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 frivilous, 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.”
From opium to street food
Vu Bang didn’t fall into food writing easily.
Bang was born in 1913 into a Confucian family in the middle of the capital.
After his father died young, his mother sold books to the French colonial authorities and sent him to study at Lycee Albert Sarraut, a high school for the colonial elite.
There, Bang studied French literature and came to idolize contemporary journalists, so much so that he dropped out of school to start writing.
Bang published his first book at the tender age of 17, attracting respect, recognition and wealth. The teenage literary star quickly developed a taste for women and opium.
In his 1944 book Rehab, Vu Bang recalled a younger version of himself who preferred “death in vigor to life in disgrace.” He spent days and nights in ecstasy, carousing with fellow writers, countless escorts and the beautiful fellow addict he called his girlfriend.
The death of a cherished aunt inspired Bang to get clean in a lowly asylum. Years after rehab, he married a divorcee named Nguyen Thi Quy, who was seven years his senior.
Quy kept her addict husband sober on food. Whenever Bang felt a craving coming on, she took him out to discover a new street dish.
More than anything, though, she kept him happy at home.
The couple’s only son, Vu Hoang Tuan (now 80), described Quy as an elegant intellectual who quickly mastered the capitol’s cuisine.
“She never revealed where she learned to cook,” he said. “Yet, she knew everyone’s favorite and always insisted on cooking every aspect of a given dish herself.”
Tuan credits his mother for teaching Bang everything he knew about food.
A despised spy
Scholars say Bang spent two years offering intelligence to Communist revolutionaries in Hanoi before the French withdrew in 1954.
With the country split in two, Bang agreed to follow migrants south to Saigon before the eruption of a bloody war.
The writer turned spy believed he would spend just two years posing as a refugee, a cover story that led many of his admirers in Hanoi to condemn him as counter-revolutionary.
But Bang’s assignment stretched into decades, keeping him from the food and woman he loved.
In 1956, according to their son Tuan, Quy slipped into Saigon and spent a month with her husband for the last time.
When she arrived back home to Hanoi, the police were waiting for her.
“The police asked a lot of questions and threatened her,” he said. “I remember her responding in French: 'In life, there are many truths that cannot be told even to family.'”
As tensions flared, he remembers his mother calmly explaining that, under no circumstances, would Bang betray the revolution.
Life got harder for the family from that day forward.
Delicacies of Hanoi
In the two decades of exile that followed, Bang produced satirical comics, articles and novels.
Rare breezy days in Saigon conjured memories of autumn in Hanoi and “frugal family dinners, which were far more delightful than soup filled with shark fin or bird's nest.”
Pining for dishes he would never taste again, Vu Bang wrote a series of essays that stirred nostalgia among roughly a million northerners stuck in the Republic of Vietnam.
Published in 1960, Hanoi Delicacies described how a cuisine could live on in one’s memory.
“Even if I was abducted for a thousand years, I would remain a Vietnamese longing for the food in Hanoi,” he wrote.
The book’s dedication reads: “To Quy, the cook that inspired this book, the friend that brought every northern delicacy for me to relish.”
Seven years after its publication, Quy died—scorned by a Hanoi struggling for survival.
Revisiting Vu Bang
Vu Bang believed that food in the capitol would never really change.
The first chapter of Hanoi Delicacies opens with Bang returning to a city devastated by French bombers in 1947.
“Though you may find idiosyncrasies among its residents and houses, though streets may have to be rebuilt, Hanoi’s eating habits remain the same,” he wrote.
Bang described the city’s cuisine as an immutable function of the Red River Delta’s seasons, courtship rituals and traditional farming practices—a gift to humanity, on par with the works of Voltaire, Dickens and Shakespeare
In spite of his deep passion for the food, he never got to eat in Hanoi again.
The scholar Van Gia claims that after the war ended in 1975, Bang remained in Ho Chi Minh City with a second wife and five children.
He described Bang’s late life as “lonely, misunderstood and squalid”.
Seemingly forgotten and unable to find employment even as a translator, Bang descended back into his opium addiction and died in 1984.
His brief obituary at the time made no mention of his writing.
In the year 2000, Van Gia published a compilation of Bang’s work that confirmed he had worked on behalf of the revolution as an undercover agent. Seven years later, the Vietnamese government posthumously awarded him the National Literature Prize.
The award prompted Van Gia to publicly suggest the capitol name a street after the writer. Sadly, it has yet to do so.
For the next few weeks, VnExpress International will revisit Hanoi Delicacies, hitting alleyways and markets in pursuit of the mission Bang set forth in the book’s opening pages:
"I want to interpret and explain Hanoi’s delicacies – mouthfuls of a nation’s essence that elicit pride and excitement in Vietnamese and make them proud to have been born here."