The past couple of years have seen a massive increase in tourism to Vietnam, and we cannot help but think that President Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain’s 3-day visit to Vietnam in 2016 helped dramatically boost the local tourism industry.
Impact of Obama in South East Asia
Few American Presidents have had such a profound, noticeable impact on Vietnam as during the Obama era.
- Trans-Pacific Partnership deal bringing economic benefits to the region
- Lifted arms embargo in post-war Vietnam era
- Renewed diplomatic ties reigned in by the Clinton and then Bush era
His visit in 2016 to both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City underscored this new tone, and further brought the idea of Vietnam as a safe, friendly and fun tourist destination. Prior to Obama’s visit to Vietnam, the country’s name was synonymous with its infamous war with the United States.
Perhaps the only other person that may have done more than President Obama to change the perception of Vietnam as a “war-torn” country was the world-renowned chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain. Through books, television, and a significant online presence, he had documented the food scene in Vietnam for years—bringing local specialties like Bun Bo Hue and Bun Cha to the living rooms of Americans everywhere; presenting Vietnam as an amazing destination for rich culture and cuisine. With his popular TV show, “Parts Unknown”, he also helped reintroduce the people of Vietnam to the rest of the world, helping shift the narrative from Vietnam’s past to its incredibly bright present and future. With the recent and tragic passing of Anthony Bourdain—one of this year’s most prominent celebrity news events—we cannot help but reflect upon his legacy, especially his impact on bringing Vietnam and Vietnamese cuisine to the world. Bourdain’s death has drawn attention to Vietnam’s equally important impact on him, saying before his death, “My first trip to Vietnam changed my life.”
Bourdain’s association with Vietnamese food culture came to a head in 2016, when he took Barack Obama—44th President of the United States—out for noodles in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. How did it happen? During the President’s trip to Vietnam, Bourdain was scheduled to be filming for his Parts Unknown CNN show, and the two men got into contact; Bourdain chose the venue. What happened next is history:
The photo of President Obama and Bourdain eating a simple meal of Bun Cha Noodles and drinking cheap Vietnamese beer is not an image the world was expecting, but Obama—44th President of the United States—was a very atypical president. It was a meal curated by Bourdain, and the plastic stool dining encounter—televised for the world to see—undoubtedly shed a prominent light on Vietnamese food and the rich culture it symbolizes. The two held a casual conversation, punctuated by the arrival of simple Vietnamese dishes to the table, a couple of cold beers and wide smiles by all in the restaurant; a true ‘no reservations’ moment.
Why were Americans hesitant to visit Vietnam?
Until recently, Americans considering travel to Vietnam was an odd choice for a vacation. Several reasons are usually indicated.
- The contentious political history between the two countries
- The idea that Americans as tourists would be looked down upon—or even resented
- Vietnamese war era population might resent the “Ugly American” stereotype
As many more adventurous travelers have known for almost 20 years, these reasons were quickly dispelled by the friendliness so evident on the President’s visit.
With an average age barely over 30 years old, most of the Vietnamese population was born after the fall of Saigon, so for the majority of the population, there is no memory or resentment from the war.
The tiny Bun Cha restaurant visited by Obama and Bourdain (Bun Cha Huong Lien) has since attracted something of a cult following, made incredibly popular by their impromptu meal. The presence of such a powerful American figure certainly left its mark on Hanoi, as a highlight of the president’s landmark trip to Vietnam. Visitors to Bun Cha Huong Lien can now order a “Combo Obama”, the same meal savored by Obama, and the restaurant has appeared on a food tour that honors Anthony Bourdain’s legacy.
After his initial stop in Hanoi, former President Obama and Bourdain parted ways, with the President heading to Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of Vietnam, which is still called “Saigon” by most locals. In Ho Chi Minh City, the former president did a bit of sightseeing by visiting The Jade Emperor Pagoda, a local Taoist temple. Later he even met with a few local tech startups and held a public town hall with students in the city, to discuss globalization and the future of Southeast Asia.
Tourism numbers are on the rise in the time since Obama’s visit. Vietnam, rapidly coming into its own on the world stage, has become an incredibly popular destination for travel, and according to the latest statistics, received over 12.9 million foreign visitors in 2017 — nearly a 30% increase over the year before. That number is expected to increase in 2018, continuing a strong trend for new arrivals to the country. Obama’s prominent stops in the nation’s largest cities and the continued normalization between Vietnam and the United States have undoubtedly brought a substantial amount of positive attention to Vietnam as a fascinating place to visit.
Travel Statistics Post Bourdain Obama ‘Summit’
- Hanoi visitors are growing 15% (year over year)
- Danang tourist numbers are up 30% (y.o.y)
- Ho Chi Minh is nearing a landmark metro launch in 2020
- Ho Chi Minh City is now one of the top 10 global destinations for Digital Nomads
Looking towards the future, Vietnam’s popularity as a tourist destination seems almost assured, as the Vietnamese government has pushed to make tourism a larger contributor to the local GDP. They have relaxed Visa policies for many countries and have invested billions in infrastructure projects hoping to grow Vietnam’s tourism numbers to something comparable to neighboring Thailand.
Both Obama and Bourdain contributed greatly towards giving Vietnam a more prominent position on the world stage. They drew attention towards the most aspiring parts of Vietnam, from its burgeoning food culture to its youthful exuberance—and significantly shifted the image of a country that was often disregarded as a travel destination. It’s difficult to estimate the impact that these men have had on Vietnam’s’s tourism numbers, but it’s likely that they’ll remain as positive symbols of the “New Vietnam” for years to come.
Want to embark on your own tribute to Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown-style food tour of Ho Chi Minh City? Bourdain loved to explore places that most tourists have never been and eat dishes that the locals eat. When he came to Vietnam, he didn’t limit himself to eat dishes like Pho and Bánh Mi sandwiches—and neither should you! In the spirit of wanting to provide our guests an “off the beaten path” experience, the internationally acclaimed XO “Foodie” tour takes visitors to locations that other Ho Chi Minh City tours do not—to try each dishes that most travelers to Vietnam would never get an opportunity to try. Check out what people have to say about XO tours.