Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Second Tour (2)

As I’ve mentioned before, my first trip back was with a bunch of veterans and their families.

This was a mixed blessing in the sense that whilst they were great people, and we all had a common interest, there was always a risk that we’d revert to the attitudes and behaviours we learned 40 years ago.

To a large extent, this didn’t happen, although one of our number didn’t endear himself to some of the young Vietnamese women we encountered, treating them as he had bar-girls back in the war.

The fact that these girls were too young to have any understanding of the culture operating back then didn’t seem to faze him. He had to be drawn aside at one point to have a few home truths explained. Not insignificantly, he was one of our number most visibly affected when we held a memorial service in the Long Hais. Perhaps there was a connection.

I remembered the Horseshoe (because I spent about two months there late in my tour), Nui Dat (obviously), Vung Tau (where we went on R & C) and Saigon (where I was lucky enough to spend a week on Saigon Guard in November). Unfortunately, there was no way we could visit places where we had seen contacts. In the first place, despite the fact that we all had old maps, some of these areas had changed so much as to be unrecognizable. In addition, these areas were simply isolated pieces of scrub, significant only in our now fading memories. My sons grumbled from time to time about my tendency to show them some nondescript piece of scenery which was of great significance to me, but just another piece of landscape to them.

We returned to all these places, but we weren’t able to explore the Horseshoe. This was once an old volcanic formation which made a very good fortified base, both because of its position and configuration. It stood at the Northern end of the infamous barrier minefield, and was used as a patrol base to try to prevent infiltration between the sea (to the south) and Dat Do, and further north and west to bases in the mountains.

We couldn't explore it, because it was almost entirely quarried away. (See Pic)

The water tower at Ba Ria was still there, but now a strange shade of pink (See Pic).
On the few occasions I drove past it in a truck convoy back in 1970, it reminded me of home because of the resemblance to water towers in bush townships in Queensland.

The Dat (Nui Dat) was recognisable, although it has changed a great deal. The area around it has been developed and there are houses where once there were free fire zones and old rubber. The tarmac of the old airstrip (Luscombe Field) is now the main street of a small settlement, in which the AVVRG has built a kindergarten.

There is almost no signage left, although we did come across a few overgrown white painted rocks. We climbed what used to be SAS hill, something I never accomplished in the time I was there, and with the aid of GPS and some old maps, where our old tent lines were.

The rubber plantation seemed entirely the same, although it was pointed out to us that these weren’t the same trees that were growing there back in 1970. Apparently they have a finite productive life, and the originals were dug up years ago, and new trees planted.

The orderly rows, shady relief from the tropical son, and the smells were, however, entirely familiar. I felt comfortable and secure back here – much as I had 40 years ago. Although rudimentary, Nui Dat back then meant comparative safety, the chance to “switch off”, and a level of physical comfort which was a massive improvement on weeks of patrolling.

After we’d finished exploring we sat down in the shade of the rubber to have lunch washed down with a cold beer (VB from memory). As we were lunching, a Honda step-through came down the track. There were literally hundreds of these things coming and going routinely, but this one was different, being ridden by a European. He turned out to be an Aussie – and a veteran – who had set up house with a Vietnamese woman about 500 metres up the road.

He was a TPI pensioner diagnosed with PTSD and spent most of his time in Vietnam, because (he said) he couldn’t settle down in Australia. He’d been a triage medic and was eventually affected by the never-ending flow of casualties that he’d been exposed to all those years ago.

We returned to Saigon that same evening, to board a Hydrofoil to take us to Vung Tau. Saigon, incidentally, is still Saigon, despite strenuous efforts on the part of the post 1975 administration to rename it “Ho Chi Minh City”. It’s only ever called that officially, and the people who live in Coconut Country (South Vietnam) have a largely dismissive attitude to officialdom.

I’ll talk more about Vung Tau and Saigon in my next post.

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