An interview with author and journalist Graham Holliday on his opus for Ecco by Bourdain
When did you first live in Saigon and what brought you there?
GH: After a four year stint in Hanoi, I moved to Saigon in 2001 just after my wife and I got married in France. We originally met in Hanoi in 1998. We moved south with her job. She was promoted to the Saigon bureau of her office. The promotion gave me the opportunity to switch tack and start doing journalism more or less full-time. In total I lived in Vietnam for almost one decade between 1997 and 2006.
What was the first new thing you ate in Vietnam that you fell in love with?
GH: Bun Cha on Phung Hung street in Hanoi in late summer, 1997.
How did you go about tackling the subject, what was the starting point?
GH: The subject of street food? It took me a little bit of time, some trial and error, a matter of a month or so to really start getting into it. However, I was keen to try everything I could. I was just a little bit nervous at first. Hanoi back then, and to a degree until this day, was kinda rough and ready and very much in your face. It wasn’t easy to just slip into the street food scene. However, food, specifically street food, quite quickly became my hobby, my key point of interest in Vietnam. At that time in Hanoi there was not a lot of entertainment available. You had to make your own fun. Exploring street food, either alone or with friends, became the thing I enjoyed the most.
And more specifically the process once the wheels were in motion - was the majority of research already done? How many more research trips and explorations took place?
GH: It was quite fascinating for me actually, because once I had committed to putting enough time into it - into at least producing 10,000 words as a taster for Anthony - I spent a week or more just remembering things, people, places, situations and anecdotes and noting it all down. I then started to plan. What surprised me most of all was how much I could remember. The blog and the flickr photos and wotnot all helped, but the memory banks were loaded. I just needed to tap into them. As a result, when it came to visiting Vietnam again for the purposes of research, I knew exactly where I was going, on what day and how. I had the whole thing mapped out like a military plan. My book is about my time in Vietnam and the people I met. It’s not about what’s happening now - although I do allude to some things in the present day. Therefore, I already had the guts of what I needed to take a look at again before I got back on the plane back over there. The trip filled in the details, the colour, those little things you can only really pick up from being in a place. For the purposes of writing the book, I actually referred very little to the blog. I’d say the book is definitely not the blog in book form. They’re two quite different animals.
How would you describe the difference in food culture of Saigon and Hanoi, and even further north of the country?
GH: It’s difficult to articulate it without pissing one end of the country or the other off. I came to love both Hanoian and Saigonese food equally. I do remember Saigon being something of a revelation for me, after spending three years or more in the capital. There is an awful lot more variety in the south and an abundance of herbs. However, I love the dingy wee shacks in Hanoi and the rough and ready, honesty. I respect the no bullshit approach to food up there.
What are your favourite books on Vietnam?
GH: Probably Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. His experiences rang so many bells with me. I’m, obviously, not a Viet Kieu like him, but some of the situations he found himself in were, in some ways, similar to my own and my wife’s experience. He has a great writing style too.
When did you first meet Anthony Bourdain?
GH: I’ve never met Anthony. He emailed me years ago. He said he found the blog useful for his show at the time. I’d already left Vietnam and was living in Toulouse, France at that point. He said some very nice things about me and my blog. We vaguely kept in touch with the odd email now and then until he approached me about doing a book on his imprint in late 2011. At that time Vietnam was very far from my mind. I was working as a foreign correspondent in Rwanda and couldn’t imagine putting my head back into Vietnam. However, the idea of the book kept niggling me. And, to be fair to Anthony, he didn’t push me to write a book about Vietnam. He just wanted to give me the opportunity to write anything for his imprint. It didn’t have to be Vietnam. He saw something in me, he had the imprint on Ecco and thought he’d offer me the opportunity. It’s a simple as that. I eventually came around the idea in the summer of 2012 and, fortunately, Anthony was still keen to work with me. I promised to send him 10,000 words within a month - a self-imposed deadline, if you like - and, if he liked what I wrote we’d talk some more. Fortunately, Anthony and the team at Ecco were very excited with what I sent. So, we agreed to proceed. From my end it’s been pretty full on since then. This is my first book. It’s been a huge learning curve for me.
Can you tell us about some of the tables you sat at to write the book?
GH: Oh man, there’s just too many. I mean, I’m condensing almost 10 years of eating in Vietnam into the book. Obviously I cannot cover everything, there’s just not enough space. But, I cover some of the key dishes. Some of the cooks I kept going back to. You get to know a bit about them and their lives. The book’s focus is quite narrow in that respect. A guide to Vietnamese street cuisine it is not. It is very subjective, focusing on quite a tight bunch of people and dishes.
Do you feel you approached your blog differently because of your other work - the other media / writing outlets and experiencing being abroad in interesting cities in a work focused way?
GH: Maybe. I do remember wanting to make sure I blogged the answers to the what, the who, the where, the how much, the when and the why you should bother to try it too. I think that was quite important to me when I started blogging. It’s about providing useful information as well as entertaining people and having fun yourself.
Graham Holliday is journalist and writer behind the acclaimed Noodlepie blog and his first book Eating Viet Nam - Dispatches From a Blue Table is out now on Anthony Bourdain’s Ecco Imprint.