For those who may not know, pho is a yummy Vietnamese noodle soup. We had the pleasure of having lunch at an unassuming pho shop in Ho Chi Minh City called Pho Binh (in English, Peace Noodle), located at 7 Ly Chinh Thang. Unassuming until you notice the pictures and commendations on the wall, and until the current proprietor Mr. Nguyen sees your interest and plops down a couple of old photo books in front of you.
Back in the 1960’s the shop was owned by Mr. Nguyen’s “uncle”, Ngo Van Toai. It turns out that pho was not the only thing that Mr. Toai was cooking up in his shop. He was also a member of the National Liberation Front (NLF), known in the West as the Viet Cong (VC). While he was serving up noodle soup in the downstairs restaurant, upstairs he was running an NLF communications center. In 1968 that upstairs room was where NLF cadres met to plan the attack on Saigon as part of the famous Tet Offensive. While the Tet Offensive was a tactical defeat for the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army (the US and South Vietnamese militaries eventually beat back the attacks), it arguably marks the beginning of the end of US military involvement in Vietnam and the eventual fall of the South Vietnamese government to North Vietnamese forces in April 1975.
Shortly after the Tet Offensive Mr. Toai was found out, whereupon he, his family, and other NLF cadres were arrested. A couple of his collaborators were executed on the way to prison, and his family was released shortly after their arrest. Mr. Toai was spared the executioner’s bullet, but he was tortured and imprisoned in the infamous Con Son Island Prison until his release in 1973 as part of a prisoner exchange program. He died in 2006. His wife, also an NLF cadre, was killed in action in 1969.
Mr. Nguyen was kind enough to give us a tour of the upstairs room, which contains the original 1960’s furniture, photos of Mr. Toai, his family, and other NLF cadre, and other mementos of the time when Pho Binh was much more than a neighborhood noodle shop.
For his part, Mr. Nguyen fought for the NLF during the American War. He was severely wounded in an American bombing attack near Danang, and spent a year in the hospital recovering from his wounds. Despite that he was very warm and welcoming to us as he has been to the many other Americans, some of them war veterans, who have visited the shop in the post-war years. He, like all of the other Vietnamese people both young and old that we have met, have moved past the war years and welcome all visitors to their country.
For those interested in more details on the history behind Pho Binh, do a Google search or check these web sites: