Vietnamese Rice Paper Noodles for Anthony Bourdain: Recipes of the Unfortunate

In the shit in Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Part of a series where individuals share their stories of misfortune and the recipes that got them through.

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“Does the realization of the meaninglessness of life require suicide?”

— Albert Camus, Myth of Sisyphus

THE CHEF

Phung Sophia Tran, Beachside Cook and Filmmaker, Nha Trang, Vietnam

THE UNFORTUNATE STORY

Anthony Bourdain in Vietnam (image credit: Zero Point Zero Production, Inc. / CNN: Parts Unknown)

By Yung B.

The things we carry when traveling are not simply material but the fantasies we’ve constructed over the course of our lives shaping our expectations of never-before-seen places and people. For many, including Anthony Bourdain, the Vietnam in our imagination was heavily shaped by classic American Vietnam War films. Films on war are fascinating because it is through these frames of war where the artifice of society, culture, ethics, and the narratives we tell ourselves become apparent, colliding, tangling, and sometimes coming undone.

You can tell a lot about a person by their favorite Vietnam War film. For Anthony Bourdain, it was Francis Ford Coppola’s dark, psychedelic psychological exploration of man and civilization in Apocalypse Now, which, in the end, has an almost conventional and nihilistic solution to its conflict. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, often times, is a favorite of military veterans for its more straightforward sentimental narrative of the scars that war leaves behind. Both films are tragedies. For the enlightened, I will argue, it is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that is the superior Vietnam War film because it offers the greatest solution to the existential problem of living and dying.

“Some of the most delicious food comes from poverty.”

When first visiting Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh City, one cannot help but to read the landscape in all its cultural and historical disturbances and permutations. The dizzying clash of French colonialism, communism, and the most recent surge of new capitalism come together in the organized chaos of a city in rapid transformation. Within this heavy metal are pockets of charm in humble establishments of Vietnamese food carved out haphazardly on sidewalks and narrow, concrete alleyways. Sitting on a low plastic stool street-side enjoying a delicious bowl of noodles, motorbikes zipping by–– nothing could be more satisfying than this authentic Vietnamese experience, Bourdain claimed. What is it about this experience travelers enjoy? Is it the charm of eating delicious food without all the frills of modern civilization––to be in the shit as a marine might say? The most interesting aspect of Vietnam could be that it is where the communists actually won and the Americans were sent home defeated, taking Vietnam and its people into a completely foreign narrative that we in the West have a difficult time fathoming without actually being there. This alternate reality is part of its allure.

Bourdain once said that some of the best food comes from poor people. It is in times of need and due to a lack of resources, where the unfortunate are forced to create something tasty from practically nothing. This is where creativity, as some may call it, comes to life. It is the common people or the proletariat that usually create the most delicious and affordable dishes that become emblematic of a nation and culture. Whether it’s taking French-colonial influences such as a baguette and pâté and making a uniquely Vietnamese sandwich, or bánh mì, eventually these new creations become their own and representative of a people despite, in hindsight, the painful consequences of the violence of Western colonialism.

Inspired by Bourdain, I, too, longed to travel to Vietnam. His takes on the culture definitely shaped my perspective and desire to explore the country. After visiting various cities in Vietnam, from Saigon to Hanoi, and trying many different types of Vietnamese cuisine, the most astounding dish I came across was in a tent on a beach in Nha Trang. These beach tent establishments are quite common in Vietnam. It is where you can rent a beach chair to sunbathe and order beer and snacks from makeshift kitchens throughout the day. Local teens were ordering a dish of noodles which, to my utter shock, were made of rice paper. To those unfamiliar with rice paper, it is typically dipped in water and used to wrap Vietnamese spring rolls. But what the woman at this tent establishment had done was shred the rice paper into thin strips, mixing it with green mango and just enough sauce to make them slightly soft but still chewy. They were noodles now. Never had I seen rice paper used in this way. It was an amazing example of turning something from one thing to another in a completely unexpected and delicious way.

The restaurant owner’s dog waiting for a bite to eat

I started to converse with the woman’s daughter who was helping prepare the food. She spoke almost fluent English and, as I found out, was an aspiring filmmaker with some amazing ideas. We came around to talking about American Vietnam War films, of course. She mentioned a concept of a film she had in mind that one day she hoped to make. Incredibly, it was a story based on Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket but told through the eyes of the Vietnamese female sniper famously killed at the end of the film. Of course, in Kubrick’s film, she only makes a brief appearance at the very end. This new retelling of the story would first go into the origins of how the sniper came to be in that position. I told her it was an ingenious idea of taking a narrative so iconic in the minds of Americans and retelling it from the Vietnamese point of view. Very meta, I thought.

It reminded me of a talk I went to in college where a Vietnamese-American author described his escape from Vietnam after the war and his objections to the depiction of the Vietnamese in American popular culture thereafter. One of films he mentioned that was the most offensive, he argued, was Full Metal Jacket. He discussed how the Vietnamese were dehumanized and acted as mere props in the film. He went so far as to claim that the final scene of the film where the American soldiers find and kill the North Vietnamese female sniper was the most egregiously offensive. Not only do they kill the woman, some standing above her cracking jokes, but the final scene after her death reflected little remorse, sympathy, or thoughtfulness to the victims of the war. Famously, the film ends with American soldiers marching across a burning Vietnamese landscape joyously singing a Mickey Mouse song. It trivialized the atrocities and suffering of the war, he argued.

I was greatly upset with his critique of the film because, in my mind, it had the greatest perspective on war and human existence. It was the absurdity of it all that was more revealing than the tragedy. After speaking with this young Vietnamese filmmaker, however, I began to question my thoughts. I wondered if the absurd was even possible to see from the perspective of the victim. Perhaps, it was only the invader –– the Western colonizer –– or the privileged spectator that could experience the absurd. It was almost impossible to imagine the “re-telling” of Full Metal Jacket through the eyes of the Vietnamese sniper with any sense of absurdity or comedy. It could only be tragic.

Looking back at Anthony Bourdain’s death, I can see now, that the absurd is only available for the living and exclusive from the victim. The stories that we tell ourselves matter. It seems Bourdain was caught in a narrative he was telling himself about life, love, and heartbreak. He could not see a way out of his own character. This ego, or sense of self, we have constructed and believe to be “real” is the source of most anguish. In fact, it is the only source, this mirror of one’s self. What role did Anthony see himself playing?

After Bourdain’s death, many people offered the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline as a possible solution to people who may be having suicidal thoughts. In my mind, I thought, there was no way a person like Anthony Bourdain would have called that number. Bourdain was too literary, too cultured, too romantic, too punk rock, perhaps to his detriment, to do something so pedestrian.

Back to Albert Camus and his question of, “does the realization of the meaninglessness of life require suicide?” What is the proper response?

We return to the last scene of Full Metal Jacket. Perhaps, it is not a type of fuck you to the Vietnamese victims of the war as that Vietnamese-American author argued years ago but, instead, when all the narratives end, a fuck us all. It is the greatest gesture of revolt that neither condemns nor approves of any judgment — political, ethical, or otherwise. The happy singing of the Mickey Mouse song is not a callous, self-amused irony nor a validation of American imperialism, but the absurdity of existence, in the highest sense, affirmed by the living.

INGREDIENTS

Vietnamese rice paper commonly used for spring rolls.

•1 packet of Vietnamese rice paper (shredded)

•1/4 cup Vietnamese dried shrimp (crushed)

•1/2 cup shredded green mango (unripe mango)

•2–3 tablespoons of Vietnamese sweet and sour fish sauce (Nước Chấm)

•fresh herbs like lemon basil, mint, and Vietnamese coriander

•1 tablespoon of crispy fried garlic in oil (optional)

•1 tablespoon sweet and sour sauce

•2 hardboiled quail eggs (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Rice paper strips, green mango, dried shrimp and other ingredients
  1. To make noodles, cut dry Vietnamese rice paper into thin strips with kitchen sears.
  2. Slice green mango (or unripe mango) into thin julienne strips.
  3. Roughly crush dried shrimp mortar and pestle if available.
  4. Throw noodles, mango, and dried shrimp in large bowl.
  5. Add tablespoon of fried garlic in oil to the bowl (optional).
  6. Add 2–3 tablespoons of sweet and sour Vietnamese fish sauce (Nước Chấm)
  7. Toss ingredients in bowl, mixing thoroughly.
  8. The rice paper noodles should be al dente, with just enough moisture from the fish sauce, mango, and oil to give it a delicious chewy texture. Too much moisture can cause it to go soggy.
  9. Plate and garnish with lemon basil or other herbs like mint and Vietnamese coriander.

“My thoughts drift back to erect nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the Great Homecoming Fuck Fantasy. I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. I’m in a world of shit…yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” — Private Joker, Full Metal Jacket

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