Imagine being in Boston, strolling past the home of Paul Revere, and not having a clue. Not likely, right? But in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), revolutionary history is hidden and unheeded every day at #7 Ly Chinh Thang Street–an unassuming noodle shop on an unassuming street that is home to a war story extraordinaire
When I visited the Pho Binh restaurant last winter, I thought that Kevin Huynh, my guide and translator, was steering me to an early lunch at a hole in the wall storefront like so many thousands of others in Saigon’s bustling District 3. Dodging motorbikes and pedicabs on the narrow street, I rushed through the entrance oblivious to the plaque far above eye level on the outer wall. Nor did I see the citation that hung in a cloudy Plexiglas frame above the modest tables and chairs.
All I noticed was the cool white wall tiles and warm steam rising from the simmering cauldrons of fragrant chicken and beef broths. Who knew that these modest honorifics proclaimed in florid Vietnamese that I had just stepped into a “monument of cultural history.”
Right now in Saigon, homes, businesses and public spaces are aflutter with decorations and preparations for the Tet Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on February 5. Tet, if you are not familiar, is Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Easter all rolled into one in Vietnam. It’s a forward looking celebration of spring’s renewal, and a reminiscence of the past year with loved ones and friends. Folks travel to their hometowns. Cities large and small get all gussied up. The celebrations include street festivals, family reunions, elaborate meals, gift giving.
In 1968, Tet was all that, and so much more. Amid the traditional holiday ceasefire—an opportunity for South Vietnamese forces to take leave and be with family—a coordinated surprise attack was unleashed on South Vietnamese and American targets. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces rose up in hundreds of cities, towns, hamlets throughout South Vietnam. Bloody battles and political assassinations continued for days. Thousands of military, civilian and political personnel were killed; sometimes murdered. The communist forces were beaten back by overwhelming military might. But not before their point was made. The war for liberation was far from over. Indeed, the uprising was the strongest signal to date that it would never be abandoned. From that time forward, the American public and its elected representatives lost their taste for the Vietnam war. Strong hope for a conclusion short of withdrawal fizzled. It took five more violent years for US troops to leave Vietnam; eight years more for peace to conclude. And as I was about to learn, ground zero for the beginning of the end was virtually right here, at the Pho Binh noodle shop, 50 years prior to my visit.
Instead of taking a seat in the dining area, Kevin led me up a narrow rear staircase, past some living quarters and into a quiet sitting room. Posters and photos on the walls revealed details of how this modest building, decades earlier, was center stage to the historic Tet Offensive of 1968.
Still in the dark, Kevin introduced me in short order to Mr. Ngo Van Lap, a serious looking fellow some 10 years my junior, with an erect posture and a military style buzz cut to match his bearing. Mr. Lap toured me through what is essentially a family museum of the 1968 Battle of Saigon. He told me how, at the time, the noodle shop was owned by his father, Mr. Ngo Toai, and he—a mere school boy—helped out waiting tables and such. For years, as an officer of the covert F100 Viet Cong cell, Mr. Toai secretly assisted with weapons smuggling. Stockpiled in the basements of 13 similar establishments—unbeknownst to the Vietnamese and American diners slurping noodles on the floors above—were rockets, AK-47 rifles, mines, C4 explosives, and ammunition.
No one knew when the order would come for these weapons to be deployed. In the meanwhile, preparations continued and secrecy was maintained. Word was finally received that the attacks would commence on the first night of the 1968 Tet holiday. Weeks before, activity at the noodle shop stepped up remarkably. Viet Cong fighters slipped into the city and made their way to staging points such as Pho Binh. The young Mr. Lap was trained to recognize a cohort when someone ordered an odd sounding dish that was not on the menu. With this coded message, he sent the would-be diner to the same back staircase I had just climbed. An attic became temporary barracks for more than 100 Viet Cong commandos.
The offensive kicked off in the wee small hours of of January 31, under the cover of the fireworks explosions on the first night of the Tet New Year holiday. The fighters holed up in Mr. Toai’s shop targeted the Prime Minister’s Independence Palace, the radio station and the US Embassy. The US compound was breached before the rebels were fought off, killed, captured or retreated. According to Mr. Lap, only 17 of the Pho Binh fighters survived. Most of those were soon arrested and imprisoned. At least two were executed on the spot by angry and frustrated South Vietnamese military police.
A propaganda victory of the highest order, the Tet uprising cost dearly. Some estimates say that as many as 60,000 NVA and VC fighters were killed in the battles, countrywide. That’s as many as the total US military lost during the entire war. The F100 Viet Cong cell was virtually decimated in three days. Mr. Toai was arrested and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on Con Dao, the Devil’s Island of Vietnam war prisons, infamous for its torturous tiger cages. He was released in 1973 in a prisoner exchange. Mr. Toai passed away in 2006 at his apartment at 7 Ly Chinh Thang Street.
To borrow a phrase, 2019 promises to be a most wonderful time of the year in Saigon. In 1968, the holiday rang in the year of the monkey–industrious, clever, calculating. This year is the year of the pig–easy going, friendly, somewhat naive. The theme for Tet 2019 is “smart city.” Advanced technology is virtually an official mantra in today’s Vietnam. Of course there will be dragon processions (gotta have dragons!), and in good modern consumer economy style: shopping, shopping, shopping. Vietnam, after all, is a thoroughly modern country. The centerpiece of it all will be Nguyen Hue Street the pedestrian mall that stretches for a half mile or so from the Saigon River to City Hall. There, in a few days, the statue of Uncle Ho in Memorial Park will look out over acres and acres of downtown Saigon festooned with potted apricot, mandarin and peach blossom trees and all manner of brightly colored flowers.
Meanwhile, a short walk northwest along a main boulevard named for the revolt against French occupation, the beef and chicken soup at Pho Binh will be ladled out as inconspicuously as ever.