Anthony Bourdain wouldn’t want you to go on a Vietnam food tour in his honor

Just try it.
Just try it.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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The late chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain said that Vietnam was “one of his favorite places on earth.” So it might seem fitting that travelers can now book a food tour in the country created in his honor, complete with visits to his favorite street-food stalls and to the Hanoi restaurant where he famously ate bún chả with Barack Obama.

The trip, organized by luxury tour company Exotic Voyages, was put together with help from Vietnam travel expert Diep Nguyen, who formerly worked with Bourdain on a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown that took place in Vietnam. The website says that the tour—which starts at $3,755 per person—will feature all the “interesting things and amazing food in Vietnam that Anthony used to love.”

It sounds great, right? But here’s the thing: Bourdain himself probably would’ve hated the idea.

Travel writers and TV show hosts find themselves in a strange situation: Tasked with telling people the best places to visit, they’re also at risk of ruining the very character that makes those places appealing in the first place. Bourdain frequently spoke of his ambivalence about the ways that mass travel can change the nature of the places he so loved. As he told Fresh Air‘s Dave Davies in 2016:

It’s a double-edged sword. Ideally, I’ll go to a place like—I’ll find a little bar in Rio, let’s say, some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood… The response I’m looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It’s, you know, a—truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.

But on the other hand, that’s kind of a destructive process because if I name the place … The next time I go back, there’s tourists. There’s people who’ve seen it on the show. And then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood say, you ruined my favorite bar, (laughter) you know? All the regular customers have run away and it’s filled with, you know, tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip-flops.

Bourdain went on to say he didn’t always reveal the exact name or location of certain spots he visited, for fear that swarms of tourists might descend upon the locale. When the otherwise ordinary Hanoi restaurant where Bourdain and Obama dined in 2016 enshrined the duo’s table in a plastic box last March, Bourdain posted the image on his Instagram with a note: “Not sure how I feel about this.”

Of course, street-food tours are nothing new. Vietnam has an entire cottage industry devoted to guiding tourists to the best spots. But it’s not just the prospect of clogging family-owned food stalls with Instagram-happy tourists that feels like it’s missing the point of Bourdain’s legacy here; it’s the very idea of a food tour being a venue through which to explore a new country.

As Patrick Radden Keefe explored in his James Beard award-nominated profile of Bourdain for the New Yorker, later iterations of Bourdain’s shows were less focused on food and more intent on “anthropological enterprise.” The co-owner of Parts Unknown‘s production company told Radden Keefe that the show’s motto was, “Don’t tell me what you ate. Tell me who you ate with.” Watching Bourdain’s work evolve over time, it’s clear that he didn’t really want you to eat wherever he did. He wanted you to eat adventurously and indiscriminately, to go to restaurants that were busy and where no English was spoken, to gratefully tuck into whatever was put in front of you—and see where you ended up.

That said, the ethics of travel are never simple. A big part of Bourdain’s legacy will be providing livelihoods to people around the world in the form of his acolytes flocking to the vendors he so loved. Maybe that’s a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s hard to imagine a food tour, which is necessarily scripted, embodying the spirit of travel that Bourdain espoused so memorably.