Return to what once was Phouc Tuy Province

Vung Tau is a major port near the mouth of the Mekong River. During the American war it was the main logistics support base for regional American forces and the Australian Infantry’s Task Force base at Nui Dat, located in the centre of what was then Phuc Tuy Province. Now VT is a hub for a thriving offshore oil industry, largely operated by the Russians. The lights of many ships can be seen from shore at night.

VT is a pleasant, almost sleepy seaside resort city thru the week, then experiences a massive influx of Saigoner’s each weekend as they seek temporary relief from their fast paced, big city life. While I never visited Saigon in 1969-70, on 2 occasions I had weekend “R&C” (Rest & Convalescence) visits on leave here. Ironically, the VC used the city for the same purposes back then, but obviously they kept a very low profile. The city has grown enormously & is unrecognisable from those days, with many new tourist resorts and appartments up or under construction. Our hotel was genuine 5 star – far beyond the level of accommodation existing back in the war years. It is built on what was then the beachside site of the Australian R&C accommodation.

Virtually no evidence of the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat – or its associated ‘Horseshoe’ fire support base – remains today, apart from occasional concrete footings. I wasn’t surprised that we could only speculate just where our unit lines on the base perimeter might have been, as over the intervening years, there’d have been at least 6 rubber tree plantations (replaced every 7 yrs) grown and then replanted again, there.

What had been the bases sealed airstrip now serves as the main thoroughfare of a very small village of Nui Dat, and quarrying is eating away at the actual “Nui Dat” hill where the Special Air Service were based. Meanwhile, the minor nearby villages of Hoa Long and Baria (now the province capital city) have both prospered and grown exponentially, with just a couple of Baria town reference points from my first visit remaining in tact.

Several days later in Hoi An, I met a SVN Regional Force veteran demonstratingaccomplished Aussie English, who back in the 1970’s worked for the Australians in Baria. He was later wounded by a VC bomb – showed me his leg scar. He was very keen to have some Aussie dollars – specified not coin. He seemed excessively pleased that I took his photo (included in Hoi An Post) – we shook hands – and I obliged his quest for Aussie dollars.

First photo below : “Once were warriors” – 4 of our tour group vets served with 8RAR. SAS hill in background. Pic taken from what was “Kangaroo Pad” for choppers.

Pic below : plan of underground Long Phouc tunnels

We visited and entered the VC tunnel system at Long Phuc (refer pic of plan, above) which was rather breathtaking to me & my fellow vets, as it’s located just 2 km from the Aust Nui Dat base perimeter. It can be certain that Australian infantry (including maybe even myself) would have patrolled unawares, directly over this installation. My RF friend from Hoi An claims that the Baria RF knew about the VC use of these tunnels, saying they had no incentive to expose them to the Aussies. Astonishing if true. Unlike at Cu Chí where tunnels were first dug to fight the French, here they started tunnelling in the 1960’s when the Americans invaded.

Several photos of our wreath laying visit to the Long Tan cross – one of just three foreign war memorials permitted in VN. Also one by the French at Dien Bien Phu. The other not accessible as it’s within the walls of what was the American Embassy in Saigon.

From VT we also visited the Long Hai hills “Minh Dam” secret zone, where as a result of “Operation Hammersley” on February 28th, 1970, 8 RAR were awarded a SVN Presidential unit citation. During that operation 1 Platoon, A Company lost 7 Killed In Action / 1 Died Of Wounds / plus 1 supporting arms KIA on what was reported in the Melbourne press as “Black Saturday”. The three 1 Platoon members in our touring party held a remembrance service aside a jungle track, laid flowers and lit incense to our fallen comrades. For the definitive story of this action, I refer you to “Combat Battalion” by Robert Hall, Allen & Unwin, 2000. Much of the Long Hais area is still restricted entry due to the danger posed by still live land mines.

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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.

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

 

Zagreb

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