Ha VL is probably the worst-kept secret in Portland. Sure, the tiny banh mi shack is tucked almost invisibly into the back end of a Southeast 82nd Avenue strip mall, and its exterior looks a bit like an inner-city smoke house. But its rotating menu of meticulously crafted Vietnamese soups has become legend.
After eating there four days in a row on a 2010 tour stop, Pavement bassist Mark Ibold became so obsessed with the place that he wrote a love letter to Ha VL in Lucky Peach. Bon Appétit's Alex Grossman declared Ha VL one of his favorite five restaurants in the world, alongside Manfreds in Copenhagen and Contramar in Mexico City.
But while the meaty, herbal, elegant compositions of turmeric noodles, snail meatball soup and shrimp-caked vermicelli will indeed shock your taste buds like licking a 9-volt battery, few of Ha VL's customers know the family's world-spanning, decades-long journey to starting the restaurant.
It all began with the CIA and the fall of Saigon.
Before and during the Vietnam War, William Vuong, patriarch of the family behind Ha VL and sister restaurant Rose VL Deli, served as a Provincial Reconnaissance Forces Commander cooperating with the United States. "I was working with the CIA," the 76-year-old says with a wink, sipping tea while manning his usual station at one of Rose VL's tables.
But after the withdrawal of American troops in 1975, Vuong became distinctly unpopular with the Communist government, which he says "confiscated" his country after the war. His American connections landed him in a Vietnamese prison for 10 years.
With her husband gone, Christina Ha Luu (who loaned her name, somewhat shortened, to Ha VL) was left alone to raise their six young boys until William was eventually released as a prisoner of war in 1985. But even after his release, it quickly became apparent that the family's future lay outside the heavily destabilized country.
"There was murder and rape, it was horrible," says son Peter Vuong, now chef at Ha VL.
So in 1986, Peter and three of his brothers fled Vietnam, striking out on their own to find a place for their family.
They washed ashore at a Malaysian refugee camp on Bidong Island in the South China Sea, where the government housed countless "boat people" abandoning Vietnam. Peter doesn't like to talk about it, but the conditions were unimaginably harsh. Some reports claim 40,000 people were housed in a space approximately the size of a football field.
Luckily, he didn't have to stay long. After stopping at a way station in the Philippines, Peter was sponsored to gain immigrant status by one of his father's former students, and was able to travel to the U.S. in 1986. He survived by washing dishes and cooking, often working multiple full-time jobs, but always bouncing back to a kitchen.
But even with four of their sons already in the United States, William Vuong and Luu were unable to attain refugee status, and were stuck in limbo in Saigon. It would take seven years before they were able to rejoin their family, and 13 more before they were able to realize their dream of starting a restaurant.
Luu, 68, who seems never to stop moving and speaks in staccato bursts, was the entrepreneurial energy responsible for opening Ha VL in 2006. She'd completed a trade program in baking back in Vietnam, and had been taught how to cook by her mother and mother-in-law. Both, she says, were excellent cooks. In those early days, Ha VL was just a cafe. "We wanted a small restaurant, just sandwiches and coffee," says William.
But after a few months of miserable business, Luu decided to add a soup—bun bo Hue—to the menu. It soon began to sell out, so they added another soup, then another. Now Luu and her family serve a rotating menu of two soups each day, six days a week. Each morning, Vietnamese men, including chefs from nearby restaurants, sit in front of Ha VL eating, smoking, and drinking the restaurant's phenomenal iced coffee made with William's secret blend of beans.
They sell out of their soups each day. After noon, you're usually out of luck.
Ha VL has passed on to Peter, 49, who's maintained his parents' high standard of excellence. He shops at several markets to buy ingredients for his soups, and wakes up early to start making the broths. "I don't serve people leftovers," he says, peering over his eye glasses. He's sporting a backward paperboy cap and a sweater unzipped to reveal a small, gold chain around his neck. "It has to be made fresh every day."
You can find many of William Vuong and Luu's grandchildren working at Ha VL and Rose VL, the restaurant the couple opened when they got bored of retirement in 2015. But the family doesn't think the shop will be passed on to the next generation, whose studies include radiology, illustration and pharmacology.
For now, William can be found each day at Rose VL sitting at his table next to the kitchen. He drinks tea made from a "very special flower" from Vietnam and greets every customer (especially babies) with a smile. Luu moves quickly around the dining room and kitchen, delivering soups, taking orders and chatting with family.
Just above the front windows, where William and Luu can admire it, hangs a large photograph of their entire family, united and smiling.
Ha VL, 2738 SE 82nd Ave., 503-772-0103. Rose VL Deli, 6424 SE Powell Blvd., 503-206-4344.