Finding ‘Peace Noodles’ (Pho Binh) in Ho Chi Minh City

Walk along Ly Chinh Thang Street just off Hai Ba Trung near the canal in District 1, and you will see the same mixture of small business and daily life as in much of the rest of Saigon.

Clothes shops, food stalls, small restaurants, and crazy Ho Chi Minh Traffic vie for the attention of passers-by.

The street has none of the big ticket items for package tourists, and it’s unusual to see many foreigners in the area.

Search carefully along this street, however, and you’ll find a humble noodle shop of such historical significance that it helped change the course of the Vietnam War.

At first glance, Pho Binh, or “Peace Noodles,” looks like many other pho restaurants across Ho Chi Minh City.

Huge cauldrons of broth bubble away at the restaurant’s front entrance. A few small tables and chairs line the walls, and there’s a cluttered kitchen out the back.

But then you spy the small plaque and giant stylized Vietnamese flag above the entrance and the photographs on the wall and start to suspect there’s more to this noodle store than meets the eye.

Pho binh Noodle shop at 7 Ly Chinh Thanh Street, Ho Chi Minh city

The unobtrusive facade of Pho Binh Noodle shop in Saigon

Those of you who know me (Shazz) understand I’m not one to pass up a delicious bowl of pho in Saigon at the best of times. Let alone when there’s a story to go with it. So Tim and I wandered in to eat.

They have both Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) and Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup), both of which are delicious.

I chose my favorite Pho Bo Tai Nam (Pho with raw beef that cooks in the steaming broth and beef brisket). Tim had the chicken.

Pho Ga (Chicken noodle soup)

Tim had chicken. (I had the beef.)

Revealing the secrets of Pho Binh Restaurant

While we were waiting for our noodle soup, I took a look around the humble cafe.

When I showed some interest in the pictures on the wall, one of the locals, who was a part of the family, presented me with a photo album and guest book of sorts.  

A quick glance at the book revealed visitors’ feedback on a fascinating story of intrigue and bravery. We were eating soup in the former secret headquarters of the elite Viet Cong unit that planned the Saigon chapter of the infamous TET Offensive of 1968.

The restaurant’s original owner, Ngo Van Toai, arrived in Saigon in the mid-50s, along with a recipe for Pho. He existed as a street vendor for several years before buying Pho Binh in the late 60’s with funds provided by the Viet Cong.

Mr Toai supported the communist struggle against the South Vietnamese Government, and Pho Binh restaurant, located in the heart of the city, became the center of the Viet Cong strategy in Saigon.

The small noodle shop became the base for communications between the North Vietnamese commanders and part of a network that smuggled weapons to numerous secret hideaways around the city in readiness for the Tet Offensive and uprising.

Downstairs in the ironically named ‘Peace Noodle’ cafe, the family was serving noodles to the unsuspecting American troops, while on the second floor, an elite Viet Cong cell hid while fomenting a plan that would change the course of the war.

A picture of notes and postcards with the thoughts of many travelers on Pho Binh, the Vietnam War and the futility of war in general.

Thoughts of many travelers on Pho Binh, the Vietnam War and the futility of war in general.

The TET Offensive – A  Turning Point in the Vietnam War

In 1967, the USA was issuing optimistic statements about winning the “Vietnam” war, confident the communist forces were weakening.

Up until then, the North Vietnamese had been primarily using guerrilla tactics in the countryside, and there was very little thought that the Southern Capital, Saigon, was in any real danger.

Tet is a very special time of year in Vietnam. Coinciding with Lunar New Year, it is a time for families to get together and celebrate new beginnings.

In past years, a ceasefire had been called to allow the traditional celebrations and give both sides some respite from the war.

1968 appeared to be no different from previous years. The North had announced a seven-day truce from the 27th of January through to the 3rd of February. The South Vietnamese forces had approved leave for a good proportion of its forces.

Even though the Americans had a suspicion that the communists were up to something, they never imagined the scale nor ferocity of what was to come.

Despite all appearing normal, the communists were about to surprise with a major offensive, attacking over 100 cities, towns, and strategic sites. The attacks were intended to provoke a general uprising against the South Vietnamese government.

Because they departed from their usual guerrilla tactics and focused on the main population areas of which Saigon was a major part, many Southern Troops and Allied Forces were taken completely by surprise.

The Upstairs room at Pho Binh where the Viet Cong planned the Saigon chapter of the TET Offensive

The Upstairs room at Pho Binh where the Viet Cong planned the Saigon chapter of the TET Offensive

Three days before the offensive, Ngo Van Toai closed the shop, stocked up on food and held strategy sessions. Over 100 Viet Cong fighters passed through the shop, picking up secret orders and hiding in the attic, sustained by hearty bowls of steaming pho.

In the early hours of 31st January 1968, the first assaults began. In Saigon, some of the most spectacular successes were achieved as strategic government buildings were attacked and captured, if only briefly. Viet Cong troops even made it into the grounds of the US Embassy and held off the counterattack for a few hours.

They also seized the main radio, where they intended to broadcast a recording by Ho Chi Minh himself announcing the liberation of Saigon and calling for a general uprising. The call to arms never went out as the main audio lines were cut as soon as they breached the building. While many of the major targets were recaptured within the day, fighting continued across the city until March 7.

A notice on the wall explaining some of the events of the Tet Offensive in 1968

A notice on the wall explaining some of the events of the Tet Offensive in 1968

What’s Upstairs at Pho Binh Noodle Shop?

After gleaning an idea of its importance from the guest books, how could we not take a visit upstairs?

Our new friend accompanied us and attempted to explain the significance of the various displays. Unfortunately, his English was not so great, and we missed quite a bit of what he had to say. Thankfully, the pictures were labeled in English so we could read about each player and their role in the uprising.

He also provided us with a one-page explanation of the family and their role in the offensive that differs quite a bit from most of the information I’ve been reading online, but there you go. Now you know why some of my details are a bit general. It depends on who’s telling the tale as to what version of the story you get.

The room contained the furniture present at the time of the plot and a myriad of photos of the major players. There was also a shrine to the deceased elders in the family, complete with portraits of Toai and his wife. A glass case displayed an impressive collection of medals.

We were strongly “encouraged” to pose in front of all the important bits, including the shrine. Anyway, it was enough to fuel my curiosity to make me want to learn more…and hence this story.

A shrine to the elders. Ngo Van Toai and family upstairs at Pho Binh Noodle Shop in Saigon

A shrine to the elders. Ngo Van Toai and family.

What Does it Cost To Visit Pho Binh?

If you just take the Pho, which was pretty delicious, I might add, it will probably cost you around 60,000 VND each, which is a bit more than standard. If you want to visit upstairs. However, it will cost you around 40,000 VND extra. (This does seem to vary. The second time I went with a friend was in January 2024; it only cost 20,000 VND each.)

We didn’t ask for a breakdown of the bill. I suppose we should have, but as a private museum, I guess they can charge what they like.

For a couple of dollars, I think it’s definitely worth a visit to gain a fascinating insight into the events that shaped this incredible country.

And, if my two visits are anything to go by, you won’t have to experience it with hundreds of other tourists.

Tim and the current owner of Pho Binh

Obligatory pic with the family who own Pho Binh

Where is the Pho Binh Noodle Shop?

Pho Binh is located at 7 Ly Chinh Thang Street, just off the top end of Hai Ba Trung. You can combine a visit with a several other off-beat attractions that I’ll be highlighting in my next self-guided walking tour around Saigon.

Sources for This Post

Sources: The sources for the story above varied widely.

There was a fair amount of discrepancy between all these stories so I’ve done the best with facts and figures. IF not completely accurate it’s in the ballpark and makes a good yarn.

If you want to know more about getting to Vietnam and what to do when you get here, read below and/or head over to our Vietnam page. And, for more information on Saigon, head over to our Ho Chi Minh City visitor’s Information Page.

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