In the late 19th century, revolutionary soldiers gathered at 14 Hang Son for clandestine meetings.
During their quarter-century resistance against French colonialism, Doan Phuc and his wife Bi Van welcomed the troops with pan-fried squares of fish tossed in dill, onion, turmeric and galangal.
They called the dish cha ca. Today, Hang Son Street bears its name.
In 1871, the Doan family decided to conceal the rebel hideout by opening a restaurant named after Jiang Ziya (La Vong in Vietnamese)—a Chinese noble who made his name fishing with a bare hook and helping King Wen of Zhou overthrow the Shang Dynasty.
Cha Ca La Vong quickly became a hot dining spot favored by the very aristocrats and colonial officials it sought to unseat.
During the 1940s, Vu Bang and his wife became regulars.
In his book Hanoi Delicacies, the future spy recalled savoring the dish on breezy, chilly evenings with cups of the finest rice wine—“the kind that keeps making you drink but never really gets you drunk,” he wrote.
Bang described the restaurant as a rowdy place he always found “dizzyingly crowded, yet so delightful.”
Young waiters raced through the evening, ferrying sizzling hot pans from table to table, until the moment when one stopped, climbed onto a stool, raised a megaphone and shouted: “Gentlemen, both cha ca and fish intestines are sold out!”
Picturing himself back among the cramped and cozy tables, watching smoke rise from a skillet, Bang recalled: “Life was beautiful.”
He defined the dish as something that could never become fast food.
"One must be meticulous, if not picky, to enjoy cha ca at its best," he wrote.
Passing wars and into the spotlight
Cha Ca La Vong managed to conceal its activities for two decades, before the French arrested Doan Phuc and cut off his head. His wife, Bi Van, continued to run the restaurant and passed their secret recipe to her eldest daughter-in-law.
“We stayed, even during Operation Léa evacuation in 1947-1948,” Van’s granddaughter Ngo Tinh, now 95 years old, told VnExpress International. “We sold less before the doi moi reform, but after that business boomed.”
The family behind Cha Ca La Vong welcomed a surge of tourists and inspired the opening of hundreds cha ca spots throughout Hanoi and beyond.
Five years ago, Florence Fabricant wrote a glowing feature about American cooks trying to pay homage to the recipe for The New York Times, but tempered her own fond recollections of eating the dish in the restaurant Vu Bang so loved with a note of caution.
“Recent visitors have had a more negative experience: touristy and expensive,” she noted.
Tinh, the fifth-generation nonagenarian fish-fryer, smiled at the mention of modern gripes.
“We don’t have any other way,” she said. “The fish is pricey and we don’t want to use anything else. Nothing is as thick and tasty as bagrid catfish.”
The meaty species remains legion for standing up to the frying pan without drying out or falling apart.
Vu Bang himself dismissed his wife’s cha ca for being “always somehow crushed or overdone.”
“I’ve heard the secret is coating the fish in dog fat, but who knows?” he told his readers.
Tinh vehemently dismissed Bang’s suggestion.
“It’s no big secret,” she said. “I used to get up early, go to the market and come home with the best fish and the freshest vegetables,” she said before pointing to a yellowed photograph on the wall. “Look, that’s me about 20 years ago with the biggest bagrid ever.”
Where the alcoholics gone
Vu Bang insisted that none of the original restaurants inspired by Cha Ca La Vong would ever really last.
Today, however, around 15 Hanoi restaurants specialize in the dish. Some woo customers with cloth napkins and stemmed wine-glasses; others undercut the namesake original by over a dollar.
On a recent evening, the spartan dining room at Cha Ca La Vong sat nearly empty while Cha Ca Lao Ngu on far-flung Thai Ha was already jammed.
A fishy smoke tickled the low-ceiling as casually-dressed couples huddled together in the chilly winter air, dipping deep-fried fish in an electric green chili sauce and stuffing themselves on crunchy intestines before proceeding to sweet tofu soup and daisy tea.
Old-timers necking rice wine were nowhere to be found.
And yet, life was still beautiful.