I don’t think I’m alone when I say that a big part of travelling and experiencing a new culture is the food. From over stacked, hearty breakfasts to small, predominantly insect based snacks, every community has its own special dishes and delicacies. Vietnam is no exception. Though there are nigh on a million reasons to come here, one of the stand out reasons I will be going back is the food.
We’d been in Vietnam for about a week now; still not quite enough time to get used to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. The amount of mopeds in the traffic flow was a sight to behold. Amid this chaos, three English boys went in search of a restaurant they had found the previous evening on a website. The restaurant, named ‘Pho Binh’, was highly acclaimed due to its historic serving of the Vietnamese national dish, ‘Pho’.
A short wandering of the city left us at our wits end and so we succumbed to the temptation of a taxi, which found ‘Pho Binh’ in no time at all. We pulled up to the side of the street to find a quaint little restaurant untouched by the Western influence. It was local, back-alley, and exactly what we were looking for.
We found ourselves greeted by a jolly Vietnamese man who sat us directly next to the cooking station. When the time came to order, there was no need for menus at all, as the same man simply asked us: ‘beef or chicken?’. Pho was the only thing they served here, and it came with only the two options. The same method of ordering was mirrored in the beverages with us this time being asked: ‘beer or coke?’. As it was 11 o’clock in the morning, we figured a coke was probably the sensible decision. Before we knew it, our food was placed in front of us.
For those of you unsure on what exactly a Pho is, it is essentially a noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles and herbs accompanied with meat. It was predominantly a street food in Vietnam that had become vastly popular. The beauty of it was that it could be, and often was, eaten for any meal of the day. We had tried quite a few up to this point and found them to be very good indeed, this one did not disappoint either.
The food however was only half of our experience at ‘Pho Binh’. With the eating done, we sat back to nurse our stomachs when our host came over and placed upon the table a huge book showing the history of the restaurant and of its visitors. As we had read online, the upstairs was now a dedicated museum due to the restaurant’s extraordinary place in planning the famous Tet Offensive of 1968 during the Vietnam war. Being history buffs ourselves, with two of us being current History students at our respective Universities, we were well aware of the significance of Tet and wanted to learn more about Pho Binh’s role. Our chef turned tour guide now took us upstairs and showed us this extraordinary exhibit.
Here, we learnt about the previous owner of the restaurant, comrade Ngo Taoi, who had used it as concealment for major officers in the planning of the Tet Offensive. Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, was traditionally a period of ceasefire. During the Tet of 1968, the North Vietnamese were able to use this to their advantage and plan surprise military attacks throughout Southern Vietnam, momentarily taking command of some major cities before being defeated by Southern and US forces. Though a military failure, the movement resonated in the US public, who had been led to believe the North were debilitated and incapable of such campaigns. But enough of the history lesson!
It was amazing to see the actual area where such a significant moment in history was actually planned. We were informed that the majority of the room had been preserved exactly how it was during this time. It was like stepping into a time capsule. We were allowed the pleasure of sitting down at the very table that the planning would have taken place. It was at this point that our museum guide transformed yet again and informed us that he was a Vietcong veteran. He told us of how he had served far away from the city near the coast, and actually showed us the injuries he had sustained; the most gruesome being the scars along his leg from an American B52 bomber. It was humbling to sit down and talk with a Vietnamese war veteran. He was a very pleasant man and gaining a different perspective on the war was a rare experience I wont soon forget.
‘Pho Binh’ offered more than a simple meal. We found it to be a place of real heritage and history lost within a city of a thousand sites. It is a place where you can go and enjoy the national dish; a recipe that here has little changed since the war; as well as visit a key site in one of the biggest struggles in the countries history. It is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Ho Chi Minh City.