I went to Vietnam in the spring of 2022 for filming A tourist guide to love while the country was still closed to westerners (due to the pandemic) so it was really special. It felt like we were sneaking in. I love Rachael Leigh Cook, and this is a passion project for her. She produced and starred in it, and she asked if I was willing to come to Vietnam for a while. I didn’t ask any other questions.
The film itself is primarily a love letter to Vietnam. The people there were very excited for it to open again and a movie was being shot there. Our crew – mostly Vietnamese and a really, really great group of people – hadn’t worked in two years. Everyone tells you before you go to Vietnam that they are just the nicest, best people, but it’s still surprising to see how true that is.
This movie was perfect because it was the kind of part where they could squeeze all my stuff into a few weeks, all the way in Hanoi, an incredibly beautiful city. I mean, there’s a lot to unpack, because much of that beauty – the incredible architecture and food in this rich, vibrant culture – is due to French colonialism. It’s this juxtaposition, a cognitive dissonance where you say, “This is beautiful, but should I like this?” It’s not like Paris where you think, “Wow, beautiful.” You are conflicted when you do the homework.
We stayed in this old beautiful hotel, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, not far from the old quarter. When you walk out, all the fancy shops are right there. There are prom kids taking pictures for Dior, and then you walk a few blocks and it’s people selling chicken feet in the middle of the street and you get run over by mopeds. Every corner you turn is a completely different feeling.
I knew that once we packed up and my wife, Michelle, joined me, we’d be on this cozy, romantic trip down the coast — the kind of trip everyone goes crazy over on Instagram. So in Hanoi I made sure I was on the other side of town, sitting in a little plastic chair, eating soup on the sidewalk at 6am. I tried to eat and drink as much of the city as possible. One of the movie’s crew members sent me a giant list of all her favorite recommendations, and I think I got most of them.
My favorite coffee shop used to be Cong Cape, an incredible place for coconut coffee, which is essentially a 7 million calorie dessert. I discovered that pho is actually breakfast! I didn’t realize that, and I think most Americans don’t. Especially in a city that’s so incredibly hot, it feels crazy to get up and eat soup first, but then I started imagining what ridiculous westerners must look like, like 9-year-olds eating sugar and syrup and pastries ate for breakfast.
I refuse to be the person who enters a foreign culture and orders the hotel’s club sandwich. I ate a lot of bánh mì, pho and loved this aromatic catfish dish called cha cá lã vong. Once in a while you also have to crave fancy French food. We also tried eating all of Vietnam on our last night in Hanoi Quan An Ngonwhere you can get literally every Vietnamese dish you’ve ever heard of.
For the film itself, all we shot was in another hotel, cafe or restaurant. We had a scene in the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. It’s a trillion-year-old tradition and truly incredible to watch – a show with puppets being manipulated underwater. On my last day we shot in the beautiful gardens of the Temple of Literature. You just can’t believe it’s real.
After filming we stayed in two hotels, both crazy luxury, but because Vietnam wasn’t open to Westerners yet, they were much cheaper than they would be today, which I can’t stress enough to any reader of this obnoxious Hollywood actor who brags about his fantasy hotel.
The Four Seasons resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An, was very excited to have us, to the point where, waiting in our room, there was a cake with an edible photo that they googled of me. I booked it through AmEx, and there are a billion Ben Feldmans, and yet somehow they knew. In Vietnam, hospitality is quite next level.
Hoi An (a coastal town south of Hanoi) is simply the most charming city on earth. A Venetian-style canal passes through it, and at night, when the sun goes down, they light all these beautiful lanterns, make wishes on them, and let them go into the water. It’s also where you can have a custom dress or suit made within a day, which we did. I would go back to Hoi An in a heartbeat.
From there we continued south to a dream hotel, Amanoi, next to Nui Chua National Park, which is in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Everything was perfect and amazing. There were swimming pools and a fantastic beach, and we will remember that hotel for the rest of our lives.
We’ve been so inundated with our very uniquely American perspective of Vietnam through all the war movies, which is why I just imagined the bush and the jungle. But the beaches are really incredible, and the beaches we were on were great, especially in the coves with ancient rock formations jutting straight out of the water.
Before I went to Vietnam, I looked back at that Anthony Bourdain: parts unknown episode in Hanoi, the one where Barack Obama joins him. Anthony Bourdain has this beautiful monologue about how Vietnam “grabs you and won’t let go.” And he was right. I will love it forever. It takes a lot of planning and traveling over 20 hours to get to Vietnam — I’d much rather go home and say, “Well, that was fun. I can cross that off my list.” But I can not. Vietnam is still on my list, and it will be until I’m dead.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter magazine on April 26. Click here to subscribe.