Eat This by Mallory Gill

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chopsticks sitting on small ceramic bowl


Grilled fatty pork swimming in a savory broth. Cold rice noodles, on the side, for dipping. Green herbs—basil, cilantro, mint—also on the side, also for dipping. Chopped raw garlic and chili: you add them to the broth, how much do you want?

Clink. The chopsticks on the ceramic dishware.

Plop. The noodles into the broth.

Slurp. Noodles into mouth.


It’s been a few days since the news broke of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide.

This is why my boyfriend and I have come to Bun Cha Huong Lien, the hole-in-the-wall noodle shop in Hanoi now more popularly known as Bun Cha Obama, because it was here where Obama dined with Anthony Bourdain for six dollars on the show No Reservations.

Clips from Bourdain’s television shows are circulating the internet—here he is in Louisiana, here he is in Senegal, here he is with President Obama in Vietnam.

In this clip the president is holding a patty of pork between two chopsticks and asks, “Now, is it appropriate to just pop one of these whole suckers into your mouth or do you think you should be a little more…?”

And Bourdain interrupts: “Slurping is totally acceptable in this part of the world.”

Hours after Bourdain’s death, Obama tweeted out a picture of the two of them at this very restaurant with the caption: “Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. This is how I’ll remember Tony.”

And now here we are. The same plastic stools, the same bottles of beer, eating the same rice noodles, trying to remember.


I’ve lived in Vietnam as an English teacher for over a year now, and whenever my American friends or family come to visit, I always take them here. “Isn’t it fun?” I say to them.

It is fun. The restaurant has expanded from one floor to three floors, two rooms on each. Poster-size versions of the pictures from Obama and Bourdain’s meal cover the walls. You can order the Obama combo: Bun cha—a rice noodle and pork dish—fried spring rolls, cold beer. The food is delicious.

Even though we’ve been to the restaurant five or six times, it always takes us a while to find it. The streets of Hanoi are confusing, even for my Vietnamese boyfriend navigating them on his motorbike while I sit on the back. It’s hot today, and the sun overhead is unforgiving. Maybe this was a bad idea. Forty-five minutes from our apartment to the restaurant baking in the sun and getting lost on the way.

But there it is. I recognize it from a block off. Yellow sign with green letters: Bun Cha Huong Lien. My eyes recognize it, but so does something deeper inside me, a dark pit in my stomach, a throbbing blackness, the knowledge that in grief even a hole in the wall restaurant can become hallowed ground.


Eight years earlier. Another restaurant.

Sizzling beef and lamb, cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Slice it up thin, then onto the pita. No tomato, just crisp lettuce and onion. Tzatziki sauce, creamy and tangy. And a glass of cold sweet tea, perfect in the Mississippi heat.

If my friend Andrew were here, I think, we would have ordered a pitcher of beer.

But he’s not here.

He’s been dead for five days now. Dead, hanging from the bannister of the stairs in his mother’s house.


Andrew and I had come to this restaurant several times before. It was called Kiefer’s and it was Mediterranean fare—gyros and hummus and falafel. We always got the gyros. We’d split a pitcher of beer. We liked sitting on the patio outside, and once we’d even brought our chess board to have a game after eating.

But now he’s been dead for five days, and my pee is almost brown from dehydration. The last thing I ate was two bites of pizza over 24 hours ago.

Go to Kiefer’s, I’ve told myself sternly. Maybe if you go there, you can eat.

Go to Kiefer’s.

Sit down.

Ignore the black pit in your stomach.

Open the menu.

Act normal with the waiter.

“Hi, I’ll have the gyro and sweet tea.”

Look at the other chair across from you at the two-seater table.

Notice its emptiness.

Twist the sleeve of your sweatshirt, which was really his sweatshirt that you stole from him six months ago, and is much too hot to wear in Mississippi at this time of year.

The chair is so empty.

Stare at the negative space.

Here comes the food.

Take a breath.

And eat.

In remembrance.


Everything became a ritual like this for a while; every place became one of remembrance. Everything I did was accompanied by the pit in my core, a voice urging me onward, the knowing that you have to step inside this, you have to complete this. You have to open the circle of your grief, an walk in, and experience what is in there without knowing what will come of it, without knowing the way through or if it will be all right.

Gather his things together. Put them in a box.

Put all his poems together in a folder on your hard drive.

Print out a picture so that you can have his image around you.

Cry. Scream. Rage.

Let grief destroy your life.

Quit your job.

Stay in a psych ward for two weeks, then an outpatient program for six.

Get a little bit better.

Leave home and move away.

Go to therapy.

Cry some more. Scream some more. Rage some more.

Eventually that voice went away.

It never said, now rise like a phoenix from the fucking ashes.

It just gradually faded.

And eventually, the pain began to fade too. It stopped coming in everyday waves, but specific waves, waves around important days, important anniversaries.

And eight years later it can still come, the pressure inside my heart, the heaviness, the sadness. It doesn’t leave, but it is something I return to less and less, circling around it, leaving and coming back, like a point in a labyrinth.

And here it is again, on a bright too-hot summer day in Hanoi—the pit, the heaviness, the voice.






A few hours before my boyfriend and I set off to find Bun Cha Huong Lien, I saw a clip of the No Reservations episode on Facebook. It was a different clip than I had seen before, and it ended with a picture of the table that Obama and Bourdain had eaten at encased in glass. Some text at the bottom of the screen said the owners had done it after the show was filmed.

I frowned. I had never seen the table in glass. How many times had I been there? Five or six? And I had never seen that room, never seen the table in glass. How had I not? I imagined all of the people looking at the same video, seeing the same thing I did. Millions of people. To them Bun Cha Huong Lien was just a place on the television screen, a place somewhere in East Asia, but to me it was really real, it was I place I had touched, a place I had smelled, a place I had tasted.

But I didn’t know about that table. There were many rooms at the shop. Maybe I had just gone to the wrong room every time. Or maybe the video was wrong. Maybe it had once been put in glass but now was no longer.

How have you not seen it? I thought to myself anxiously.

Like all the beer cans, the empty codeine packets they found in Andrew’s room when they searched it later.

How did you not know? How did you talk to him every day for the last four years and not know?

You were his best friend. How did you not know?

And later people would tell stories about him, stories that didn’t make sense, stories that didn’t square with how I knew him. Little things, funny things. Andrew always said this. Andrew liked that.

Did he? Did he? He never said that to me. I never knew that about him.

I thought I knew him better than the inside of my hand, and yet there were so many things I never knew that about him.


The bun cha shop is as I remember it. Reflective metal tables, cheap plastic stools, chopsticks and napkins in little boxes on the table.

I pause outside the door, looking in.

There aren’t so many people here today. I had thought there might be other tourists in Hanoi, who, upon learning about Bourdain’s death would seek out the restaurant and make the trip. But no, it looks like a normal day here. The only difference is that I carry that black pit.

I’m surprised to feel it again. I almost turn and leave. Why reopen such a traumatic wound? Why let Anthony Bourdain’s death touch you in the very place where you keep the pain about Andrew?

But there’s nothing I can do to make it un-touch me. There is now just a following through, a reopening of the circle of grief, a stepping inside again.

So we do.

We step inside, smile to the waiter, act like all is well. The waiter takes us through the main room and leads us to another dining area.

And there it is, the table encased in glass.


After Andrew died, I began to repeat Rumi’s poem, “My Worst Habit,” to myself, over and over again.


If you are not here, nothing grows.

I lack clarity. My words

tangle and knot up.

Curled up in a ball on my bed, picking at food with my fork, trying to pay attention to friends’ conversation, I repeated it. Again and again I said it to myself. There were no good thoughts to think, so I repeated the poem to myself, like a prayer, a mantra, a place for my mind to rest.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.

How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

Walking from the parking lot to work, on the elevator to the psychiatric program after I found I could no longer pretend to work, in the car as I moved away from home and left everything behind, I repeated it.

When water gets caught in habitual whirlpools,

dig a way out through the bottom

to the ocean. There is a secret medicine

given only to those who hurt so hard

they can’t hope.


Perhaps there was something magical about repeating the poem like this, as if it were a kind of a spell—because what I found was that there was a kind of secret medicine given to me. In the moments when I had lost all hope, the right song played on the radio. When I was in the deepest kind of despair, the right stranger sat down next to me and talked to me. When I was grieving because I had gathered together everything I had from him and there was nothing left of his to find, a note from him from years before fell out of one of my books, almost as if he was somehow saying to me, don’t worry, some part of me is still here.


My boyfriend and I sit down on the cheap plastic stools and he asks the waiter for two Obama combos. I stare gratefully at the table encased in glass opposite of us. All around us people are chattering merrily in Vietnamese, clinking their chopsticks on bowls and knocking together beer bottles to toast each other.

The food arrives and I dip the noodles into broth, tasting its salty-sweetness again.



Opening the circle of my grief.

Finding the secret medicine once more.

Mallory GillMallory Gill is a writer and English teacher residing in Hanoi, Vietnam. Originally from Annapolis, Maryland, she had no plans growing up ever to move anywhere else. But after the untimely death of her best friend in 2010, she realized that the only way to honor him was to go after her dreams and live her life as passionately as she could. She has since traveled extensively throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. “Eat This” is her first published work.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Hideva Hamano

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