Terkel has his eyes closed in every picture, I swear.
The pho bo was satisfactory, but not mind-expanding
(…maybe I ask too much from my soup).

A pho restaurant named ‘Peace Soup’ that held the command of a massive military operation? How much more Vietnamese can you get?! Probably not much. If it were a perfume it would be called Essence d’Viet.

I may be in the minority in this, but I didn’t get a whole lot of education concerning America’s actions in Vietnam in my public school education. I feel shortchanged, and a bit stupid about it.

Soup’s on – It’s Learnin’ Time!

The entire back half of the 20th century was a blur in history classes (as it was also, now that I think of it, in my Theatre History/Literature class), and although names and events stir a vague recollection in our collective unconscious for me, I’m embarrassed to reveal exactly how much I don’t know about the Vietnam conflict… AKA The American War.

Embarrassed because I live here now, and doubly embarrassed because the trauma of this prolonged, ridiculous war game has had long-lasting effects and left obvious scars (albeit, scars fading into the past) on many of America’s politicians and demagogues in the years since.

Visitors from all over the world have left notes expressing
peace and well-wishes for the family operators of Pho Binh.

Every time the hawkish white men push to go to war, there are fewer and fewer people to remind us of our mistakes in Vietnam (more recently Iraq, which is sadly now becoming a new problem), which is a pity.

The world needs more friends, and fewer enemies. This is the current attitude of the Vietnamese government (except maybe about China) and certainly of Pho Binh (Peace Soup), and has been since the Tet Offensive was planned above the kitchen of this restaurant beginning in October of 1967.

The family is always ready to offer soup and history lessons – they embrace the significance that their establishment holds – and they have been drawing in curious members of the public for over 44 years since the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

My mission to understand more about this prolonged and divisive conflict continued in the most delicious and interesting way possible… with food and some first-hand history.

Nothing has been moved since the Fall of Saigon.
The elderly man giving us a tour took roughly 3 dozen pictures of the three of us.
P.S. I sorta love the chairs in the foreground.
Terkel and Erin are both (so sadly, for me) back home…
but thanks for sharing the experience with me, guys!

The primary educational opportunity in town is the War Remnants Museum. [Aside: I’ll admit that I’ve been revising my blog post about that landmark for over six months – it’s a dense, layered, and emotional museum, and I honestly have a difficult time wrapping my head around it.]

But war remnants go beyond a museum setting.

Even with a strong majority of the population (some 70%+ in 2012) born after hostilities ceased, there still exist quiet places that bear witness to the people and events that helped Vietnam end a couple millennia of on-and-off foreign incursion, domination, and occupation. The offensive actions plotted in these quiet, unassuming places started history on the road to the results of 1975 – the surrender of the South Vietnamese forces and withdrawal of America from Vietnam.

One of these places is a Pho shop (naturally): Pho Binh, at 7 Ly Chinh Thang street in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
Just a few of the major players.

I had the good fortune to visit Pho Binh with my friends Erin and Terkel before they left the country. While the pho was good (not great, but standard deliciousness), it was really the upstairs room that made our trip interesting.

This was the place where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces planned and commanded the famous Tet Offensive – another one of those vaguely familiar events you hear adults of a certain age bandying about as if everyone’s familiar with it.

Today, this room is conserved in a near pristine state, and hosts foreigners, schoolchildren, and Vietnamese from around the country who are interested in the battle that turned the tide of war against the American and South Vietnamese.

Terkel! Open your eyes!! There’s HISTORY here!
And Ben, stop sweating. You look like a sweaty pillow.
(…Erin, you’re doing great. Only 25 more shots to go.)

1967 slowly wound to a close in Vietnam. As American soldiers were eating pho bo downstairs and America was congratulating itself on preventing , the highest levels of the communist leaders were meeting upstairs. They chose several major targets in Saigon, although the really remarkable – and utterly surprising, to America – part of their strategy was a unified and simultaneous attack on virtually the entire Southern half of the country. It was the biggest military operation conducted by either side up to this point.

A partial list of targets successfully attacked amid the sounds of firecrackers (which masked the sound of bullets and added essential confusion for South Vietnamese/American troops) soon included 80,000 communist soldiers attacking targets covering the entire country, including:

  • 36 of 44 province capitals
  • 5 of 6 autonomous cities
  • 72 of 245 towns
  • Saigon (HCMC)
    • Tan Son Nhut Air Base (offices of the commanding general)
    • Independence Palace (South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace)
    • the US Embassy (brand new as of October 1967)
    • Long Binh Naval Headquarters
    • the National Radio Station (considered an essential target, as they had come prepared with a prerecorded speech by Ho Chi Minh encouraging more open rebellion and solidarity)
These medals were awarded to Ngo Toai by the Vietnamese
Communist Party and the State for his achievements
in the revolutionary activities – thanks for hosting, Toai.

While it was a military failure in every one of its stated objectives (in Saigon), it stoked serious anti-war sentiment in America and instilled doubt in American forces – for these North Vietnamese forces, who had suffered defeat after defeat prior to this military action, it was a rallying point and a major political triumph, no matter the level of military failure (which was fairly spectacular, all told).

Their failure only served to stiffen their spines, however, and the Tet Offensive was followed by several ‘mini-Tet’ offensive actions later in 1968, in May and August, although neither were as wide-ranging as the one that occurred during the Lunar New Year.

This restaurant stands to the memory of that day, and a memorial to the leaders who were soon captured and executed or tortured by American and South Vietnamese forces. If you know your Vietnamese conflict history, it’s very interesting. If you speak/read Vietnamese, I’m sure it’s utterly fascinating. If you’re me, it was small, hot, and the most interesting thing about the physical space was the soup. Still, however, it drove me to research, and that was genuinely fascinating stuff.

The shop is owned and operated by the surviving family of Ngo Toai, a comrade who, until his death in 2005 at 87, was personally proud to welcome foreigners and Vietnamese alike into his restaurant with a smile and a hot bowl of beef noodle soup.

It wouldn’t be an American War memorial without a picture and quote from Uncle Ho.
Despite what this plaque states, other sources indicate that his message was never
broadcast out of the National Radio Station before the wires to the studio were cut.
If you have time in HCMC and are interested in seeing a piece of history, I suggest stopping by. Every museum should come with a hot, tasty, interactive exhibit and a friendly host family! If you’re not into pho or the American War, skip it, however unique.
Can you recommend a good history of the Vietnam conflict? I think this might help me finally finish up that post about the War Remnants Museum… Leave it in the comments!