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Retracing Biệt Động Sài Gòn Hideouts, Where Grenades Were Just Below Your Feet

Elements of Saigon’s wartime espionage efforts once relegated to secret basements, hidden crawl spaces and elaborate double lives lurk throughout downtown to this day.

Saigoneer typically refrains from covering topics overtly related to war and politics. Beyond the fact that we’re personally more interested in animals and poems, curry and board games, such subjects simply don’t cross our minds that often. One passes monuments, banners and museums on a daily basis, but they easily go unnoticed, like the taste of the roof of one’s own mouth. Interestingly, artifacts of an armed conflict whose success relied wholly on not being noticed are what caught our eyes.

Weapons hidden by the Biệt động Sài Gòn in downtown Saigon in 1968.

Biệt động Sài Gòn, an insurgent group that carried out raids and sabotage missions, was founded during the war against the French and experienced a revival in the early 1960s to undermine the control and effectiveness of the American troops and their allies in Saigon. Their story was immortalized in the movie Biệt động Sài Gòn, with Trần Văn Lai serving as the inspiration for the film’s charismatic owner of Đông Á Paint. In real life, he was an important figure in the group, and a few of the homes he owned in the city reveal his commitment to the cause.

A photo of Trần Văn Lai.

Why did Trần Văn Lai learn how to sew and build furniture? To have a steady and respectable profession with which to provide for one’s family? Because it was what one’s father did and his father before him and his father before him? To follow one’s passion in accordance with the adage “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?” Those would all be sensible reasons, but he spent years learning the trade with the sole aim of aiding the revolution.

Furniture crafted by Trần Văn Lai, now on display at 145 Trần Quang Khải Street.

Tools that Trần Văn Lai used to make furniture.

A few weeks ago, Saigoneer headed towards a section of District 1 best known for offering good deals on the latest smartphone models to learn more about Trần Văn Lai. The home at 145 Trần Quang Khải Street was one of many that he used to make fine curtains and furniture in so he could gain easy access to the Independence Palace and attack the regime from the inside.

Today, the home serves as a coffee shop and museum dedicated to Biệt động Sài Gòn.

The tube house, built in 1963, has been transformed into a coffee shop in recent years, but the ornate iron French elevator with manual doors and locks that one enters upon arrival announces that the building is more than just another fabricated retro cafe peddling trendy nostalgia and plant-filled balconies. Lai’s living relatives have turned it into a museum dedicated to Biệt động Sài Gòn and amongst the artifacts on display are the tools that he used for a career that served as camouflage so he could move in and out of the government stronghold unsuspected. A set of leather couches on the ground floor are the same type that he once hid weapons inside. Various items including military radios, a typewriter once owned by Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, an accordion and motorbikes relied upon to transport secret messages have since been added as further touches of the time period and the revolutionary spirit of the home’s occupants.

Artifacts from the 1960s including the typewriter that once belonged to Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.

Before Lai was able to ascend to the position of trusted contractor, he had to first establish himself as an esteemed man around town. Thus, a marriage was arranged. Phạm Thị Chinh was born into a wealthy Hanoi family with connections to the gold trade. When she joined the revolution and married Lai, she was able to provide him with the connections and funds that allowed him to enter Saigon’s bourgeois society and thus earn the trust of his enemies. They bought more than a dozen homes around the city that were used for clandestine meetings and later for storing weapons.

In 1964, Chinh was captured and tortured for her revolutionary activities which included helping prisoners escape from prison on Côn Đảo. Following her death, Lai needed to re-marry to maintain his cover as an unassuming businessman. Đặng Thị Thiệp was only 21 when she married the then-44-year-old. Like his previous marriage, it's been said that it began as one of convenience, but true love blossomed between the pair. Lai fathered six children with his second wife.

Đặng Thị Thiệp speaks with Saigoneer in their former home.

During their first years of marriage, Lai continued to purchase homes throughout the city for revolutionary purposes while working as an interior contractor and with a dignified reputation amongst the highfalutin members of the former regime. The pair bought three homes on what is now Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street. Beneath the houses, they spent several years surreptitiously digging a tunnel that they filled with weapons brought in little by little from National Liberation Front-controlled areas. By 1967, they had amassed over two tons of guns, explosives, grenades and munitions in the hidden basement.

A model home with a hiding space, and Trần Văn Lai in the entrance to the hiding space below the floor.

The area has since been restocked for visitors to get a sense of what it looked like. Removing a panel of nondescript floor tile reveals the dank space where shadows fall across various means of insurrection — which have been disabled, one assumes. To accommodate peacetime visitors, a staircase has been built, but even with the added convenience, stepping down with the commotion of commonplace traffic spilling in from outside underscores how dangerous Lai’s undertaking was. Considering the gossip that gets passed around in the average neighborhood, it's astounding to witness the armory Văn Lai was able to create in what presented itself as an average family home.

Weapons stored in the tunnel, which includes special panels designed to concteal and transport grenades, guns and explosives.

The group’s planning came to its conclusion in 1968 on the second morning of the Lunar New Year, when 15 fighters arrived at the home to collect weapons hidden inside baskets of vegetables. They then carried out an attack on Independence Palace as part of a larger assault on various strategic targets in the city, including the US Embassy, the main radio station and numerous military posts. That morning, Lai transported members and equipment to the Palace and returned to his home to assist other Biệt động Sài Gòn members.

When the plot failed, his secret arsenal was discovered and the Biệt động Sài Gòn was disbanded; Lai was forced into hiding on account of a US$2 million bounty placed on his head. He didn’t go far, however. Rather than run away, he simply assumed the identity of his children’s uncle and lived with them in a home on Nguyễn Kiệm Street while rumors spread that he had run off with a mistress. His young children at the time were not even aware that they were living with their father and referred to him as Bác.

An entrance to the secret storage area between the homes.

In hiding, life was difficult for the family as they struggled for daily necessities without the ability to blend into aristocratic society. After 1975, it didn’t get any easier. Đặng Thị Thiệp told Saigoneer that the family was given a certificate proving their activities during the war which prioritized them for food and various goods during the difficult post-war years. Still, Lai had to work various jobs including driving customers to the local market to sell goods and raising pigs in a cramped home near Tân Định Market.

Despite their poverty, Lai strived to provide his children with strong educations, and they all went on to successful careers. They have recently helped to collect many of the tools, documents and even houses that were part of his wartime efforts for the museum.

Another home owned by Trần Văn Lai used as a restaurant and hiding site.

After visiting the first two homes, we headed to 113A Đặng Dung. In the 1960s, it was a restaurant that also had several hidden chambers used for exchanging messages and storing revolutionary materials.

Being around in the hot sun all morning had given us an appetite, and we were thus pleased to learn that the cafe served cơm tấm. When it arrived, however, we were quite confused to see that the typical broken rice, pork chop and egg was accompanied by kimchi. For a morning ensconced in authenticity, it was a bizarre deviation from norms. But we had underestimated the ingenuity of Lai and his allies. The Biệt động Sài Gòn rightly assumed they could avoid suspicion if they operated as a restaurant that was filled with the very people that could foil their plots. They thus catered to the many South Korean soldiers who lived in the area by infusing the Saigon staple with the foreign side-dish.

The creativity of the kimchi exemplifies Biệt động Sài Gòn’s diligence. Not only did they concoct the dangerous plan to invite their enemy into their midst, but they had put in the time and effort to learn how to make kimchi that tasted good enough to keep the South Koreans coming back; a task restauranteurs struggle to achieve even when that is the main objective and not simply a ruse to facilitate their actual goals.

A bullet-loading chain from the L’Escarmouche taken by revolutionaries during the colonial period.

Another candidate for most emblematic item of the day would certainly be a heavy chain used for loading bullets displayed at 145 Trần Quang Khải. We were told it was taken from the L’Escarmouche, a French frigate that fought victoriously at the battle of Normandy as part of World War II and later found itself in Vietnam to aid in the colonialists’ plunderous rule over the country. Allegedly, early members of the Biệt động Sài Gòn snatched the chain during a 1946 attack in the Saigon harbor. Verifying this history is difficult, however. The chain itself only appears in Vietnamese materials discussing the ranger group, and while the L’Escarmouche certainly was sent to Vietnam after WW2, there is no easily located information describing the attack in any language.

Perhaps details surrounding the chain and its origins changed slightly during the nearly 80 years of re-telling. Maybe the French and their allies purposely avoided publishing reports of the attack on the ship to avoid embarrassment. Or possibly it never made it into much news because it was not particularly noteworthy compared to the other skirmishes at the time. But this nearly forgotten history is similar to Trần Văn Lai’s. He was one man amongst countless people who sacrifice greatly to ensure eventual peace throughout the nation and his contributions, despite vestiges of them remaining in central Saigon, go largely unnoticed today. One assumes he might be happy to see a thriving, vibrant city so free that people can go about their busy days without needing daily reminders of his efforts.

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