Monthly Archives: November 2018

Two day trips from HCM city

Respectfully touring Saigon’s War Remnants Museum – with it’s photo galleries of war victims – records of American atrocities committed – agent orange’ victim images – then viewing the adjacent French (later SVN govt) ‘Tiger Cage’ torture prison (complete with guillotine) was salutary context for a visit next day to the VC/NVA tunnel systems at Cu Chi. As ever was so, the victors of war write the history and sanitise their own record. There’s no dispute that what’s displayed at the War Remnants Museum is factual, but the explanatory text expressed is often unsubtle propaganda – understandably being totally slanted from the Communist perspective. Interestingly, a couple of our more mature age guides who lived thru the war era have ‘unofficially’ noted brutality and massacre by VC/NVA against their opponents – both military & civilian.

When observing the tour itinerary, I hadn’t initially been interested in visiting Cu Chí, but I am very glad we did. Quite fascinating to witness the tunnel infrastructure and ponder the amazing discipline of the VC living underground, and how extensive and significant this was, yet never fully detected by the Yanks and their puppets. Interesting to learn that when 1 RAR were attached to the Yanks in this area early in the war, with their tracker dogs, they were the first to discover and destroy tunnels. Maybe the Aussies should have been kept here, rather than moved to Phouc Tuy.

The heavily treed, lush, light jungle around Cu Chí was reminiscent of some of the countryside we operated in – especially around bunker systems that we encountered and cleared. But a few days later in the Long Hai hills it was a surprise that landscape that had been largely open and dominated by boulders (even arid) in 1970 was now also jungle-like. The effects of large scale defoliant spraying from the air having diminished. Hearing the sound of ‘very real’ live fire from military weapons at the Cu Chí shooting range was quite surreal – literally ‘a blast from the past’ – with cowboy tourists burning their US$’s for the thrill. The loud noise a bit of a shock for non-vets in our party. Probably the only instance of Occ Health & Safety being enforced that I’ve witnessed over here, was the westerner cowboys being required to wear hearing protection!

Pics below selected from the delta trip – including elephant ears fish with lunch.

Our day trip from Saigon into the delta was very interesting – everything so green and lush. So it’s a bit ironic that VN is actually experiencing an unusually dry November, which is great for sightseeing, but some locals are quite concerned. Indeed it’s not uncommon for major flooding to be an issue normally in the delta at this time of year, like in 2017! Photo of Sth VN army veteran above with wooden leg – due to a mine explosion. Unlike most other ‘government wounded’ who were assassinated on returning to their village, perhaps he was spared for no longer being a threat to the VC. I took pleasure in exchanging big smiles, and a hand shake. He spends his days making sleeping mats.

Discovering HCM city / Saigon

Flights into Saigon (via Singapore) were pleasantly uneventful – apart from being served a Chilean Sav Blanc with distinctive unplalatable Chardonnay flavour. Then the Asian holiday fun started – endeavouring to buy an entry visa at the airport for US$25. I’d advise anyone contemplating this course, it’d be much smarter to pay a bit more and get it processed at the VN embassy in advance of your flight.

Having deplaned, it took all of 1 1/2 hours to exit the terminal. All government officials in VN are Communist Party members, with the entry visa operatives I imagine being fairly low level bureaucrats, with no interest in providing an efficient welcome for excited tourists. An unfortunate initial impression of the country. A team of 8 people stood around behind their safety glass barrier that had multiple customer counters, with just one officer accepting the completed entry forms. These were then passed to another desk where visas were glued in passports. The process concluded at another counter where an officer would occasionally call visitors forward to make the cash payment. Not a smile to be found anywhere. Much frustration and disbelief expressed by Western tourists. At one point, when all the staff disappeared, not to be replaced for twenty minutes, the penny finally dropped that we were witnessing an uncoordinated shift change. Processing then resumed at a snails pace.

This experience was totally at odds with subsequent very happy, very cooperative  interactions with people in Saigon streets – in shops – hotels and restaurants – markets – even when language hasn’t been shared. Interesting to note that English is now being taught in primary schools with children attending for half a day / 6 days a week, only because the population growth has far outpaced the availability of school resources. To achieve a living wage, I’m reliably informed that teachers need to take in extra curricular tuition – with kids from low income families obviously being thus disadvantaged.

Locals commonly use the city name ‘Saigon’ rather than ‘Ho Chí Minh City’. But posters and billboards of Uncle Ho, and the VN flag twinned with the now defunct Soviet Union’ ‘hammer & sickle’ flag are in abundance. People at all levels seem happy with their lot as they go about daily life, accepting the Communist Party directs all policy and administration. Many people have told me they’ve moved-on from the internal divisions & horrors of the recent past that reached into almost every family.  They see just one untrusted foreign threat : China. There is no apparent animosity to Americans, but it is widely expressed towards the growing influence of Chinese business & tourism. The Chinese & related Khmer Rouge invasions post-1975 – known as “the friends wars” – are not forgiven. Our travel guides freely admit that corruption exists in politics & business.

It’s not uncommon when chatting to someone in a shop or restaurant – or even pavement  traders – to find they have a relative or two in Australia who they may have visited, and that they are aware of various Australian city names.

Our group was fortunate on our first day in country to spend the day with a local expert historian who gave an excellent insight to the deep & complex history, geo-politics, and heritage of VN – including a central Saigon walking tour. He is an advisor to the government and relates that sadly the driving political force underpinning Saigon’s rapid development is a desire to replicate Singapore city – create a new “pearl of Asia”. Architecturally & historically significant districts been lost, with the program rolling on. The main Chinese quarter – Cholon – is still in tact, much of it as it has been for centuries.

VN’s population is approximately 96 million and the economy is expanding rapidly, with it seems like thousands of apartment blocks mushrooming. And yet the majority of people & families – including the professionally employed – eat most of their meals seated in the street, on a pavement, or at very basic ‘fast food’ stalls. The new appartments don’t have western style kitchens.

Five metro train lines are either planned or under construction in Saigon. By far the major mode of transport is by low-powered Honda motorcycle – many millions of them seemingly always on the go. Astonishingly, many of these carrying not just the driver but up to 3 adults. I’ve even seen a family of 2 adults with 2 children, plus pet dog. Traffic flow on the laneways – streets – highways – and even footpaths can best be summarised as organised chaos that needs to be seen to be believed. Crossing a road, even at a traffic light controlled intersection can be an act of faith and desperation. There are very few conventional bicycles in use. Except for regional coach travel, there appear to be relatively few commuter bus services.

 

Discovering Vietnam anew – with a very different perspective!

On 17th November 1969, with the main contingent of 8th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, being a National Serviceman infantry rifleman, I embarked from Brisbane aboard troopship HMAS SYDNEY sailing to what was then a sovereign country – South Vietnam – with the objective of aiding in its defence against the long running North Vietnamese communist insurgency.

It was a relatively uneventful voyage – certainly no pleasure cruise as we experienced very hot & uncomfortable living conditions on board below decks, and were occupied as one would expect in endless weapons drills (incl live fire at floating targets released from the aft deck) and fitness training. My recollection is we were issued with one can of beer per day and showered in salty sea water, with a 10 second rinse-off allowed with desalinated water. On the 28th November, we disembarked from ship to shore on WW2-style landing craft to a beach at Vung Tau – a major regional port in Phouc Tuy Province, South East of Saigon – for transport by truck convoy to the Australian Task Force operational base located at Nui Dat, roughly in the centre of the Province.

So now almost exactly 49 years later, I’m once again bound for Vietnam, but this time as a 71 years old tourist flying in the relative luxury of an SIA jet liner. I’ll initially spend 11 days in the company of several other ex-8RAR veterans, travelling as a group in the South of the country. Then after we part company, I’ll travel solo exploring some of the key cities and resorts of Central and Northern Vietnam. Both of my children have toured Vietnam in recent years and enjoyed the experience. So now it’s my turn to generate fresh experiences that I anticipate couldn’t be in greater contrast to my personal recollections (and to TV reportage) of war torn Vietnam, all those years ago.

Image shown above, evidence of my 1st visit to Vietnam, back in 1969-70.