It happened during Obama’s trip to Vietnam at a time when the U.S. arms embargo on the country had been lifted. It was a moment that meant a lot to the Vietnamese people; the owners of the Hanoi Street restaurant commemorated the table where the sitting U.S. president came to eat with the people of a foreign country — a country that shared hostilities with America. It’s also a moment Obama remembered fondly as news hit of Bourdain’s death.
“‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony,” Obama tweeted on Friday, referencing the caption Bourdain once used for his 2016 photo. “He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
As the chef-turned-writer explained later to Anderson Cooper, Bourdain had been “secretly planning” his meal with Obama for quite a while. “No one knew: the network didn’t know, the camera people didn’t know, very few people outside of a small group at the White House knew,” he said (as shown in the video below).
According to a New Yorker profile of Bourdain published in 2017, Zero Point Zero, the production company behind Parts Unknown, scoured locations while Obama planned to meet with Vietnam President Trần Đại Quang and the new head of Vietnam’s national assembly.
They decided on the street-food shop Bún chả Hương Liên and the meal would be its specialty, bún chả — a white noodle dish with pork patties and grilled pork belly, served in a broth of vinegar, sugar, and Vietnamese fermented fish sauce.
“The surprises, the serendipity of travel, where you see something and it’s off the beaten track, there aren’t that many places like that left,” Obama had said. “I don’t know if that place will still be there when my daughters are ready to travel,” he added. “But I hope it is.”
The entire meal cost $6 and, as Bourdain tweeted, the Parts Unknown host “picked up the check.”