Cha Ca La Vong of Hanoi & Saigon
Do you want to taste history? Do you want to send your senses back more than a hundred years? It’s easy to do. You can do it in Hanoi, or here in Saigon in District 1 or District 3. The oldest restaurant in this country is Cha Ca La Vong of Hanoi. And they have two outlets in Saigon these days. So if you’d like to have exactly the same “businessman’s lunch” (or dinner) enjoyed by folks a century ago, betake your hungry self to Cha Ca La Vong. You can go to 36 Ton That Thiep (Q1) or 3 Ho Xuan Huong (Q3). The former is small, intimate and casual. The latter is rather up market. But both are faithful reproductions of the original. And the original offers one simple, yet divine, dish: fried fish. So where does it come from?
Cha Ca is a small street in Hanoi’s old town, just 197 yards (180 metres) from end to end. In the 19th century, it was called Hang Son, or ‘Paint Street‘, because it was there that the paint sellers had their shops. At the beginning of the 20th century a restaurant was opened at Number 14. The owner was a certain Mr Doan, and his speciality was fried fish, or cha ca in Vietnamese. In front of the shop, Mr Doan set up a small statue of an old fisherman, known locally as La Vong.
Owing to the quality of his goods, Mr Doan was immediately successful. As time went by and more and more people came to dine, his place became known as La Vong. More time passed and the name of the street was changed to Cha Ca, Fried Fish Street.
The restaurant, now known as Cha Ca La Vong, is still there today. The place looks as seedy as ever, although nowadays, to please its many foreign customers, tables are covered with cloth and sometimes graced with flowers. It’s dimly lit, as it has been these hundred plus years, and the low ceiling makes the place feel a bit cozy, not to say cramped. The wooden floor tends to creak, one assumes a bit more than in decades past. Still, at the door, the old fisherman dangles his line in the empty air, as he has done for over a century. He seems to hook a lot of customers. The best tables are by the windows looking down into the narrow street. No one ever calls the place ‘seedy’, rather, they say it ‘has character’.
Several years ago a competitor opened up across the street called Son Hai. People said the service was better, and that regular customers could always get their favourite tables. Then another opened on nearby Thuoc Bac street that offered beef and chicken as well as cha ca, and in larger portions. But neither of those two places exists any more and no one speaks of them.
Cha Ca La Vong lives on, using the same kind of fish, with its firm flesh that is almost boneless. Suppliers arrive from Haiphong on the last train of the day to ensure maximum freshness. Here in Saigon it’s a different species, yet still white and firm. The fish is boned, cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated in turmeric and other spices (the full recipe is a tightly held family secret).
Unlike most restaurants in Vietnam, you must make a reservation for the Hanoi location, but it’s not necessary here. But here or there the procedure is the same. The table is set with a serving of rice vermicelli for each diner, and a plate of fresh spring onions (scallions), basil leaves, and sweet dill. A choice of dipping sauces. A waitress brings in a clay brazier filled with red hot coals in Hanoi, though it’s gas fired in Saigon, and sets it right in front of you. She hurries off and returns with a frying pan heaped with hunks of fish, coloured yellow gold by the spices. So now you stir the herbs into the fish. Let it all bubble and sizzle a while before your hungry eyes.
Now make little bed of rice noodles in your bowl. Spoon in a few pieces of crisply fried fish and herbs. Give it a dose of sauce. Now another. Now taste. Chew slowly, thoughtfully. See if you can recognize the herbs, the curry-like spices. See if you can deconstruct the recipe, because they won’t tell you what’s in it. But I can tell you that it’s one of the best dishes in town.