A war museum and a soup shop would, on the face of it, have little in common. However, in Asia anything is possible. Pho Binh is no ordinary soup shop and the War Remnants Museum is no ordinary museum. The connection will soon become clear.
I have been promising myself that I would make a visit to the War Remnants Museum, since I arrived in Saigon, eight months ago. I finally went and the experience, I have to say, left me utterly drained. This is not a place for the faint hearted. It certainly confronts, like no other place I have visited. War is a nasty business and the attempts to sanitise it, almost make it acceptable at times. Almost that is, until you walk into a place like this. Formerly known as The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, it changed its name in 1990 to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression. Then after relations with the Americans were normalised in 1995 it changed to the name which it bears to this day.
Dismissing it as merely propaganda, as many have, is just too simplistic in my opinion. The fact remains that many crimes were committed by both sides. Growing up in the U.K. we were never told of the Vietnamese side to the arguments. I am sure it is the same in the U.S. The photographs here cannot be dismissed. That many were donated by American G.I.s, simply crushes many of the arguments. British, U.S. and Australian news reporters have also donated many of the photos displayed here.
The museum stands on Vo Van Tan at number 28 in District 3, not far from The Reunification Palace. The gardens contain some serious American hardware from the war. Planes, tanks and heavy artillery. One aircraft that fascinated me was the A37 fighter-bomber. No matter what your views are on the war, the bravery of the guys who flew these things cannot be questioned. They were scarily small, almost like a small car with wings. One can but imagine what it must have been like, ripping through the mountainous countryside at high speeds, close to the ground. In fact, when looking at all this hardware close up, one is struck by the crudeness of the equipment used a mere forty years ago.
Entering the building, you see that it is an open-plan style with each of the three floors housing glass fronted rooms around the outsides of the structure. The first floor is given over to mainly clothes and other artefacts from the period. I spent about 20 or 30 minutes browsing round this level. It offers no glimpse of the horrors that awaits on the remaining two floors. I climbed the stairs to the second level and saw that it was made up of mainly photographs depicting scenes from the war.
I could only stand to look at the photographs for about 20 minutes, I simply had to leave, such is the horror that they depict. I would strongly advise anyone with children not to bring them here. Not unless you want sleepless nights for the next six months. It is quite simply, terrible. I won’t show the images here, I don’t think they belong on this website. After 20 minutes I walked outside to gather my thoughts and stood on a terrace next to an elderly American guy. We both shrugged our shoulders, stood in silence trying and failing to hold back the tears. After a while he simply said,”Yes, it really was that bad.” We shook hands and walked away in silence.
The Agent Orange room is particularly harrowing, such are the deformities inflicted on these beautiful people. It is a measure of the Vietnamese strength of character that they seem to hold little bitterness. They appear, on the face of it, to accept that everyone paid a price. Maybe, this should be required viewing for everyone. Maybe then, the world will wake up to the realities of war. I don’t hold much hope, but it is a hope worth holding.
I left the museum and rode my motorbike up Hai Ba Trung to Ly Ching Thang, just before the river. Inside the street on the left hand side at number 7, you’ll find Pho Binh. There is little or nothing to separate this from any other pho shop in Saigon. It is only when you ask the owner, that things become clearer. I ordered my bowl of Pho and then said simply, “Famous shop, yes?” The man smiled, walked to the back of the shop and returned with a photo album and a guest book. He then said, “After you eat, do you want to see upstairs?” I did.
The shop was the headquarters of the F100 Viet Cong as they planned the Tet offensive against the Americans. It is only 200 yards from what was the American Military Police Station. Police and serving American GIs would sit eating soup, whilst ten feet above their heads, plans were being drawn up to attack. They always say that the best hiding place is in open view, this was about as cheeky as it gets. They had a shrine for Buddhists to worship. The secret papers of the F100 cell were hidden behind it. Every time the South Vietnamese knelt in prayer the Viet Cong were metaphorically giving them the finger.
The upstairs room is fascinating. It has been left as it was back in the war days. The main man then was the restaurant owner, a guy called Ngo Toai. His wooden bed is still there, as is the very table upon which the plans of the Tet Offensive were drawn. It’s a fascinating glimpse into history. Photographs line the wall of the men and women involved.
One gets the idea that if positions were reversed and it had been a restaurant in America, duping enemy forces, it would now be something of a theme park. Pho Binh does absolutely nothing to advertise its history. A plaque in Vietnamese on the outside of the shop and a certificate inside pays little more than a nodding homage to the important role it played back in the day. I thought it fascinating and a really interesting way to spend an hour. Oh! And the pho was excellent!