Dining at the legendary Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi Vietnam

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Trupti Devdas Nayak

Traveler . Writer . Photographer . Artist . I write about outdoor adventures at http://wanderlustandlipstick.com/blogs/trailbound and my travels at http://www.exploringthebluemarble.com
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It is not often that you get a chance to dine in a 100-year old restaurant during your travels. Cha Ca La Vong is a legendary institution in Hanoi, Vietnam, world famous for its one and only dish of grilled fish (which translates to cha ca in Vietnamese), oftentimes served briskly and with little ceremony.

Cha Ca La Vong being cooked with dill herbsEverything you need to create your own grilled fish masterpiece at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, Vietnam

After reading this ode to Cha Ca Va Long’s iconic dish in the NYTimes, I had to visit the restaurant for myself to see what all the fuss was about. There are scores of reviews on Tripadvisor warning visitors about being duped into going to an imposter restaurant named Cha Ca La Lvong which is right across the street from the original one. Notice the extra “L” before Vong in the other restaurant’s name? Sneaky but effective!

Imposter Cha Ca restaurantThis is NOT the real Cha Ca La Vong. The real one is across the street on the second floor.

Stay away from blinky lights and any restaurant which claims to be serving Hanoi’s legendary grilled fish cha ca dish on the ground floor, because the real Cha Ca Va Long is on the other side of the street, where you have to go up a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor.

Original Cha Ca La VongThe real Cha Ca La Vong is at 14 Cha Ca Street in Hanoi, Vietnam

Now that we have the question of “Can the real Cha Ca La Vong please stand up?” answered, we can move on to more important matters. Hopefully you have made your way to the right restaurant at address 14 Cha Ca Street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Walk right in through the doors and go up a narrow wooden staircase on your left.

Inside Cha Ca La Vong UpstairsSimple and homely interiors at Cha Ca La Vong – the original restaurant

When you reach the landing, you will enter a room that should look exactly like the one in the above photo. Lots of locals and visitors will be sitting around communal tables, digging into delicious grilled fish. Smile at the servers so that they point you towards an available table, but do not expect a smile back. That’s alright, you are there for the food. The service gets a bad rep on Tripadvisor, so keep your expectations reasonable. My experience was actually quite pleasant. The servers were friendly enough and one of them even showed me how to mix the ingredients in the skillet and how to operate the stove. I think smiling helped. Read my story about discovering Vietnam through smiles.

One item menu Grilled Fish onlyThe only time I’ve been to a restaurant which had one and only one item on the menu!

It’s ok if you don’t know Vietnamese, because the menu is very easy to read. There’s only one dish on the menu! And it costs 170,000 Vietnamese Dong (approx 8 USD) per person, note: price of drink not included. The server actually hands this laminated menu to you after seating, as you look around with expectation. Just nod your head and put your hand up to show the number of people you are ordering for.

Grilling Cha Ca At The TableIngredients for a fish feast

The cooking setup might seem intimidating at first, but do not worry. Grilling fish at the table is far easier than it looks. A server will first bring over all the condiments that go with this unique dish – a plate of soft rice noodles, fresh herbs like mint and cilantro, a bowl of roasted peanuts and a bowl of dipping/fish sauce with fiery red chillies floating in it.

Turn up the flame at Cha Ca La VongDon’t be afraid of the hot stove in front of your face, at your table. Watch out for the stirring spoon, it gets hot!

From the kitchen appears a lit stove topped with a skillet which is placed in front of you at your table. As the sounds of sizzling fish make music in your ears, your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable aroma of fresh dill and garlic. Inside the skillet are all the delectable and unique ingredients that make this dish so special: fish marinated in turmeric, topped with fresh dill and shrimp paste in garlic oil. It is the dill and turmeric which impart such a unique and rave-worthy taste to the fish. Dill is rarely used in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, except in the cha ca dish.

Cha Ca Grilled FishScoop up some still steaming fish from the skillet into your bowl and dig in!

As the dill seasons the fish, the sizzling sounds on the skillet get more intense. Wait a few minutes until the fish is done cooking, then you can add more fresh herbs. Also add a spoonful or two of fish sauce with the chopped red chillies and some peanuts. Feel free to add in the rice noodles to the skillet too, which is what I did, because this will warm them up in the skillet and they get seasoned with all the flavors of the herbs and spices. Now, turn down the heat a bit so that your fish does not burn. A bowl for eating and chopsticks is all you need.

Grilled Fish Speciality HanoiThe flavors all meld into a mouth-watering combination when cooking, the fish is seasoned with umami

Surrounded by the aroma of fresh herbs, listening to the comforting sizzling sound of fish fillets being cooked in skillets all around me, I shared my table with another traveler who like me had come from far away, all the way from Japan. He was as excited as me to try this signature dish of Hanoi. We exchanged pleasantries and then gave our undivided attention to the bowls of steaming food in front of us. The combination of freshly grilled fish seasoned with turmeric, tempered with dill, spiced with flavors of shrimp paste and garlic, mixed in with fresh herbs that still have a delicious fresh bite to them, topped with crunchy peanuts is the ultimate umami of flavors. Every mouthful exploded with flavor, the heat (both spice and temperature) was intense since I was picking food right off of the stove. Even with a singed tongue, I could tell that this was going to be one of the best meals I’d ever eaten.

Cha Ca being cooked with dill herbsCha Ca La Vong’s Grilled Fish with turmeric, dill, fresh herbs and more!

Cha Ca La Vong’s grilled fish is a dish for the ages. There may be many other restaurants aspiring to be as good as the original, but there is something to be said for a 100-year old restaurant that is still cooking up magic with their one-dish menu for so many years, inspiring chefs and foodies around the world. I hope Cha Ca La Vong is still serving their signature cha ca (grilled fish) dish for centuries to come.

Happy Exploring!

~ Trupti

5 thoughts on “Dining at the legendary Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi Vietnam

  1. I have been Cha Ca La Vong, it is delicous. I also have tasted in other restaurat named Cha Ca Lang in 18 Lo Su str. Actually, the quality is similar but in Cha Ca Lang restaurant, the services are better, cheaper and very clean.

    1. Hi Luck
      Thank you for stopping by! Great to hear you enjoyed the food at Cha Ca La Vong. It’s definitely a legendary institution that deserves a visit to experience the sizzling fish being cooked in the pan at the table, soaking in the flavors and fresh herbs. I wanted to share a Food Guide I wrote for Vietnam which was published in National Geographic Traveller India – http://www.natgeotraveller.in/food-guide-what-to-eat-in-vietnam/ Hope you enjoy the read and please share which other dishes and restaurants you’ve tried and loved!
      Cheers,
      Trupti

  2. Cha Ca La Vong (14 Pho Cha Ca-DT) was the one we went to on the 10th Nov 2017, recommended by our local tour guide.
    Tourists’ Trap, the man at the door way told us only how much per person which same as the non-English speaking woman upstair and the menu. Turned out they served by pieces in one single pan per group (our is 6) to share. Which is imilar portion to other 2 tables (one was 3, the other is 4). After numerous complains with the help of some local English speaking customers there, they finally gave us one more portion (6 small pieces). for the charge of one extra serving. At the end, they charged us another $13.00US for the tea and glasses of water which was not listed in he menu they agreed…$100.00US dinner for 6 tourists.
    Not sure about the quality, just some fried catfish with Vietnamese fish source, how special it could be.
    Please Stay Away!
    Or order the food with a written agreement and photos if you can’t find any restaurants closed by.

    1. Hi Dave,
      Sorry to hear your experience at Cha Ca La Vong at 14 Cha Ca was not as expected. Did you go upstairs to the restaurant on the first floor or were you seated downstairs on the ground floor? I’m not sure about the serving size for bigger groups as I visited by myself and I found the portion size served in the pan for 1 person to be generous and filling. I enjoyed cooking the fish at my table and savoring the unique flavors imparted by the dill and fish sauces with fresh herbs and rice noodles. It’s possible the experience was different for you and did not meet the quality or quantity you were expecting for the price. Sorry about that. I do hope you enjoy your visit to other restaurants in Vietnam and try different dishes and specialities as recommended by locals and tour guides as you travel around the country. I would recommend you also go on a Guided Food Tour in Vietnam, there are many offered in all the major cities like Hanoi, Saigon etc. I wrote this Food Guide for what to eat in Vietnam, which was published by National Geographic Traveller India – http://www.natgeotraveller.in/food-guide-what-to-eat-in-vietnam/ Hope you enjoy reading it and trying out some of the dishes I recommend in the guide 🙂
      Cheers,
      Trupti

      1. Thank!
        It’s the upper floor with a narrow staircase at the far left.
        I considered myself as an experienced traveler and photographer for my past 15yesrs all over America and SE Asia. Sad enough I just saw similar experiences from ither chats groups like TripAdvisor. I enjoyed a lot with other eatery places you recommended.
        This was totally new to us, pls go back with in group with foreigners to try our experience. It’s way worse than serving a bad meal which happened once a while.
        It’s a premeditated repeated business practices.

        Thanks again

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