do), but that they are slow to move because they are wary of the unknown. Bourdain does not mention that it is illegal to protest against the government and that this might influence what someone will say on camera. My guess is that they really don't want to go.

So there you have it. It's not as if Bourdain is a big fat liar or spouts nothing but bull. But he is on TV, and his seemingly authentic view should be taken with the occasional pinch of salt.


  1. growing up in a college town (Syracuse) in upstate NY there was always a wannabe crowd acting like they thought people i NYC acted and than when I would go to well known hipster spots in NYC there would also be all these poseurs acting like they thought they should as scenesters, AB always strikes me as this kind of character, one wonders how much posing there was also in Warhol's factory where this phenomena became circles of hell of funhouse mirrors, where is the authenticity, is there Authenticity?

    1. Yes, he does seem a bit like that. He hangs out with rock stars, seems to make a point of having beer bottles on camera at breakfast, and made basically a whole show about getting a tattoo in some remote place. And yet something like authenticity is his schtick. Weird.