Cha Ca in Hanoi

In two months I will be packing to return to Vietnam on a journey I imagined as I flew away from Hanoi the first time. That first time I had taken a journey that was as much spiritual and emotional as geographical. Hanoi, Vietnam, could never be for me simply a place I could negotiate by taking with me my usual tools. This time the guidebook, the map, had to be of a different territory located in memory and attached meaning. “Hanoi,” I would tell people, was for me a combination of Mordor and The Borg. It was a childish association but one not easily dislodged. The possibility of going there produced in me a panic out of all proportion to reality either then or now, but it was there and I had to do something about it.

I began with a secure sense of where I wanted to go but only a vague sense of how to get there. My panic, of course, was associated with the war that had been the backdrop to my teen years and had become a character in the story of my becoming an adult. As a sheltered woman in the late 60s who lived in a morally black and white world that was rapidly dissolving into shades of gray, I had the luxury of outraged opposition combined with the frisson of engaged activism. The body counts, the jungles and rice paddies, the mud and blood, came to me only through the television as I, like so many others, ate my dinner and the war at the same time. My body was safe in an intellectual house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and yet absorbed sensory information to the point that even today I cannot hear a helicopter overhead without thinking of Vietnam.

I knew I had to look at the war, look straight at it, and yet not to stay there too long. The associations I had with Hanoi were born out of a primal fear that had remained in place somewhere in my body for decades. I wanted to release that fear, to see Hanoi simply as a place, where people lived, raised children, walked about the streets. I wanted to see it as complex, filled with suffering and hope, emotions and aspirations akin to my own. I could not get there either by denying the war or by making it so big it took up all my psychic space. So I did the only thing that seemed to make sense at the time – I started learning about the food.

I began with Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam on the Cooking Channel. Luke is such a pleasant person and he loves Vietnam and Vietnamese cooking and every show left me literally shivering with dread. Weasel coffee? Fetal duck eggs? Food cooked out on the sidewalk and eaten while sitting on child-sized stools amidst a scrum of pedestrians and motor bikes? Seriously?

I bought Kim Fay’s Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, which is a gorgeous book so that helped. Some of the stories even stuck with me – like the one about cha ca, a fish speciality of Hanoi, catfish marinated in turmeric and served with peanuts, scallions and dill. But when I read it I was still at the stage in which my mind could not comprehend “Hanoi” and so located the story in Saigon. I bought To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur and read all the parts about food. I could hang on to the “connoisseur” part but all the talk of dodging traffic and motorbikes and just getting from one place to another … I was still working on letting Vietnam be a place, like Rome, for instance, which has plenty of traffic and motorbikes and where it is also a challenge to get from one place to another.

But as the idea of actually eating became real I faced some decisions. On the basis of what would I decide to eat something or not to eat it? I believe in nose-to-tail on principle, it’s just in practice there could be a problem. I eat chicken all the time but not grilled chicken feet or intestines. What if I were offered a fetal duck egg? Or dog? Or some sort of insect? (Watching Anthony Bourdain’s show about Hanoi, the one where he is served fried waterbugs lined up side by side on the plate, that was a mistake.)

What I was really deciding was how much I was going to allow Vietnam in, how much I was going to yield, and on what terms. And, in the end, it wasn’t difficult. I never saw deep fried insect. I saw roast dog in a night market and just walked right on by. I was offered fetal duck egg in my cooking class and I ate it. And I went to the original cha ca restaurant, the one in the book, upstairs in a French colonial building, the fish served in a tabletop grill.

I took my cue from the Vietnamese themselves. They have incorporated elements of all the cultures they have encountered into their own and yet they are themselves. The dill in the cha ca is an influence from the French, who also brought paté, baguettes, and eggplant. The Vietnamese got rid of the colonialism but kept the food, negotiating a settlement that is life-giving and seductive. And I was seduced.

In Part Two, Packing, I will continue the story as I approach my second trip to Vietnam.