In her latest film, The Beautiful Country, Bai Ling plays the love interest of a young Vietnamese man on a difficult odyssey from his home in Saigon to a Texas ranch to reconnect with his long-lost American father (Nick Nolte). Travel + Leisure chats with the actress about where she's off to next, her favorite Parisian haunts, and what she loves most about traveling.
Had you ever been to Vietnam before filming The Beautiful Country there?
I grew up in southern China, near Vietnam, but this was my first time over the border. We filmed there for two months, but also in Dallas and New York. The movie is a journey, like taking a train somewhere and watching the characters get on and off. Vietnam was a pleasure. The energy of Saigon—so chaotic and modern—is amazing.
Did you draw upon elements of your own life—your journey from East to West—for your role?
Not consciously. I never prepare as an actor, apart from reading the script. For me, that's not acting. When I act, I'm living the moment, and I like my emotions to surprise me. And through my travels, I've been exposed to real life and had many interesting encounters throughout the worldthose memories come to me on set and help me understand the experiences of my characters.
In the film, America is not always so "beautiful." Has the United States lived up to your expectations?
America has been very generous to me—I'm always working. I'm far luckier in life than the character I play in the movie—and also more romantic. I would have made different decisions than her, but her struggle made me understand that reality can be harsh at times. I walked away from this film with a greater appreciation for my own life.
You have a significant fan base in China, what happens when you return for a visit?
Last time I was in Hong Kong, I was followed by the paparazzi. It was kind of scary and strange, but I appreciate it when fans recognize me. I've had such diverse transformations on screen that I'm surprised when someone connects me to the characters from my movies.
What's your favorite city?
I have such a love affair with Paris. I first visited the city in 2001 while shooting a French film with Luc Besson, and I return all the time. I love the Ritz and the Place Vendôme, and I always go to Buddha Bar and Luc's restaurant, Market, in the Eighth Arrondissement.
Have you ever switched your travel plans at the last minute and had a better time because of it?
Two years ago, I was invited to Johannesburg for the opening of a casino, but ended up going on safari instead. For two weeks, I would wake up at 4:30 each morning to chase nature. I felt a certain poetic kinship with the leopards. They disappear if they don't want you to find them, but they let me get pretty close.
What do you love most about traveling?
I like long airplane rides—with no phone calls or distractions. I just lie back and let my thoughts come. Sometimes, I'll even get a massage. I pack as little as I can and buy things when I arrive, except shoes. I bring different colors to match what I'm wearing. I opt for whatever's comfortable, but I do love my high-heeled Armani boots and anything by Jimmy Choo.
Do you have a favorite souvenir?
I'm not very attached to material things, but I do collect postcards wherever I go. Sometimes I'll give them to my friends and family on their birthdays or a special occasion. Each one is unique and representative of a specific city.
Where are you off to next?
I live out of hotel rooms—I'm on my way to D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and then back to L.A. for another movie. I also spend a lot of time in Asia. When I'm in Bangkok, I stay at the Oriental. In the mornings, I'll take a long breakfast and gaze along the banks of the Chao Phraya. I visit China often, because my family is still there. I feel as if I was meant to live a gypsy's life.
I love this private club in London. The space is quite intimate.
6 Air Street; 44-207/343-0040
Koi—in L.A. near Melrose—is a popular Japanese restaurant. I have their tuna served with crispy rice at least once a week.
730 N. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/659-9449
In New York, I dine at Nobu. The food is great, especially the spicy tuna hand roll.
105 Hudson Street; 212/219-0500; www.noburestaurants.com
The tarte tatine is amazing and the mint tea made with fresh mint leaves. Dining outside is very transporting—it makes me feel as though I'm in Italy or France.
113 N. Robertson Blvd, Los Angeles, Calif.; 310/274-8303
Quan Ju De
In Beijing, everyone goes to this authentic restaurant to have the Peking Duck—it's the only dish they serve and it's unbeatable.
32 Qianmen Ave.; 86-10/6701-1379
Enjoy the New American cuisine—spicy Louisiana crab cakes, homemade butterscotch sundaes—in the intimate, folksy dining room of this Los Angeles institution, or in its walled outdoor patio covered with climbing roses. However, you’ll probably be too distracted by the celebrity at the table next to you to pay attention to your food. Past sightings include Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, and Ben Affleck. The actress Bai Ling recommends the tarte tatine and the mint tea made with fresh mint leaves, while Donald Trump is partial to the prime rib.
Quan Ju De Duck Restaurant
As the name implies, it’s all about the roast Peking duck at this Chongwen district restaurant. The Quan Ju De brand (government-affiliated) began in 1864, and now has many locations across China. Quanren Yang, the first restaurant manager, came from a province suffering from famine and used his business savvy to establish the now-famous brand. Dishes are made from nearly every part of the duck, and it’s sliced at table side. Pay a set price for the duck and the “trimmings,” or pay extra for each accoutrement, such as thin pancakes and sauces.
Nobu New York
This inventive Japanese restaurant named after head chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is a Tribeca fixture. Nobu evokes the Japanese countryside with David Rockwell's interior design of natural textures, birch trees, wood floors, and river stones. The food shows the same care of design, as Matsuhisa fuses classic sushi training with his experiences in South America, resulting in unique dishes like yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno, lobster with wasabi pepper sauce, and the beloved black cod with miso.
With its sultry, feng-shui-conscious design, flickering candlelight, and crowds of A-listers sipping sake martinis, Koi is perhaps better known for its glitzy scene than it is for its Japanese-inspired food. But even if there are no paparazzi waiting outside for Lindsey or Paris to finish their spicy tuna, the dishes here are reliably yummy. Kobe beef carpaccio with yuzu vinaigrette, spicy seared albacore with crispy onions, and miso-bronzed black cod are all flavorful and satisfying—and great fuel for star-gazing.
One of London’s most popular upscale nightclubs, Chinawhite is frequented by wealthy tourists and celebrities, with former patrons including Kate Moss, Lindsey Lohan, and Lilly Allen. After the club moved to its new location in 2009, interior design firm Satmoko Ball remodeled the venue using the principles of feng shui. The ground floor houses a contemporary Asian restaurant, decorated with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper and Balinese friezes, while the downstairs club contains color-changing light fixtures and a glass bar inscribed with a Chinese love poem. Beside the dance floor, international DJ’s play a mix of house, R&B, and dance music.