In her weighty tome, ‘1000 places to see before you die’, travel writer Patricia Schultz advises readers to shuffle along to Cha Ca La Vong restaurant in Hanoi before they croak. However, if you browse a little further along the bookshelf, next to Schultz’s two tonnes of pulped rainforest, you’ll find noodlepie’s very own ‘1 thing to do before you leave Hanoi’. It’s a slim volume consisting of a single piece of advice: ‘Find out the address of Cha Ca La Vong in Saigon and go there instead.’
Cha Ca originated in Hanoi at the Doan family restaurant over a century ago. The street was later renamed simply Cha Ca Street, a legend was born and the hordes still stampede up the narrow, creaking stairs of number 14 to this day. It’s a very tired looking restaurant and it has something of a monopoly on the dish (The name Cha Ca La Vong was copyrighted in 1989), but the lazy, slapdash service and average grub put some folk off a return visit. However, in late 2003 Cha Ca La Vong opened its first Saigon branch at
31 Nguyen Thi Dieu Street in District 3 number 3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, Ward 6, District 3 (tel: +84 (8) 830 5674). The food is better, the service comes without the northern snarl and the indoor/outdoor restaurant is still sparse like the Hanoi original, but far cleaner, more modern and comfortable.
There’s only one fish on offer in Hanoi. In the decadent south you can choose from two varieties, Ca Loc (Snake head fish) or the fattier Ca Tre. I tried the Ca Tre once, but the original and only fish on offer in Hanoi, the Ca Loc, works better. The dish is already a greasefest, so you don’t really need a fatty fish clogging up the pipes any further. The fish is fried in a saffron tempered frying pan on a charcoal burner sat upon your table. There’s bun (cold vermicelli noodles), unsalted peanuts, chopped yellow chili, chopped spring onion, herb plate (mainly a kind of mint and coriander), mam tom (shrimp paste) and nuoc mam (fish sauce). The waiter brings a bowl of hedgerow consisting of green sections of spring onion and dill he chucks it into the frying pan for a minute of rapid reduction before eating.
Pick and choose what you like from the sidedishes and stick it in your bowl. Lastly, you’ll be needing a wee bit of sauce. Fish sauce good, Mam tom better. A spoonful of the purple monster brings Cha Ca to life. OK – I know – it stinks, but try it just once, it really works. It’s also worth stirring some sugar and half a lemon into the mam tom to tart it up before letting it loose in your bowl. This is the greasiest dish in the east, but one of the best. Dinner for two with one extra order of Cha Ca (it’s that good…) plus a couple of drinks costs 208,000VD. It’s slightly cheaper in Hanoi. Cha Ca at 31 Duong Thanh street, Hanoi is an excellent (and better) alternative to the original joint. View the business card and reverse side info. You can also see – Cha ca the movie
– It’s brief and bad, but you do get to hear the dodgy, but very popular, resto music you hear all over Saigon. Plus the lovel sizzle of Cha ca cha-cha-cha-ching-ing… Yumm.
NB: This joint has moved around the corner. I’ll find out the address and update