A noodle shop’s role in Vietnam War


For decades now, the Pho Binh noodle cafe, tucked behind a tangle of parked motorcycles on Ly Chinh Thang Street, has served its trademark dish — “peace noodles.”

A survivor of Ho Chi Minh City’s relentless real estate makeover, the seven-table eatery ladles out bowl after steaming bowl of the soup, made with strips of beef and piles of rice noodles, fresh basil and cilantro. Many of the appreciative customers are unaware of the very unpeaceful plot that unfolded long ago in the family rooms upstairs.

Nguyen Kim Bach, son-in-law of the late owner, is more than aware of the plot. He was involved in it.

Nguyen, 70, is one of the last living members of the secret F100 Viet Cong cell that planned and helped carry out Saigon’s part in the January 1968 Tet offensive, using the noodle shop as their base.

The surprise attack on targets in the South Vietnam capital failed militarily. So, too, did the broader offensive by North Vietnam against more than 100 U.S.-supported cities and military targets in the south.

But it proved a political turning point, convincing millions of Americans watching reports on TV that the war couldn’t be won. “We were beaten that day,” Nguyen said. “But after that, the Americans started negotiating.”

Nguyen’s role began in 1965, when he married the eldest daughter of the noodle shop’s owner, Ngo Toai.

Ngo had brought his noodle recipe from the North more than a decade earlier. He had a street stall for years, eventually saving enough money to open the restaurant. It didn’t take long for Nguyen to realize there was more than noodle-pulling going on in the cafe, which was popular with both Vietnamese and American troops.

Encouraged by his father-in-law, Nguyen soon joined the F100 cell, which was responsible for ferrying weapons from northern strongholds to 13 basement caches around Saigon.

A few miles from the noodle shop, one of the basements has been preserved as a museum, an artifact of the North’s ultimate victory in the war. But victory was far from certain when a North Vietnamese agent named Tran Van Lai bought the building on Vo Van Tan Street and four others in 1965.

Tran posed as a rich contractor and spent a year renovating the house, adding secret escape routes through the roof, sewers and adjoining buildings. A dark-haired beauty posed as his mistress to bolster his cover.

The 5-by-30-foot, concrete-lined basement hid 800 pounds of B-40 antitank weapons, AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, dynamite and C-4 explosive. Upstairs, a Sharp Multiband Deluxe radio the size of a small suitcase allowed Tran to communicate with Hanoi and with the Cuchi tunnels, a vast network of underground passageways that served as supply routes and hiding places for Viet Cong fighters.

Nguyen and other F100 members helped transport the weapons to Tran and others on carts pulled by buffalo. The arms and explosives were hidden beneath fruit, potted plants and straw mats and secreted in the carved-out base of a traditional Vietnamese bed.

Most were moved during holiday rushes to avoid suspicion. The open peasant carts, unlike trucks, were rarely searched. “We never lost a shipment,” Nguyen said proudly.

“When we started in 1965, we didn’t know the exact date of the offensive but figured it would take a few years,” Nguyen said. “Secrecy was so tight, we rarely met.... Most communication was by secret message.”

Finally, in late January 1968, the unit got word that the long-awaited offensive would begin in three days. Nguyen and his father-in-law closed the noodle shop, stocked up on food and held strategy sessions in a second-floor back room.

Over the three days, more than 100 Viet Cong fighters passed through the noodle shop, some picking up their orders and moving on, others hiding in the attic, where space was so tight that the men slept sitting up. They barely moved and never talked, sustained by steaming bowls of soup.

At 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, they got orders to attack designated targets, including the U.S. Embassy and Independence Palace, the seat of the South’s government, early the next morning. Fighters fanned out across the city.

Shocked South Vietnamese and U.S. troops managed to rebuff the Viet Cong. A few days later, police arrived at the noodle shop and arrested 13 people, including Nguyen, his wife and his in-laws.

When the captured North Vietnamese agents were frog-marched to police headquarters, enraged South Vietnamese officers summarily shot the first two.

Nguyen was third in line, a pistol at his temple, smoke curling from its barrel, when the order came to stop shooting. This would seem to have been the luckiest moment of his life.

“It was the unluckiest,” he said. “The torture that followed was so unspeakable. I wished I’d joined them,” he said, referring to his executed comrades.

The family managed to pull together $3,000 for bribes that secured the release of Nguyen’s wife and mother-in-law, he said. But he and Ngo endured two months of daily torture. Small pins were hammered under each fingernail, Nguyen said, until they came out the other side. Then they were pulled out, slowly and in a twisting motion.

Nguyen was hung from the ceiling by his handcuffed arms. His heels were battered with baseball bats. Most unbearable, however, was the water torture. “It starts as a drip,” he said. “But by the 100th time it feels like a hammer blow to your head.”

As he recounted the ordeal, Nguyen pulled out bottles of several medications he takes for a bad heart — the legacy, he said, of the months of torture.

He said he tried to commit suicide three times. Eventually, he was sentenced to five years in a Saigon prison, while his father-in-law, Ngo, was sent to the notorious Con Son Island prison.

But when police went to the building on Vo Van Tan Street to arrest Tran, his ingenious renovations paid off. As authorities fired at the green iron gate — the bullet marks are still visible — he fled via one of his escape routes.

Ngo and Nguyen were released in 1973 under a general amnesty, part of the Paris Peace Accords. Ngo returned to his cafe in Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and continued serving noodles to Vietnamese and, later, American customers until his death in 1994. His youngest son now prepares the signature peace noodles.

After Saigon fell in 1975, leaving the Communist Party in control of the unified country, the new government bestowed numerous awards on Tran and the others, and Tran was promoted to general.

Nguyen sees no contradiction between his and Ngo’s role in the Tet offensive and the presence of American customers happily chowing down at the cafe.

“We weren’t anti-American, just anti-bad-policies,” said Nguyen, whose son lives in Houston. “Recently, our prime minister’s daughter married an American. We resented American support, but never American people.”

Magnier was recently on assignment in Ho Chi Minh City.