Revisiting Tet 1968: Saigon’s Revolutionary Noodle Shop

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.

HIDDEN HISTORY: Beyond the restaurant’s steamy broth cauldrons and modest tables and chairs is a rich story of revolution.
HIGH PRAISE: Citations and plaques proclaim Pho Binh a national monument and cultural landmark for its role in the Battle of Saigon in 1968.

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.

SAIGON ABLAZE: Viet Cong commandos set explosions throughout the city.

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.

SURROUNDED: Mr. Lap on my right and a photo of his father, Mr. Toai over my left shoulder.

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.

South Vietnamese National Police Chief Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan executes a Viet Cong prisoner during the Tet Offensive in Saigon, 1968. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
CHOLON DEVASTATED: A major section of Saigon was destroyed in order to save it during the Tet uprising in 1968.

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.

FLOWER POWER: The pedestrian mall in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City will be adorned with millions of colorful blooming flowers and trees for the Tet holiday of 2019.
HAPPY NEW YEAR: Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! From Miss Hang Nguyen in Ho Chi Minh City.

12 Replies to “Revisiting Tet 1968: Saigon’s Revolutionary Noodle Shop

  1. It really is something to see. I’ll send you some real time pix from last year and this that I received from some friends in Saigon.

  2. So much more to tell on the political side–both Vietnamese and American. Military experts to this day maintain Tet ’68 was a watershed moment when the tide turned against the communists and had the South and the US pressed its advantage aggressively, the outcome of the war would have been totally different. For the communists, it was a bitter defeat militarily, but also their main strategic objective of having the citizenry AND the rank and file military of the South Vietnam rise up to “throw off the yolk of American imperialists and the puppet government of Saigon” simply did not materialize. What no one expected was the querulous media reaction to the offensive, and the change in public opinion that resulted. Faced with the horror of live TV coverage and graphic battle photos, Congress AND Johnson lost their will to support the military’s call for increased troops and actions. The US, in short, blinked. IMHO, however, even if the US had doubled down with the military option, the VC and the North Vietnamese government would have never given up. Rather, the country would have been ravaged and pillaged and its culture destroyed even more than what eventually occurred.The decade long Vietnam War could have easily stretched another 10 years or more. A lesson, unfortunately, not yet learned, vis a vis Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. Unfortunately, not enough of our policy makers and leaders know or understand history.

  3. Fred,
    I loved this story in particular. I really didn’t understand the Tet Offensive before reading your account of those awful days in 1968. But your writing style is so engaging- it brings me there with you, makes the people in your story real and human. It’s a wonderful gift you have for inclusive storytelling.
    Bravo my friend.
    Jim Riordan

  4. Thanks Jim. There’s many points of view. Military and foreign policy wonks to this day debate the many facets of this event and its outcome. I’ve just tried to report what I discovered in my research and my experience. The little known story of this little noodle shop was enlightening. I’m thankful to my guide Kevin Huynh (that’s him in the opening photo), for leading me there.

  5. After 9 trips to Vietnam from Hawai’i I can still learn something new about this wonderful country. Thanks.

    An aside: 1st husband flew F105snout of Thakli in ‘67-68.
    At almost the same time (1966) my present husband of 38 years was a Marine radio operator based out of Chu Lai..

  6. Reading before the Stupid Bowl, Phil? I am so f***ing impressed. Must be that good Florida air! Cheers.

  7. Dear Sir
    I am a long time friend of Kháng, I have for some years working with him on Tours to Vietnam, I too was in the Military and served in our last Colonial war Aden 1967.

    I am a great admirer of 1st Air Cav.

    Please bookmark my pages
    Easternhorizonstravel.com, all the links are there.

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