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.


Doha – last day

Postscript:  Museum and souq didn’t open at all yesterday and remain closed until after the end of fasting this evening, so we we won’t be able to visit either as we head for the airport at 9pm to catch our 12.55 am flight. Strangely, one of the less sophisticated shopping centres was open last night until very late, but it wasn’t anything special although it does feature a big funfair and an ice skating rink.  It  was at least somewhere to go!  Being tourists, we can scurry from one air-conditioned environment to another but the construction workers we can see from our window were hard at work this morning.  It was already 38.5 deg at 9.30 am.  There is a pool here but very little shade around it.  The water temp is 30 deg.  Why bother!  Some hardy souls were lying on banana lounges in full, albeit murky, sunlight.  Dust seems to be much worse today and the wind stronger.  

Today is a very relaxed day and I have booked a massage for this afternoon.  Nothing to do but eat, read, nap and do sudokos.  Geoff is enjoying following every tiny detail of Hawthorn’s latest victory.  


View from our hotel window – one of the many construction sites to be seen in Doha

Looking forward to being back in Melbourne.

Doha, Qatar

Well – Doha is an interesting place.  It is not very big and has a population of 2.2 million, only 20% of whom are Qataris, the remainder being foreign workers from the Phillipines, India, Sri Lanka etc.  The latter are mainly employed in hospitality and the construction industry.  This huge, poorly-paid workforce enables a level of service that is almost embarrassing.  Our two night stay at the 4* Radisson Blu is part of our flight package with Qatar Airways so we are enjoying a level of luxury to which one might readily become accustomed.  Water poured, plates whisked away, fresh toast made, paper towel actually handed to you in the loo; nothing is too much trouble. Staff hover and watch, ready to anticipate your need.  If you stand in the lobby for more than a few seconds without apparent purpose, someone will offer assistance.  There are 11 restaurants in this hotel, although some of them are closed for Ramadan which commenced yesterday.  Muslims are requested to fast during the Holy Month of Ramadan and can only eat and drink between sunset and dawn.  It is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or even chew (gum, sweets etc) in public during the day.  Non-Muslims are required to show their respect by also complying with these rules.  Within the hotels the restaurants continue to cater for guests as usual but don’t serve any alcohol although it is normally available.  If you want alcohol, it can be served in the privacy of your room.  Friday is a holy day so nothing is open today and opening hours for every enterprise are affected by Ramadan.  We were taken on a private tour this morning and the city resembles a ghost town, but we understand that the Islamic Museum, which we are keen to see, will open between 8 and 10 pm this evening.  Our guide took us to the souq  (market) this morning (all closed up) but apparently open tomorrow for a few hours.  We did visit the stables where the police horses reside (for patrolling the souq) and saw falcons tethered, ready for sale.  They are no longer used for hunting but rather as status symbols and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I am not sure that there is anything at the market we want but we are keen to see the Gold Market and the Spice Market.  The time we spend there will depend on how long we can survive the heat. It is the middle of summer and daily temps range between 45 and 50 deg.  It was still 35 at 9pm last night.  The city is very murky, apparently due to the sand in the air, but a lot of it must be dust as well.  There is an extraordinary amount of construction underway in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.  This city is RICH.  Public buildings are lavish and numerous.  There is some very interesting modern architecture and all the high-end luxury goods you could possibly imagine are available in opulent shopping arcades.  I presume that most of the women who patronise these boutiques can only wear their glamorous clothes and shoes at home or under their black robes.  They must have their heads and hair covered in public but it is not a requirement for foreign women although I have been warned to cover my arms and shoulders for the visit to the Islamic Museum.

To live in Doha would be to live in a bubble and your place of birth would determine how comfortable your bubble was.

We are reconnected with world events via BBC News and were congratulating ourselves on having avoided the violence in Paris and Lyon related to the taxi driver protest.  Now there has been a terrorist attack in Lyon.


Abu Manaratain Mosque , restored in 2004, with traditional dhows in foreground


A reminder of the once-thriving pearl industry which ended with Japan commencing commercial production


Purpose-built accommodation for pigeons for there are virtually no trees


The Amphitheatre – a modern collisseum


Three sculptures fashioned, from household items. Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, See No Evil



Some of Doha’s modern buildings




Doha’s business district



The drive from Split to Zagreb is about 5 hours and we took the freeway, which meant that we quickly came to appreciate how rugged and mountainous Croatia is and how short of arable land.  The road is an engineering marvel of arial bridges between mountains and long tunnels through them.  We guessed one tunnel to be about 5 km long.  The tunnels generally have only two lanes and the speed limit drops to 100 kph as opposed to 130 kph on the open road.  Rain threatened for much of the journey but didn’t start to fall until we were about half an hour out of Zagreb, which was lucky.  The rain really set in and we got quite wet finding our hotel, transferring luggage and returning the rental car.  After weeks of hot weather we were reaching for sweaters and socks.  Rain must have a huge impact on the restaurant trade because there were hundreds of empty outdoor tables and dripping umbrellas.  We had a great meal at an Italian restaurant ( real risotto) and were grateful to walk into warmth and red wine.

It was still raining this morning when we set off to explore the Upper Town/Old Town but it had cleared by lunchtime.  We visited one of the more unusual museums in the city, the Museum of Broken Relationships.  The museum offers a chance to overcome an emotional collapse by contributing to its collection.  There were some very strange mementos and accompanying stories!  

Zagreb has a lovely feel and we both wish we would spend longer here but we fly to Doha tomorrow, homeward bound.


Nikolas Tesla in the rain


Dolac Market


St Marks Church


Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary , a largely Neo-Gothic structure dating from the late 19 th century


The Croatian State archives, topped with groups of globe-bearing owls symbolising the library’s educational purpose


The Well of Life, National Theatre, one of the many sculptures to be found in Zagreb


A couple of OAPs busking


Zagreb, Old Town


Not a sculpture this time but a real, live frog in the Botanical Gardens


We hadn’t pre-booked our accommodation at Split so decided to go a bit more upmarket (4*) and had a room with a balcony and a great view of the port where there are ferry boats constantly coming and going.  So tempting to order champagne and install ourselves on the balcony for a few hours but we were good little tourists and went directly to the main attraction of Split, which is Diocletian’s Palace and The Basement Halls.  The Palace itself was begun around 298A.D. and took ten years to complete.  Typically Roman, its two main streets, Cardo and Decumanus, run N-S and E-W, to create four quarters.  Each main gate is located in the centre of each main wall.  The palace is billed as one of the best-preserved Roman buildings of its type in the world but it is occupied by souvenir shops and restaurants and there are even people living within the walls.  Some structures have been destroyed and the stones used to construct ‘new’ buildings.  It is quite a hotchpotch and unlike any Roman ruins that we have seen elsewhere.  It was very disappointing, but the Basement Halls are interesting and well preserved, although one wonders for how long.  The virulent green of the moss patches on the stones testifies to the amount of water seepage occurring but, in the the basements, at least, you can still appreciate Roman ingenuity and design.


Dubrovnik to Split

We changed our itinerary to spend one night in Split and only two nights in Zagreb.  We collected a hire car (a nice little VW Polo which behaved perfectly) in the new part of Dubrovnik which we thought looked really attractive.  We instructed Dulcie to take us to Split, and away we went.  The drive takes about three and a half hours and the road hugs the coast, which is absolutely spectacular.  If there had been opportunities to take photos we would never have arrived at our destination but the road is windy and we were against the rock face so couldn’t stop.  We have never ever seen such a gorgeous coastline.  We took a lunch break at Baska Voda where there were lots of tourists enjoying the beach.  The rocky mountains seem to be part of film set.  They stand out so clearly against the sky.


Dubrovnik – A day trip to Lokrum

The Island of Locrum is a short ferry ride from the old town of Dubrovnik.  The monastery and church built on the island by the Benedictines was abolished in 1798 and it was bought by the Habsburgs in 1859 to use as a summer residence.  Today, Lokrum is a special reserve of forest vegetation and the beaches are popular with residents and tourists alike. It was lovely to be in the midst of cool greenery after so much time spent in towns and cities.



We arrived at Dubrovnik airport yesterday at about 2pm and caught the shuttle bus to Pile (Gate), the west entrance to the old town. That was the easy part! We had been given what appeared to be quite simple directions to our hotel but they proved to be useless. Finally, a lovely young woman passing by checked our paperwork for a phone number and rang our landlady, who came to fetch us. Problem solved. We have a light and airy room with a private bathroom, one flight of stairs up from street level. We step out into one of the many tiny, narrow streets and almost fall into one of the hundreds of restaurants which populate the old city. Just about everybody is in the food business. We are in the middle of everything, which is great.

Dubrovnik is a medieval city located in the southernmost area of the Croatian Adriatic coast.  It was the first harbour, protected by islands, on the maritime route from east to west and recent archeological investigations have proved that a settlement already existed on the site in the 6th century A.D. It is a very beautiful city.  Only the Main Street is flat – its flagstones highly polished by millions of feet – and from both sides steep flights of stone steps rise towards the ramparts.  The city walls, including the four towers built at the extremities, are extraordinarily well-preserved and they still give a sense of safety and enclosure, in spite of the heavy tourist traffic.  

The weather has been unsettled, but still very warm, with only the odd shower. We have been to Lady PiPi for breakfast (thank you Mary) and tried various restaurants, most of which offer good seafood. We visited the museum and the cathedral and Geoff walked around the ramparts, which was a bit challenging for me.  It is lovely wandering around in the evening, eating icecream (a serious pastime in Croatia), and watching the Alpine Swifts swooping around the city walls, seeking a place to settle for the night.  It seems as if the whole world comes to Duvrovnik.  There are many accents and languages to be heard, including Australian, of course.


Beautiful Dobrovnik


Breakfast at Lady PiPi’s


The tiled roofs are a feature of the city


View from the ramparts


The 15th century Onofrio Fountain. In the Middle Ages anyone arriving from inland was required to wash hands and feet in this fountain as a precaution against disease.


View from the ramparts


The Stradun


Preparing to operate


Sadly, the lobster didn’t make it …


It’s a tough life!


Handsome bloke I had dinner with


The Stradun


The small church of St. Nicholas at Prijeko from the 11th. century



Day 1

Lille to Paris by rail is a short, fast trip and, since we were traveling 1st. Class, we were able to book a taxi through the conductor.  What a marvellous innovation.  We arrived at Gare du Nord, walked along the platform to the head of the train, and there was a taxi driver with our  name on a board.  So easy – we felt like royalty.  We stayed at a lovely little 3* hotel called Hotel Jeanne d’Arc in the Marais.  The hotel is next to St. Catherine’s place, which is a pedestrian-only area fringed with restaurants, all with as many outside tables as could possibly fit.  We were surprised at how busy Paris is already.  The evenings are very long and the outdoor tables were all occupied well into the night.  People were picnicking along the Seine, out walking or taking cruises.  There is an extraordinary number of boats plying the Seine, some with hundreds of people on them.

We visited the Musee Carnavale – Histoire of Paris, which we really enjoyed, particularly since there is a special exhibition on called Napoleon and Paris.  There were some great political cartoons of the day, and other fascinating exhibits such as correspondence, furniture, uniforms etc.  In the main part of the museum, I loved the sign galleries – a unique collection of shop signs spanning the period from 16th. to 20th. centuries.  Shopkeepers, whose customers were often illiterate, attracted passing trade by shouting their wares and by using pictures, some of which were very innovative and beautifully designed.

Day 2

We decided to visit les Catacombes de Paris but didn’t arrive until around the middle of the day and the queue was impossibly long.  The weather had changed and the prospect of standing in the drizzle for a couple of hours held no appeal at all.  We started walking instead and finished up in the Jardin Atlantique and the Memorial Museum which are located on top of the Montparnasse station.  The Memorial Museum traces the history of three Liberation Resistance Compagnons – General Leclerc, Jean Moulin and the City of Paris.  Well worth a visit.  We spent most of our time in the Jean Moulin Museum and the collection focuses on Paris under occupation during the Second World War.   Jean Moulin was the unifying force behind the Resistance Movement and, famously, early in the war, he  cut his own throat rather than sign false documents.  He survived and was freed but was again arrested and tortured in 1943 and, sadly, died before the liberation of Paris.

In the evening we met friends for dinner at the beautiful Bouillon Racine restaurant for dinner.  The restaurant was established in 1906 and it is decorated in the Art Nouveau style – quite gorgeous.  Food was excellent and it was a lovely place to spend our final night in Paris.


Inner courtyard of Musee Carnavale


The sign from the legendary Chat Noir Cabaret located at the foot of the Butte de Montmartre hill


Glasses anyone?


Napoleon Bonaparte – It is my wish that my remains may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people, whom i have loved so well