This will be my first time back to Vietnam in a long time. Having just graduated and reluctantly entered the "adult" world, I wanted to revisit the country that I call my home away from home. My entire family is Vietnamese, and I am proud to say that I have been nurtured in its culture and cuisine.

Being the food obsessed-individual I am, I can say I've eaten my fair share of the motherland's dishes, considering the fact that I've basically eaten it on the daily since my baby teeth came in. I was hoping that this trip back to Vietnam would be exactly as how I remembered it last. From the sounds of the streets clogged with motorbikes to the smell of noodles wafting in the open air, I can recreate every single detail in my mind.

I remember Hoi An being an escape from the hustle and bustle of the metropolitan cities. I returned to this city for the empty roads in contrast to the motorbike-congested streets that are prevalent in almost every other city in Vietnam. I returned to this city to relax at the beach and feel like I was the only person there. I returned to this city for the food, because for me traveling is all about eating the cuisine and how it reflects the culture of the city. This is what I remember, and that is why I returned to this city once again.

Bánh Mì Phượng

bun, cheese, sandwich, bread
Alex Vu

The only reason I travel is to experience the culture by eating my way through as many restaurants and eateries as possible. In Hoi An, the dish, more specifically the sandwich, that I was determined to try was the bánh mì at Bánh Mì Phuong.

I’ve heard high praise from the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who is hugely responsible for this eatery’s popularity, to personal accounts from my mom, who constantly tortured me with her descriptions of how amazing this baguette was for the past few years having eaten it on multiple occasions before. Clearly, my expectations were high, and I was expecting to be blown away.

From my experience, whenever there’s a line running out the door in Asia, you can expect the food to be insane (in a good way of course). Bánh Mì Phuong was no exception. I lined up that day in the pouring rain and waited behind a line of no less than 20 people. With an assembly line system to procure each bánh mì, customers are treated to a show prior to their meal teasing them of the goodness to come.

Alex Vu

Sandwich in hand, I did my usual “photoshoot” to ensure that I immortalized this moment and made sure that it was Insta-worthy to share with the world. Even before my very first bite, I was a bit hesitant. There were slices of tomato and leafy lettuce peaking from between the two halves of the baguette and to me that was sacrilege when using the term bánh mì.

Not only that, but with my first bite I found that what I thought to be an addition of veggies was actually a replacement for pickled carrots and daikon, both of which are stables in a bánh mì, making way for the very western lettuce and tomato. I couldn’t understand what I had just eaten. This was a glorified hoagie masquerading as a bánh mì.

fried egg, onion, egg, avocado, bacon
Alex Vu

In my book, this was a complete foodie nightmare. My hopes and dreams were dashed within the first bite. I couldn’t believe what I was eating. It’s as if the owners completely turned their back on tradition and switched over to using ingredients to appease the mass of western tourists that were flooding the city as of late. This was just the beginning unfortunately and honestly the low point of my return trip to Vietnam.

It’s Changed

water, wine
Alex Vu

I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve spent my fair share of late nights procrastinating for exams by watching reruns of Anthony Bourdain. One thing that I’ve noticed that he has done lately is to not reveal the name of some of the restaurants that he visits. He’s done this with the intention of keeping it a local spot in order to prevent the possibility of it being overrun by tourists and losing the very essence that makes it unique. Maybe he’s learned from past experience, as exemplified by Bánh Mì Phuong, but whatever the reason I fully understand why he’s decided not to market each and every place that he eats.

Alex Vu

Being that Bánh Mì Phuong was literally the first thing I ate in Hoi An, I was expecting the rest of the city that I’ve frequented to remain unchanged. My memories of this city up to that point had always been fond ones. From biking to and fro from our hotel to the beach a couple kilometers away to eating Mì Quảng at the night markets that seemed to setup in a matter of minutes and quickly disappear a few hours later having sold all of their food for the night, the city of Hoi An was unequivocally my favorite place to visit in Vietnam.

When I was there last, I felt trapped in a time capsule with the almost complete absence of cars and the old school Chinese-influenced architecture that I remember strolling through for hours and hours. I am saddened and honestly pissed that almost everything I remember has been completely lost. The city’s energy is just not what it used to be.

chicken, pork, salad
Alex Vu

Narrow alleyways that used to be overloaded with street vendors selling fresh fruit and Vietnamese street fare has now been replaced with pop culture-themed bars that emulate a stereotypical college town. I witnessed all of this firsthand. From a cover band in the streets singing Bruno Mars songs to a Mr. Bean-centric bar, I was crying a little on the inside (maybe on the outside too) to see what had become of the Hoi An I thought I knew. I still remember hostesses hounding me on streets to enter the eateries and advertising ungodly cheap rates for alcohol. This is not why I returned to Vietnam.

The traditional street food that I had become accustomed to was shrinking in favor of eateries advertising that they sold pizza and burgers with the hope of drawing in western clientele. And for places that did continue to sell the traditional cuisine, they had to resort to gimmicky means in which to attract diners; the most infamous being the row of decorated boat restaurants lined up on the pier. I can tell you right now that I did not eat at any of these establishments during my visit.

Alex Vu

What I came to realize is that the city over the years has seen a major influx of tourism, which is great for the city, raking in a large amount of revenue that it has never experienced before. That is the only pro that I can identify in favor of tourism as I write this article.

Having talked to the locals throughout my visit, a number of vendors that I frequented have stopped selling their food after being unable to compete with more touristy attractions or due to old age. The only way that I can explain the radical transformation that I encountered is the understanding that the city of Hoi An and many of its patrons have decided that in order to sustain the revenue stream coming in from tourists, they had to adapt to the wants of this group and no longer showcase the traditions of their rich heritage.

Locals don't know better and change because they think it's what tourists will prefer during their stay. They don’t realize that what makes them a travel destination is the rich culture that they have been able to preserve through the difficult times of the Vietnam War up until this point. 

Alex Vu

My greatest fear is that the city will continue this trend towards pleasing tourists and that later generations will no longer remember what Hoi An used to be and be unable to pass it down to their children. 

Only a Memory

water, beer, wine
Alex Vu

During my last morning there, I uncharacteristically decided to walk the streets of Hoi An one last time. Everything was at a standstill and all the memories that I had of this place came rushing back. Only bicycles were strolling through the streets and no tourists were in sight. The lanterns were hanging swaying against the slight breeze and all seemed right in the world once again. This was the Hoi An I remembered, and I am so glad I decided to kick myself out of bed that morning.

I’m sure my memory of the city was heavily romanticized, as are all memories, but that small glimpse of the past that morning is something I’ll keep in my mind forever. Even though Hoi An has lost a bit of itself in trying to please the needs and desires of the stereotypical tourist, I hope that the grandparents and parents of the next generation will tell them stories about how the city once was and help preserve the culture and cuisine of the city.

chicken, soup
Alex Vu

I’ve accepted that the city will continue to change and be a popular destination for tourists, but I hope that the people of the city never change. The undisturbed city that I continue to reminisce about is no more, and I believe it has changed forever.

As a part of the tourist group myself, I think I deserve part of the blame in how this city has transformed. I’m still in a state of shock as I write these final words, but I urge you as a fellow traveler to visit your favorite destinations sooner rather than later. Embrace the city’s culture and its people for their differences and in no way should you try to change it to meet your standards of “normal.”