BackSociety » Nhiêu Lộc Canal Hosted Trudeau's Night Run. Why Is It Not as Famous as Obama's Bún Chả?

Nhiêu Lộc Canal Hosted Trudeau's Night Run. Why Is It Not as Famous as Obama's Bún Chả?

You know how much Vietnamese culture revolves around food by the fact that one of the first questions we pose to any foreign visitor is “What’s your favorite Vietnamese dish?” Asking about other aspects of the country could invite honest opinions that some of us might not be prepared to hear. Deep down, more than anybody else, we know that our air quality is subpar and our urban cleanliness leaves much to be desired, but our food is the one thing every Vietnamese can trust to make us proud. What easier way to foster diplomacy than to center the conversation around deliciousness?

I’m personally petrified whenever confronted by this age-old but extremely loaded query, because oh god, where do I start? If it was any other cuisine, like Thai, Japanese or Korean, I already knew my answers by heart, but turn the conversation around to my own food and suddenly I’m a mẹ Việt Nam anh hùng forced to choose between my beloved children. My selections of favorite Vietnamese dish might vary based on region, time of the year, mood, or even random cravings on any given day — but it’s never phở.

For historical and cultural reasons, phở is the most omnipresent Vietnamese dish across the world and a phở restaurant, more common than not, is the only source of exposure that foreigners will have with our cuisine. So I get why phở is usually the top-of-mind pick for many foreign dignitaries, but choosing phở as your favorite is, to use the clinical terminology, basic as hell. Sorry Blackpink Rosé, Macklemore and Hong Kong TVB star Xa Thi Mạn — ya basic. It’s not wrong to love phở; after all, it is the quintessential dish encapsulating centuries of Vietnamese culinary history, but if your choice is phở, I can’t help but wonder if you’re sincere or you’re ignorant and just pick the lowest-hanging fruit for diplomatic ease.

Hanoi's Bún Chả Hương Liên has made an altar out of the table set and cutleries that Obama and Bourdain used. Photo via Dân Trí.

When Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama elected to spice up the latter’s first Vietnam trip with a bún chả feast back in 2016, I was genuinely impressed — finally some interesting culinary choices, no doubt thanks to Bourdain’s more discerning palate. Other presidential appearances were much less daring: Bill Clinton’s Saigon visit in 2000 yielded a stop by Phở 2000 next to Bến Thành Market for a bowl of phở gà, cà phê đá, and a mango smoothie; Donald Trump didn’t eat any local food during his date with Kim Jong-un in 2019, but one can’t help but wonder if he settled on Hanoi as the meeting ground because there’s a McDonald’s in town.

Regardless of my own personal feelings about the merits of Bún Chả Hương Liên and Phở 2000, their popularity skyrocketed after hosting the US presidents. Phở 2000 stayed at its original location for a few years, which was getting claustrophobic by the minute due to its growing fame, before moving permanently to a sleek new space on Lê Thánh Tôn, now always packed to the brim with tourists. Following suggestions by entrepreneurial customers, Bún Chả Hương Liên has enshrined the table and sets of cutleries that Bourdain and Obama used that day in a glass display, a wacky but smart way to underscore the place’s stardom. If its nearly 10,000 reviews on Google are any indication, the presidential fever is alive and well almost a decade later.

Bill Clinton posing with staff of Phở 2000 during his visit. Photo via Thanh Niên.

Which brings us to the Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal. For one fine evening in 2017, it became the impromptu running track of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a number of trusted bodyguards. At around 7pm on November 9, after finishing his earlier obligations, Trudeau et al. began their night run at the Thị Nghè Bridge in District 1, moving westwards along the pavement of Hoàng Sa Street and crossing the Lê Văn Sỹ Bridge in District 3, after which they got into a car and drove away. A global leader just did an ultra-casual 5K event amid the pandemonium that is Hoàng Sa traffic at peak hour, and yet, I can’t help but wonder why the Nhiêu Lộc Canal is not world-famous?

Out of the way, peasants! Photo via VnExpress.

Apart from a few blurry paparazzi snaps from some lucky locals and a handful of articles from the Vietnamese press, this historic canal moment attracted nary a peep from international outlets. In contrast, CNN and the Washington Post, amongst many other news sources, provided extensive coverage on Obama’s bún chả visit and even delved with considerable journalistic vigor into the thought process behind why Bourdain picked the Hanoi delicacy for the meal. I will be the bigger person and admit that bún chả is delicious, but this is 5 kilometers of picturesque Saigon canal we’re talking about. Surely this exuberant night jaunt along the city’s most sought-after waterway deserved at least an explainer feature exploring Nhiêu Lộc’s rich from-rags-to-riches history. Why are international tourists not beating down our doors, their activewear and water tumblers already deployed, to experience for themselves a Saigon canal run? Why are local travel agencies not offering full-fledged “Follow in Trudeau’s footsteps” tours for sports history aficionados to visit Thị Nghè Bridge and the host of municipal landmarks Trudeau might have traversed on his trek? I hereby demand coverage equality for all Vietnam attractions frequented by world figures.

I jest, but the truth is I know why Nhiêu Lộc Canal has not achieved the international notoriety the likes of Bún Chả Hương Liên have. I’m only aware of Trudeau’s night run just because I work in media and am somewhat of a runner myself, elsewhere it seems like the canal’s 15 minutes of fame passed by as fast and as uneventfully as his presence in Saigon. A nondescript urban waterway with the occasional vista of floating detritus, nonchalant elders gyrating on exercise machines, and young couples getting to first base on secluded benches can hardly inspire the excitement level of a meal between America’s leaders in politics and culinary documentary. And Trudeau himself, like many athletic locals who just treat its pavements like a running track, would immediately forget about the canal promenade once home.

Exercising by the canal is a popular pastime for Saigoneers too. Photo by Cao Nhân.

I’ve always liked the Nhiêu Lộc–Thị Nghè Canal, for I consider a morning drive on Trường Sa or Hoàng Sa, streets running parallel to it, one of the best activities a motorist can partake in Saigon. Saigoneer moved to a neighborhood just a short walk from the canal last year, and I’ve heard numerous colleagues praising the merits of commuting alongside its placid water. After taking a boat ride on that very water recently, I now consider myself a canal groupie, despite the somewhat unsavory trash problem with which it’s currently riddled due to budgetary constraints. Kênh Nhiêu Lộc is unlikely to ever reach the global notability of our other presidential hosts, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. All told, urban infrastructures and amenities exist not for TikTok fame, but to benefit the lives of the denizens living near them — my life, and those of many other Saigoneers who have a soft spot for the canal’s serpentine tree-lined banks, has bettered thanks to its existence.

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