Friday, 28 August 2009

Second Tour (4)

The second part of our trip to the places of significance took us back to the Long Hais and Vung Tau.

The Long Hais were important in that the Australians (specifically 8 RAR) took heavy casualties in that area and the majority of the veterans in our group were from that battalion.

We took the Hydrofoil from Saigon to Vung Tau. These vessels were gifts from the Russians (back in the eighties) and despite the fact that they’re beginning to succumb rather spectacularly to rust, continue to provide daily services. The Vietnamese maintain them in the time-honoured manner in that when some component breaks down; it isn’t replaced or repaired unless it is absolutely essential to maintain function.

There is no parts supply available for these things, so improvisation is the way to go They used to do this back in the sixties with their taxis, particularly the Renault 750s which were ubiquitous. They couldn’t care less about their appearance.

As we got off the hydrofoil in Vung Tau we were greeted by the locals with calls of “Uc Da Loi”.

I hadn’t been addressed like that since 1970. I wondered how they knew who we were, because we weren’t wearing anything to identify us. It probably had much to do with the fact that most visitors who came this way were Australians.

Vung Tau has been transformed, mainly as a consequence of the petrodollars being earned principally through the French company Total. The Vietnamese have been very canny in terms of how they handle foreign investment. They make sure that they get at least their pound of flesh, and perhaps more so. We could learn something from them in this country.

Along the beach front, which reminded me of so many seaside resorts in Queensland, there are zillions being spent on beautification. Part of this project involves laying kilometres of marble- faced walkway along what would be called the strand in Queensland. It drizzled rain on one morning that we were there, and this walkway became very slippery. I asked our guide about the risk of falls presented by the smooth (if attractive) surface.

He said – “No problem – we don’t have plaintive lawyers in Vietnam”.

Maybe there’s something else we could learn from the Viets.

We were heading off to the Long Hais on the second day, so first up I walked the few blocks from our hotel to the nearest Bank of Vietnam to cash some traveller’s cheques. There were long queues at the bank, and I had to queue twice – once to have the cheques verified, and again to actually get my Dong. The South Vietnamese abhor red tape, except in government run agencies (like the Bank of Vietnam), and it these places they rival the Indians.

I’d wasted so much time queuing that I was running late to get on the bus for the drive to the Long Hais, so I hailed a taxi. I showed my driver the card for the hotel, but he headed in precisely the wrong direction at high speed, which completely disoriented me. After a bit of yelling at him, he finally stopped, and a couple of things became clear.

This driver didn’t have a word of English – I had no idea where my hotel was, and my pidgin Vietnamese wasn’t up the task. This was a problem. Vung Tau is not good place in which to get lost (that much hasn’t changed in 40 years) and I was going to be very unpopular because the group was looking forward to getting away on time.

Suddenly the radio in the cab sprang to life, and part of what the female operator said was in English. I grabbed the microphone from the driver, pressed the transmit button, and asked “Can anyone speak English?” An old digger always relies on good comms in times of stress.

The same operator came on the air in dulcet tones saying “Can I help you”?

I carefully gave her the name and address of the hotel in English and she let forth with some rapid-fire Vietnamese at the driver who fairly soon delivered me to my hotel. He charged me half-fare, which was a nice gesture. I was given a hard time when I got on the bus – they’d been waiting about ten minutes. There were accusations that I’d been visiting a house of ill-repute up the road, which greatly amused my two sons.

The Long Hais are a coastal range rich in rock outcrops which would remind any Queenslander of Magnetic Island off Townsville. The area is very significant to anyone who served in an Infantry battalion, because in our time it was a stronghold of D445 battalion and there were many efforts to clean it out. The VC called it the "Minh Dam Secret Zone", and it had been a guerilla stronghold since the time of the war against the French. It was a very dangerous place. On 28th February, 8 Battalion took 9 KIA and 12 WIA in this area from mines dug up from the barrier minefield.

I was in country at the time, and remember the reports of the incident vividly. Fortunately, we operated mostly at this time in the North West of Phuoc Tuy, well away from this area. I believe that the press reports of the incident upset my parents somewhat.

As close as we could get to the site of the incident, we remembered these blokes (many of them well-known to the vets I was travelling with) with a simple service, and the placement of some flowers. One of my sons read the service. There were a few tears.

We explored the area thoroughly and discovered much evidence of the conflict, including bullet marks in the rocks and evidence of B52 strikes which occurred from time to time. It was an excellent defensive position with great cover and extensive (and spectacular) views of the surrounding countryside.

There is a Buddhist monastery at the top of the feature, and we met the monks and drank tea with them. Right at the highest point is a big brass prayer bell (See pic).

There was also a veteran of D445 laid on just for us. He demonstrated a strong tremor. Whether this was as a result of the Vodka that he was quaffing at regular intervals, or some other disorder, I’m not sure. His demeanor brought back childhood memories of an alcoholic First World War veteran I’d met in the small town in North Queensland where we’d lived for a while. The Vodka probably helped quell whatever demons his memories of the “American” war created.

The Vodka (which we’d taken with us on good advice) was the price of his reminiscences.

Conversations with ex-enemy are, to me, fascinating.

I always asked two questions – mostly through an interpreter, although there were a few who spoke some English. My questions were –

“How are you treated as ex-soldiers by your government?” and “What did you think of the Australians as soldiers?”

Sometimes the answers were surprising. This grizzled looking veteran at Long Hai disclosed that he was not able to support himself, and relied on charity, and gifts from friends and tourists to survive.

The answers to my second question were always that the Australians were seen as much more effective soldiers than the Americans. Allowing for the obvious human tendency to tell us what we wanted to hear, I believe that this was a generally held belief.

One response was very interesting. One nuggety-looking character I’d met earlier outside Ba Ria near the old tunnel complex said –

“You Australians were fighting on the wrong side. If you had been with us, we would have had the Americans out of here ten years earlier.”

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Second Tour (3)

I love Saigon.

Having travelled through Asia and Europe, and visited over the years all the major centres in Great Britain and the Continent, I’ve not seen anything like the blend of excitement, atmosphere, and zest for life reflected in the streets of Saigon.

To start this reflection at the wrong end – I remember my last night in Saigon on my first trip back. My two sons were exhausted, so had taken to their room in the old section of the Grand Hotel where we were staying. I decided (at about 9pm) to go for a walk, so I’d have some strong impressions in my head when we boarded the plane for the flight home next morning.

I headed along Le Loi Street, and turned left into Pasteur Street towards the river. The usual street vendors were everywhere, and I lost myself in the sounds, sights and smells of the city. I had no intention of spending any money; rather I adopted a kind of window-shopping demeanour, much to the disappointment of the assembly of touts up and down the street.

After walking for ten minutes I began to notice something strange happening. Everywhere, and almost as if someone had given a signal, all the vendors began to pack up, and the touts disappeared. The process took only about five minutes, but soon there were no vendors and no touts. The place had undergone a rapid transformation.

Soon I understood the reason. Slowly along the street came an olive drab GAZ jeep, with two uniformed youngish blokes aboard. One was toting an AK47, and the other, the driver, had his in a rack by the side of his seat. They were wearing peaked caps, and my mind took a 40 year leap backwards remembering the “White Mice” I’d seen on the streets of Vung Tau when on R & C. I don’t know whether this new generation of gendarmes had the same modus operandi as those around in 1970. Back then, they blew a whistle (worn on a lanyard around the neck) once, and if you didn’t stop, they simply opened fire. Mind you – back then they used revolvers, not assault rifles. I also couldn’t see any whistles.

It took a minute or two for them to disappear from sight – they were driving very slowly, but once they had, the vendors and touts began to reappear. In about ten minutes, everything was back to normal.

This was a metaphor for modern Saigon. Despite the name change (Ho Chi Minh City), the dead hand of Marxism, and the appropriation of the administration of the city of five and a half million people by apparatchiks, largely from the North, the spirit of the populace has not been repressed. The entrepreneurial soul of old Saigon remains, and if anything, has risen like a phoenix, especially in the last ten years. This is a robust community. I love it.

A few days before this, I had the amazing experience of finding the room I occupied in the Cholon billet used by diggers providing what was called a Saigon Guard. To explain:
There was a large contingent of what we called “Saigon Warriors” during the Australian involvement. These blokes did all sorts of jobs around the Australian operation in Saigon and had all sorts of postings.

What they had in common, was that they were all POGOS (personnel on garrison operations) and weren’t trained in Infantry tactics. There was a need to maintain security in front of the Australian billets, and this was traditionally provided on rotation by diggers from Infantry battalions in Phuoc Tuy, some 50km to the South East. I guess this must have been a recognition of the familiarity of the Infantry with the weapon used – the M60 belt-fed machine gun. It was a rare opportunity for us to spend time in Saigon, even if it was only for a week. What was really galling was that the Saigon warriors got a considerable allowance for the privilege of sleeping in beds behind walls.

Anyhow, in November of my tour, I was lucky enough to score a Saigon guard. I had a ball, because we worked day on – day off, and made the most of the Saigon nightlife that was mind-blowing back then, at the peak of the US involvement. Unfortunately, the duty lasted about ten days only, and we returned to our respective companies when it was over.

We stayed in a three storied billet, called I think, the “Canberra”. I have no idea why it was called this – to make the diggers feel at home, perhaps. It was certainly very different from your average Hotel Canberra, featuring bedbugs and dodgy French plumbing. I remembered that the room I stayed in had a Kangaroo stencilled on the door.

I felt the need to try to revisit this place, out of nostalgia, I guess, but I was also curious to see what had become of it in the last 40 years. I told our Sino-Vietnamese guide. This bloke is a font of knowledge on the history of the Australian involvement, and in one day flat, he turned up with a blurry photo, and showed it to me.

“This is, I think, the place” he said.

It certainly looked familiar, but had four floors. I remembered three.

To remove all doubt, my sons and I took a cab to the address provided. It was indeed the billet, and it had grown a floor. I found the room I stayed in, and the stencilled macropod. It looked and smelled much the same as it had 40 years ago.

We met the manager, a Chinese guy, who spoke English well. He was quite chuffed to hear my story, and provided a bit of history.

When I stayed in the hotel back in 1970, the building was owned and managed by his Grandmother. Saigon fell in 1975, the new administration requisitioned the hotel, and she was booted out, being left only with a receipt. The family fell on hard times for a while, and eventually the Grandmother died, and the documentation about the hotel was passed to her son.

With the advent of “Doi Moi” came in during the late eighties, the son wrote to the authorities, and after a bit of negotiation (and no doubt a bribe or two) the ownership of the hotel was passed back to the family.

It was run-down, so they refurbished it, and added another storey. It now provides budget accommodation in Cholon for people visiting Saigon from the provinces. The son became ill, and the management duties had been passed on to the grandson, the bloke I was talking to.

Again – an allegory for Saigon.

I’ve got to go back soon.

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.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...