Have you ever had the opportunity to not only learn about history but to actually see it firsthand… And eat lunch!? This is one of those opportunities, and not to be missed during a visit to Ho Chi Minh City!
Pho Binh, meaning “peace soup”, is a humble noodle shop found nestled in a bustling vietnamese neighbourhood. From the outside it appears the same as most other eateries in Saigon, and the food (albeit very good) is not much different either. However, behind the facade of this ordinary noodle shop hides a historic secret – as the secret headquarters of the Vietcong guerrilla fighters!
We read about this little gem in a LonelyPlanet guide, which didn’t make it out to be much, just a cool place to grab lunch. So, as we were in the area we thought we’d pop in for a bite to eat. And boy did LonelyPlanet downplay this place!
We had been expecting some interesting pictures on the walls but that was the extent of our expectations, so nothing prepared us for the hands-on history lesson we were about to receive!
We were greeted by a lovely elderly man, I believe he was the original owners nephew, who while our order was being made left us with a stack of books and some newspaper articles. The books contained a collection of images and messages from visitors over the years – images of the owner sharing his stories with guests and messages of solidarity and respect. As we read our newspaper articles we learned about the owner, a man called Toai, who sold noodles to US personnel by day, and by night hosted the Vietcong in his upstairs room! He was a commander in the war and was even taken capture, only to be released as part of an exchange. Following the war he continued to run his modest noodle shop, telling his stories to visitors, until he died in the late nineties. Today the shop is run by his relatives, who (we were led to believe) have left the shop the same as it was back when it was a secret headquarters!
Our Pho was brought to us, and despite having lived in Saigon for nearly a month now, we are still not great at doing our own flavouring. Not to worry, the lovely man who greeted us seasoned for us, showing us what to add next – mint, chilli, lime, fish sauce – turning it into the best Pho we’ve had!
While we poured over the books, leaving our own message within (if you go be sure to look for it!), the man came back to ask if we wanted to see upstairs. Erm… YES, please! We followed him through the kitchen and upstairs, again not expecting much. But upstairs, in the room in which the Vietcong planned their attacks was a whole museum set out, with all the original features left untouched. To make it even more special, we were the only people there for the majority of the time, getting a private explanation of each display!
Above you can see all the members of the Vietcong who were involved in the planning of operations here, most of which we were told have now passed. Many of these individuals are hailed as heroes of the war, and it is interesting to see that it is not just men who feature. Many women were also operationally involved, I believe including Toai’s wife.
These are the commanders who met here and were in charge of executing and planning attacks. In the top right you see the young owner of the noodle shop, Toai.
A shrine to the family, with Toai in his military uniform.
The final attack on the US embassy which marked the end of the Vietnam-America War was planned in this very room.
Toai’s war medals, received for his contribution, the risk he put himself at and the sacrifices he made to the war effort. It’s amazing to think that one man can make such an impact to be honour with this many medals!
Our “guide” insisted we get this picture – sitting at the table drinking tea as they did when planning. All the furniture remains from its days as a secret headquarters, so it was pretty insane to be sitting right where the masterminds of some of the greatest turning points in the war once sat.
We had such a great time learning about the war from the heart of its operations, it really was a hands on insight! The gentlemen who took us round was fab, sharing his knowledge of the operations, his family and their stories.
In total including our lunch, drinks and a tip for our guide we only spent 200,000 dong (£6.80), so this is definitely an affordable way to explore the war from the Vietnamese perspective. We haven’t been to the museums or Chu Chi tunnels yet (were hoping to go next month when our friend visits) but this was a great introduction to the history of the war! We would highly recommend Pho Binh, even if only for the delicious noodle soup!
You can find Pho Binh at 7 Lý Chính Thắng, district 3, Hồ Chí Minh City.
D + F