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When I read a little blurb about Ha VL in the Willamette Week five years ago, what caught my eye, other than the fascinatingly cryptic name, was that the soups were different each day of the week and only served until around noon. When soup ran out, the restaurant closed.
I drove there by myself because I was unable to persuade my travel companions to come and have soup with me at nine a.m. (Traveling bandmates are sometimes cranky at that hour.) Ha VL (which, if you go by the name on the awning, may fully be called Ha VL Banh Mi Thit, though I’ve never heard anyone call it that) is on Eighty-Second Avenue, about six miles from downtown Portland on the interior corner of a parking lot of a nondescript mini-mall, for which I was told to look for the more visible Wing Ming Herbs as the sign it was the right nondescript mini-mall. I parked in front of a group of about ten middle-aged Vietnamese men sitting on plastic chairs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking iced coffee.
On that first day I ordered “peppery pork-ball noodle soup.” The pork broth was lighter than I expected it to be, the rice vermicelli springier. The pork and fish balls were waaay different from others I’d had, nothing like the machine-made rubber Super Balls I was accustomed to. I looked up and nodded in appreciation to the two ladies behind the counter, awestruck by their handiwork.
I returned to Ha VL every day for the last three days of my trip, sometimes ordering both of the daily soups and taking one to go. They were consistently delicious. Some, like the Northern-style beef pho, came with sprouts, basil, and lime—the combination that I think of as “traditional.” But others were served with chopped lettuce, perilla leaves, and other herbs that I’d never seen in a soup on the East Coast. I realized that what I thought of as traditional was more accurately regional, that there were different garnishes for each style of soup.
Earlier this year I finally got to go back to Ha VL and also visit its sister, Rose VL Deli. Rose VL is very much like Ha VL except that it opens when Ha VL closes. Rose VL serves some of the same soups but on different days, which is good news for Portlanders. Now one can up their bun bo Hue or peppery pork-ball intake to twice in one week.
When I was at RVL, a customer admitted to me that he had gone that morning to Ha VL for a breakfast of bun thang (noodle soup with shredded chicken) and was now here for a dinner of banh canh cua (noodle soup with flaked crab). Ha (Christina) Luu and her husband, William Vuong, the proprietors, laughed when they heard this, but I could tell it wasn’t the first time it had happened.
I sat down with them and their son, Peter, who took over Ha VL in 2014 when Christina thought she wanted to retire, to ask them all the questions I’d stored up over years of enjoying their soups.
When did you come to the United States? Can you tell me a bit about how you came to open these shops?
William Vuong: I worked for the American Embassy in Saigon for thirteen years, from 1962 to 1975. First, I was with the Special Forces, and later I was an intelligence case officer for the embassy. After that, they sent me to special training, and they promoted me to be the captain at the prevention reconnaissance unit, where I was a commander. After the fall of Saigon, the Communists confiscated my country. And they put me in prison for ten years.
Oh boy. So you were in prison from ’75 to ’85?
WV: Right. And I was stuck in Saigon seven more years, as a teacher of English. I didn’t want to join with the Communist government that I hated. The Communists, they’re my enemy. After that, they had the political negotiations between the U.S. government and Communist government, and because I worked for America for thirteen years, I was released as a POW.
Did your family come with you?
WV: No, my family went before.
When did you come, Peter?
Peter Vuong: I came to Portland in ’86. I was eighteen.
WV: The kids came first. They fled the country by boat—the boat people! We depended on my record of working for the American Embassy in Saigon. All my children had support—they had a big camp in Malaysia and the Philippines, the orientation camp. A lot of people went that way.
WV: Because when I was teaching at a university in Saigon after I was released from the prison, one of my students had joined his family in Portland. He wrote me a letter saying, Teacher, I want to adopt your son to Oregon. So I sent my old paperwork to him, and he sponsored my son.
I came to the United States November 22, 1993, and the Portland public schools hired me as an education assistant. The director of the ESL program in Portland public schools called me two months after I arrived—she had listened to my youngest son talking in English. She called me and said, I really need you, please come help. I said, Okay, I have a part-time job. I need a full-time job. She hired me in ten minutes.
Was that because there were a lot of Vietnamese students in the Portland schools?
WV: Right. In Portland during that time, there were a lot of new arrivals, so they hired me right away, in ten minutes. While teaching, I continued my education at Portland State University. I got my MA in two years, but I forgot to graduate. My counselor called me and said, You want to do graduation? I had 197 credits, seven more than I needed. I forgot to graduate! He had to call me.
And during that time, did you think about opening a restaurant?
WV: No, I love teaching. My wife, she likes business. So I continued my training at nighttime to open a company, and for work I cleaned hospitals and offices. I used that money to continue my education and support my family. I worked as a janitor for six years, and then I opened a mini-mart for my wife. But we were having too many problems with the mini-mart. I quit that job and opened the restaurant.
Ha (Christina) Luu: The reason why I opened the restaurant was because his mom was a very good cook—she made food very, very excellent. I thought, If I can have a restaurant, I can have a special thing. I didn’t want it to be like every restaurant. I told my husband, Hey, I want to open a small restaurant.
So when did the restaurant open?
WV: Not restaurant cooking! Home-style cooking.
When I came for the first time in 2010, I got goose bumps, because I ate that food and I thought, This isn’t restaurant food. Did you learn to cook when you were young?
HL: His family is from Nha Trang, on the south-central coast of Vietnam. When I was still young in Nha Trang, I took a cooking class for a couple years. My own family had many kinds of different, good noodles in North Vietnam, Hanoi. And there are some noodles in South Vietnam, which I learned myself. I’d go to a restaurant, I’d eat them, and after that I would try to make it and mix it in with our restaurant. In the beginning, it was one noodle a day, but on the weekends we made two noodles a day.
In the beginning, when you started, your customers mostly were Vietnamese, right?
WV: American. Right away.
HL: The reason why they knew about my restaurant was because we got doctors from every hospital in here, and they posted it in a trade book somewhere. That was the first thing. The second thing was Andy Ricker. At that time, he just had one restaurant, Pok Pok. He was in my restaurant six days a week.
WV: He helped.
HL: I kept that business for eight years, and after that my son took it over. He was the head chef at Nike and after that he had one small restaurant on Burnside Street. So after eight years, I thought I was going to retire, and he took over. But after that I had some trouble: I was bored!
And so now you’ve got two places. Ha VL, where Peter runs the show, and Rose VL, where you cook—
WV: We made a revolution in the restaurant. I saw other restaurants that have one big cooking broth and they use that kind of the broth for many different foods. But it needs to be different, separate broths. We don’t mix together. And that’s what makes our restaurants different—