Travel – Vietnam 2nd Tour

‘To Saigon. At last I’m in Saigon. The city of 8 million people, 4 million small motor bikes and absolutely no trafic rules that I can ascertain.Yesterday I flew Brisbane through Bangkok arriving late and tired. I had a good seat courtesy of my youngest daughter’s boyfriend who told me to phone the day before and book a preference. It worked. I had more leg room than the pilot.Good flight, good food, indifferent movies. Arrived at Bangkok at 22.30 and waited around the carousole for around thirty minutes until someone told me that being in transit I wasn’t going to see my baggage untill I got to Saigon. Clean clothes and shave pack were things for tomorrow.Damn. The lack of a fridge or coffee facilities in the room forced me to use Room Service and I gladly signed a chit for 450 baht. Not having noticed the conversion rate I didn’t have a clue what that meant in AUSD but next morning in the lift I noticed a Christmas Lunch for 400 baht. Visions of the coffee costing 50 or 60 bucks were unfounded as it eventually converted to $13.00\n\nOrdered coffee next morning and thanked the waitress… ‘Cam On’. The girl looked blank and should have as I thanked her in Vietnamese! She gave me a quick reminder and I thanked her meaningfully, in her language. I wished I could have stayed longer in Bangkok as it would have been a buzz to go to the Old Asia Hotel where I lived for 6 months during the Vietnam War. Maybe Tai was still behind the bar and Honest Sam may still be selling rubies. I brought my wife a ruby from Sam way back then for $90.00 for one carat which is now worth several thousand dollars. It would have been good to do it again. A fellow always needs some brownie points. Ah, Thailand, where the woman are petite, pretty and all smiles and the fellows are…mmm…I don’t know..didn’t really notice. A short flight to Vietnam sitting next to a young Vietnamese woman who has just finished two years in Switzerland preceeded by four years in Vietnamese Universities. Her job hopes? She is going to work in hospitality as all the young people with any sort of education can see the tourist dollar is coming. “Are your parents meeting you?” “No, just my boyfriend. If I told my parents before hand I was coming they wouldn’t sleep until I got home”. Good story with the boyfriend being the winner. Love or hormones, it was sweet and she was so excited when the plane touched down. Flying low over the city the Saigon River still snakes through the suburbs and the old aircraft bunkers protecting memories and old oil slicks at Ton Son Nhut are still there as if the Vietnamese are maintaining them. Small memorials to many brave deeds. The last time I was there I wrote;
Tan Son Nhut airport still beggars description. Every cliché that ever was has been used by war correspondents to describe the chaos and order. The chaos apparent, the order witnessed by the lack of mid-air collisions. Then the busiest airport in the world, our arrival deposits us in an inferno of heat and fuming avgas produced by the tropics and uncountable aircraft. Not a system in sight but oh, the aircraft! F4-Phantom jets, Republic F-105,\nC123 Providers, RAAF Hercules and Caribou, Huey Choppers like a locust plague on the Nullabor Plains, Jet Ranger Choppers and small bubble choppers we later called the Flying Sperm (was there something on our minds?) Sky Cranes, “Dragon Fly” Chinooks and Push-Pull Cessna’s used as spotter aircraft. Military Inventory Overload! Get me to an Aussie base!
Not so this time. Nowhere as busy and instead of trying to kill us they were just checking our passports. Tomorrow we, my son Stuart and I, are off to Vung Tau by ferry. Tonight might be the time for a beer at the Caravelle or some such other pub steeped in history. Will post again from Vung Tau after I’ve visited the old battle grounds – the bars-and other sites a vet might like to see again. Long Tan, Nui Dat, Hoa Long, Lang Phouc Hai, Phouc Buu, The Horseshoe and all places inbetween. To Vungtau We caught the Saigon-Vung Tau Hydrofoil. A futuristic looking fast ferry that is Russian built. Like all things Russian, (in my experience) it looks magnificent at 100 metres and tragic close up. The Vietnamese don’t help as repair and maintenance doesn’t feature beyond keeping the engines working. Screws and rivets rusting out, few light globes working, bits of timber falling off everywhere and all of this moving along at maybe 60 kph. An accident waiting to happen. On this occassion, all integral parts maintained close formation and we arrived at Vung Tau 1hr 15 min later to be met by two regiments of small people all shouting something that sounded like Taksi!! I’d forgotten about the standard Vietnamese marketing ploy of harrassing the shit out of people from several flanks at once until they fold and buy something. We succumbed and caught a taxi to the Ettamogah Pub. Any Australian, or any other westerner for that matter, should drop in at the Ettamogah Pub. Run by Alan and Anh, (Aussie and Vietnamese) the place offers a bolt hole for frazzled travellers. No Vietnamese Marketing Assaults allowed inside, the food is good, the bar girls bad very good and Anh is always keen to help Aussie Vets looking to go to old battle scenes. Any vets reading this site should be aware that going back in time never really works. Nothing is the same. The town now has a population of about 200,000; a two lane highway leads to Baria and the back beach is now a resort site with kilometers of hotels and bars removing money painlessly from tens of thousands of tourists. The Flags, the site of thousands of drunken RVs, no longer exists. The Peter Badcoe Club has gone although the pool was only recently ripped out to make way for another jerry buily hotel. In short, I recognized nothing at Vung Tau – it was as if I had never been there before. I’m hoping for better results tomorrow when we go to look at Baria, Nui Dat, Long Tan, Hoa Long, Phuoc and all points inbetween. Until then stay safe and enjoy your Christmas……………… After the emotion of visiting the old battle sights we settled in Vung Tau for a couple of days RinC (Rest in Country). We visited the Ettamogah Pub for breakfast each morning and planned our day. Sometimes the planning took the form of a one-liner – ‘taking it easy today’. On other days we explored the town that had once been my leave port. I didn’t recognize much at all and I guess the fact that I had only been there a few times and that was 30 plus years ago might have had something to do with my poor recollections. The other contributing factor could have been that I was usually drunk when I had been there previously.\ The more gentle of my readers may think that is a poor show but considering that I was Infantry and that some of the mates I had spent earlier leave passes with had been killed or de-limbed by mines then you might understand that each subsequent leave pass was spent in the knowledge that it may be my last -literally. The sword of Damocles imbues a desire to live the rest of your life to the fullest, at the earliest. And I did! That’s my excuse anyway. I found the Flags, or at least where they had once been. The ‘Flags’ was a construction with flagpoles for all participating nations and written explanations; a RV point to us, as in ‘Meet you at the Flags tomorrow morning’ or ‘Let’s catch the bus back to base at the flags’ before curfew…sometimes. he Flags then…and in 2004 – the flags have gone…the bars have gone… and the bargirls have gone to families or are all re-education camp graduates. There are still beggars underfoot in Vung Tau and the pressure is incessant. I figured, from previous experience, that to surrender once to a plea would signal the remainder of the beggars that the big white guy with grey hair is a soft target. I’m sure the word would spread and the siege would be amplified. To counter this I maintained a steady chant of ‘’ – the word for no. The trouble is ‘cam’, pronounced like the English come can be confused with the word ‘com’ – the word for rice that is pronounced as in the com of communicate. The language is more tonal than I recall. Looking back I think some of the confused looks from the beggars could have been caused them by meeting a large westerner who chanted a form of greeting. I did surrender. While eating rice with something or other in a local restaurant the woman, pictured left, approached me with the standard load of hats, caps and photo copies of the books The Quite American and The Cu Chi Tunnels. I said no until it occurred to me that she would be a photo op. I took her photo and then she literally went on bended knees in front of me and said\n\n’Please sir…I’m feeding two babies’ I gave in, sometimes I only sound tough, and brought a cap I didn’t want that on later inspection didn’t fit me. Never mind – I was distracted. Vietnamese Cyclo – note the absence of gears Stu and I took a cyclo each and toured around to the Back Beach to look for the old Peter Badco Club. It had gone and where it had been was now a construction site for a new hotel. Hotels are going up faster than white flags in a French regiment so nothing is the same. Now of course there are a lot of Russian tourists and oil rig workers from several countries using the back beach as a holiday destination. Back Beach now … and way back then (pic courtesy of 104 Sig Sqn) t the Ettamogah Hotel there were several bar girls on duty each and every night. Traveling with my son had it’s advantages as on entry to a bar I was instantly left to my own devices while the girls attacked him. I was left to make witty and intelligent conversation with the other older males at the bar…or something like that. After working out that Stu wasn’t going to succumb to their suggestions they then attacked the old man. Holding a conversation with Dave from Louisiana, (that’s pronounced Loosiana, Kevin!) became difficult while one of the bar girls massaged my shoulders with fingers so strong they separated one-piece muscles. She was persistent in her suggestions of a massage in my room and I repeatedly repelled her advances until the last night when I said, in exasperation, ‘OK. Tomorrow at twelve…be at my hotel and you can have your way with me’. The next morning Stu and I caught the ten o’clock ferry to Ho Chi Minh City. While aspiring film producer Martin Walsh tries to get a movie of the Battle of Long Tan underway I am walking through the rubber where it all happened nearly forty years ago. The rubber is being tapped now and workers walk through the plantation where years before just over 100 men of Delta Company, 6RAR stood their ground against 2500 odd enemy soldiers. Getting to Long Tan was an experience by itself. Anh, at the Ettamogah Pub, organised the permits necessary that any tourist, veteran or otherwise, needs to visit and pay respects at the Long Tan Cross. $10.00 USD per visitor for the permit that comes with an escort and $40 USD for the vehicle and driver. The escort, a polite young man did his country proud. He treated us with respect as we did him, and only mentioned the word ‘Victory, six times over the day. We left Vung Tau on a two lane, well lit highway north to Baria – a mobile chaotic stream of cyclos, motor bikes, taxis, large trucks, water bufffalo, kids and old ladies carrying goods to market – all travelling at different speeds and all ignoring the lane markers. The white lines marking lanes in Vietnam represent the biggest waste of white paint ever – our driver used them as a marker for the centre of his bonnet. Baria is now a developed community several times larger than when I last visited. The driver took us to the old theatre that is well remembered by veterans for a large rocket-made hole in front facade during Tet 68. Well, he actually took us to where it used to be. ‘ Picture theatre…hole in wall’ he mutters as we look at a construction site ringed by a tall fence. All things change. Lunch at Baria reminds me of why I was glad to get home last time but worth eating to get the feel of the town and it’s people and to confirm taste is not universal. On to Nui Dat – the pillars of the front gate still stand but little else is left as a reminder of the thousands of men who once lived, worked and sometimes died under the rubber. Luscombe Field, once a sealed, all-weather airstrip still exists but as a main street of a very small village. Luscombe Bowl, where we watched concerts when we could, is only recognisable through contour lines. Nui Dat in 1970 My son Stuart in the same rubber in 2004 The road up to where 7 RAR had it’s base is still there but new rubber trees have changed all and exact locations were lost to development and the never ending encroachment of vegetation. We stop on the road to Long Tan beneath the heights of the Horseshoe. An ancient volcano with one side blown out – thus the ‘Horseshoe’, this feature had been our home base for most of the tour. They are quarrying it now.\ The Horseshoe in 1970 and in 2004 We move onto the village of Long Tan stopping at the police station to collect the brass plaque associated with the Long Tan Cross. I presume it is kept locked up at the police station to stop locals flogging it and selling it for the value of brass. It comes with a piece of string that enables one to ‘hang’ it on the verticle arm of the cross. The Long Tan Memorial and a close-up of the brass plate I am Infantry. I have been there and I have seen more than most – but at Long Tan I am nothing. I have done almost nothing but I do know enough to know what these guys did way back in 1966. Major Harry Smith, the Commander of D Company says;
11 Platoon continued to advance SE, and soon ran into heavy VC MG fire, which caused casualties. 11 Platoon went into a defensive layout, and after about 20 minutes under fire were then assaulted by a large enemy force. It become obvious from radio conversations and the firing that 11 Platoon was pinned down and taking heavy casualties. Our Artillery FO called in gunfire to support 11 Platoon, and I gave orders to 10 Platoon to swing around and assault from the left (North), with the aim of taking pressure off 11 Platoon so they could withdraw back into a Company defensive position. It started to rain heavily – the usual afternoon monsoon downpour. Then radio communications with 11 Platoon ceased. My worst thoughts were that they may have been over-run.
At the battle scene, near the cross in the picture above, Bob Buick, the Platoon Sergeant is facing a bad day as his Platoon Commander 2Lt Gordon Sharpe is killed in the early salvos. In 11 Platoon alone another twelve would die and nine would be wounded in the next couple of hours. Three Aussies are there that day. Greg Cusack – like myself an Infantry vet. Myself and my son Stuart. It is heavy going just standing there. Greg is overcome with emotion and I am almost the same but settled, I think, by the presence of my son. We gaze at the cross deep in thought and I try to think of words to describe the events and feelings on that day. It’s not easy. Sometimes thoughts and feelings don’t translate easily into words. But try and imagine this. You are walking alone in the bush and someone fires a rifle towards you. You hear the crack-thump associated with close shots and you feel targeted and frightened. The rifle round makes a loud noise that startles you. Now put yourself in D Company’s shoes and try and imagine a couple of hundred people firing multiple rounds all seemingly targeting yourself. The noise is incomparable. There is no similar noise effect anywhere in the world that simulates hundreds of auto rounds coming towards you. While this crescendo tears apart your senses, friends are dying around you. The noise continues for hours, you are running out of ammo, you know the RAAF will have trouble resupplying due to the torrential rain and the talk amongst you is that this is it. You know that half the platoon is dead or wounded- the screaming is always a give away. You can see you are being attacked by assualt forces numbering in the hundreds and you only have maybe fifteen fit soldiers still able to fight. So what do you do. Run? Roll over and adopt the feotal crouch? Just lay there and scream for your mother or father? No. You make a stand and fight. It’s the difference. It’s what good training sets you for. It’s the essence of being a ‘Digger’ There are only two memorials to foreign armies in Vietnam. One at Dien Bien Phu where the French threw tactics out of the window and paid for it and the other is at Long Tan where D Coy held the thin green line and by doing so wrote themselves into history books. Follow the link to read an article by Major Harry Smith, the commander of D Coy at the battle.\ For more reading visit Bob Buick’s website. Bob was the Platoon Sergeant of 11 Platoon that took the brunt of the casualties in the battle. After my lucky escape in Vung Tau we rode the hydrofoil to Saigon and booked at the Oscar Hotel for the night before going on to Nha Trang the next day. That night I figured we should go and have a beer at the Rex Hotel. Famous during the war as a residence for Generals and journalists, it is a part of the folk-law of the Vietnam war. Being Infantry I never got there but had heard how the assembled multitude would admire the infantry’s ongoing pyrotechnic side show as we swapped red for green tracer and added in the odd napalm ‘appocalypse’ mixed with the Puff the Magic Dragon ‘spiralling red light show’ as millions of rounds sought out enemy troops. Ah. The vision splendid of pyrotechnics in war I hope the bastards appreciated all the effort we went to to liven up their Happy Hours after a hard week in their airconditioned offices. Suzan Weber in Demillle’s Up Country talks on some of the history of the hotel.
She smiled then said, “About the hotel – it was once owned by a wealthy Vietnamese couple who bought it from a French company. During the American involvement here, it housed mostly American military” “So I’ve heard” “Yes. Then when the Communists came to power in 1975, it was taken over by the government. It remained a hotel, but it mostly housed North Vietnamese party officials, Russian, and Communists from other countries” “Nothing but the best for the winners” “Well, I understand it became a pigsty. But sometime in the mid-1980s the government sold an interest in it to an international company, who managed to get rid of the communist guests. It was completely renovated and became an international hotel”
From Up Country by Nelson Demille pp98-99 The Rex Hotel, Saigon Vietnam ( Oh OK…some people call it Ho Choi Minh City but I’m not one of them) A couple of Tiger beers followed by a couple of Black Label scotches soothed the soul as Stu and I sat and talked about things in general. The Rex was as far removed from my war as Brisbane is and thus didn’t conjure up many recollections, but alcohol loosens the mind and some surprising events resurfaced from repressed memories. Over by the crown and elephants a Philipino Quartet played and I was reminded of a time when I was last in Vietnam and suffering from malaria and a kind nurse offered to push me down in my wheelchair to a visiting Philipino show near the hospital at Vung Tau. There were lightly clad, pretty Philipino girls doing a song and dance routine that quickly degenerated into a ‘simulated sex with the microphone stand’ routine and then went straight on to a ‘real and naked sex with passing soldiers’ routine. Military Policemen found God and converted from being athiest bastards to followers of religion of the type quoted by Protestants and Methodists and stopped the show, while my chaperone giggled, squealed and quickly wheeled me out of the theatre. “Your’e not well enough for anything like that yet Kevin, you’re not even strong enough to walk” All my protestations about it being a horizontal sport made no impact on the determination of the Lieutenant to deliver me safe and sound back to my hospital bed. I lived to fight another day but I always felt the last chapter of that story never got written.