Vietnam Revisited: Face to Face With the Enemy – Again: Part 1
“We need you to conduct a Training Needs Analysis in Saigon, Richard, are you available?” For the compulsive traveler it is so difficult not to immediately yell out YES when dream projects come along like this. You know, professionalism and composure and all that. Vietnam was on the top of my “must see” list for specific reasons, not work, and now someone was going to pay me to go.
It took me a while to actually focus on what the work would entail, as just the thought of returning to Saigon (Sorry, I have trouble calling it Ho Chi Minh City) and the rest of Vietnam evoked in me a great deal of emotions and I did wonder what effect it would have after thirty years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I would have done anything just to make the trip. I needed closure on a few issues and this may be the only chance available. There was no consideration about what impact this trip would, or could, have on me, even with the knowledge of the detrimental effect a second trip had on other vets. At this stage, I was still coming to terms with being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and nobody could tell me if this trip would increase the severity of the PTSD or be therapeutic.
If I was still having nightmares and flashbacks about Vietnam; if I was suffering anxiety attacks visiting the local supermarket; if I was always on the lookout for enemy soldiers behind trees in my own back yard; how the hell was I going to cope with seven days in the country that caused these problems? In my mind it was a trip I had to take, it was like a very small spot of light at the far end of my tunnel.
The last time I few to Saigon (compliments of the Australian government) it was on the City of Longreach, a Qantas Boeing 707 that left Sydney every Tuesday night at 10.30 p.m., filled with service men. It had a short stopover in Darwin, long enough to quench the thirst with a Darwin stubbie and lose it again via the high humidity, then off to Singapore for breakfast and then Saigon (Tan Son Nhut) airport. The flight was uneventful and gave no indication of what lay ahead for all those on board. Fortunately, times change.
This time around, I flew EVA Air, Sydney to Saigon direct, and for some unknown reason the 9 hours went quickly. Apart from the in-flight entertainment, I also had the pleasure of being entertained by a beautiful Vietnamese child all of two years old, who was going to Vietnam for the first time to see her grandparents. My seat was a single next to the window and she was both excited and intrigued by the view, so spent most of the flight hopping up onto my knees to look through the window.
I felt a little out of place on the plane as most of the passengers were Asian and although nobody gave me any reason whatsoever, I felt just a little uncomfortable among them. I wondered if the single seat had any significance, causing me to feel isolated or even segregated. The moments I did have to myself were consumed with facing some fears about going back to a place that dramatically and unnecessarily changed my life all those years ago. I am not a vindictive person, quite the contrary really, as I was brought up to forgive and forget and have always been more considerate of other people’s feelings. But this anxiety was based on guilt and even all these years later I can only just begin to understand what that guilt is about. It was actually the guilt instilled in many others, and me, by my own kin and countryman for being in Vietnam in the first place.
Knowing we were nearing the coast of Vietnam, I kept an eye out of the window looking for landfall. It came suddenly and we were quite a bit lower in altitude than I expected, but there below me was a familiar hill complete with telecommunication towers and masts overlooking Vung Tau harbour. This line of hills marks the southeastern corner of Vietnam and rises straight out of the South China Sea, and watches over Vung Tau like silent sentinels. Instant recognition of this landmark after thirty years actually made me feel a little more comfortable and ready to face whatever was necessary.
We landed at Tan Son Nhat airport and began taxiing back to the terminal. Straining to see if the terminal was still the same one that was being built when I left, I couldn’t believe my eyes when the original hangers and revetments, the very ones that housed the might of the American Air Force during the conflict, came into view. The knot in my stomach was the same as the one I had when taxiing past these same structures on 17 December 1969, except this time the only phantoms to be seen were the ghosts in my mind. Silent, still and abandoned, their familiar shape a ghostly reminder of what was, incarcerated and ostracized from the rest of the airfield behind high wire fences. I later learned that that whole area is off limits to everyone and is not used at all any more.
I deplaned at the same terminal I departed from in 1970. I walked across the tarmac to the terminal, through immigration and onto customs. While I waited in line, I had to come to terms with the security guards in their military-styled uniforms, wearing the red star with the gold background, a symbol feared and despised years ago. It was only momentary and I had to remind myself that I didn’t have a flashing neon sign on my head declaring that I used to be their enemy and I was somewhat distressed. It was my hyper vigilance that I thought might give me away, looking anxiously around me all the time, thinking people were eying me suspiciously. Actually, the people that did speak to me spoke in English and were extremely polite and sincerely happy that I was there to visit their country.
A driver, Vin, from BP Exploration met me in the arrival hall, welcomed me, grabbed my bags and headed for the car. As soon as I was settled, Vin started questioning me about who I was, where I had come from, what was Australia like, the usual questions about kangaroos and koalas and about halfway to our destination, he asked if I had been to Vietnam before. When I answered yes and stated that it was thirty years ago, there was no recognition from Vin about that period. I know I was reluctant to discuss my previous role there for fear of upsetting anyone, but Vin didn’t flinch at all. He simply asked if I thought Saigon had changed in that time and did I still like it.
Vin was 27, married with two daughters and was very proud of his country, that was obvious. He couldn’t wait to point out all the new buildings and hotels that had changed the skyline over the years. They were his indicators of growth, but what was a little odd was the new hotels. Several large hotels, such as the Hilton, had been built and fitted out, but stood empty! They built them for future use, for when the hordes of foreign visitors invaded their shores through tourism.
What had not changed was the unique odour of Saigon, smells that incited a myriad of emotions and memories, scents of foods, of people, of a way of life. I wondered if they still sold the meat and salad rolls many of us used to buy late at night off the street vendor in Vung Tau? I never could replicate that flavour back in Australia. The smells bought back tastes; the unpalatable service food, the very mouth watering French-Vietnamese cooking and the ever present, but agreeable taste of the ocean; seafood, so common to the Vietnamese. I know I was looking forward to some of their traditional cuisine. Unfortunately, the smell of motorbikes, motor scooters, Lambrettas, cars, trucks and buses had increased ten-fold and there was no question as to why most bike riders wore surgical masks when riding.
Not too many places were recognisable as we drove to the An Phu compound. Previously I spent most of the time flying, so my navigation and recognition skills were only useful in the air. We were driving east away from the city centre when I noticed a sign indicating the turn off to Ben Hoa and I just started to laugh. I couldn’t help it and Vin almost stopped the car, thinking this crazy Aussie had totally lost it and he was going to need some help. I managed to blurt out in between laughs, “Ice cream! Ben Hoa ice cream!” Okay, so maybe I had lost it, but 30 years ago the supply base at Ben Hoa was the only place in South Vietnam a serviceman could buy a genuine ice cream cone. I kid you not.
After settling into my accommodation and being briefed by management at BP, I was advised that I had the weekend off and had the use of Vin and the car to go wherever I wanted to go. Vin became a little perplexed when I produced a list and said I wanted to start early to fit it all in. I was determined to see as much as I could, so it was Saturday in Saigon and Sunday in Vung Tau.
First port of call was the old Rex Hotel at Le Loi Crossing. The Rex used to be a regular meeting place for Australian servicemen and I was not surprised to see it had not changed. There had been some renovations but I was able to find both the room I stayed in and the bar without any problem. There were a few ghosts in the bar, mostly drunk ones, and they were laughing and joking so I joined them for a drink and then left them to their eternal memories.
Next stop was the Ho Chi Minh Museum, as my curiosity had to be satisfied about this man. He was the significant figure behind the North Vietnamese unification push, he defeated the French in 1954, ending their colonialist regime, and twenty years later, removed the Americans and her allies to claim unification of the north and south. I remember reading some years ago in a speech to all the people of Vietnam (July 17, 1966), Ho Chi Minh said; “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Ironic really, this was something we all believed in, but somehow Ho Chi Minh and his followers had become a threat to Australia’s national security. I spent two hours at the museum, which follows Ho Chi Minh’s life and times, and to all intents and purposes, and excuse my simplification, all he wanted was peace, harmony and one country for his people. Why do politicians complicate and distort something like that? Why was it necessary for us to interfere?
I asked Vin to take me to what westerners call the War Atrocities Museum but the Vietnamese call it the War Remnants Museum. Fortunately, we found it without any trouble and when I went to enter the complex Vin just sat in the car. All he could see was old weapons of war such as tanks and planes with American markings on them. He was afraid because he didn’t know this place existed and when I questioned him about what he knew of the conflict, incredibly he knew nothing about it. It seems that anyone born after unification were not taught about the conflict, there is nothing in their history books and as it turns out, the older people do not to mention it to their children.
We walked around for an hour or so, silently. After visiting one section filled with hundreds of very graphic photos, I happened to glance at Vin to try to gauge his reaction. He was standing in front of a photo showing the bodies of children and other civilians and the tears were just rolling down his face. We finished the tour there and then. He later expressed his sadness at the death of so many people and wanted to know why it had been kept from his generation.
Many people would see this museum as purely propaganda by the Vietnamese regime, but if looked at without prejudice it can be seen to be quite a balanced and unbiased view of the war. Both sides really had equal billing; they showed the results of atrocities and humanitarian efforts from both sides and if anything, it highlighted the futility, the senseless loss of life and the unwelcome legacies a war generates no matter what the ideology behind it.
Vin appreciated our next visit, the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda. This is one of the best temples in Saigon, the perfect place for some time out for two strangers united by a conflict that influenced their lives a generation apart.
Next we traveled to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a legacy and symbolic of the French occupation and influence on Vietnam’s culture standing stoically amid the Vietnamese architecture of this very Asian city. It is also the most significant symbol of the survival of Christianity in a largely Buddhist nation.
Not far from the cathedral, it was surprising to see the front fence and guard posts protecting a vacant block of land that was once the United States Embassy. The same wall and gate where people were seen frantically climbing to get in to escape from the fast advancing North Vietnamese army in 1975. The remaining fence served no purpose now except as a reminder to those who were familiar with it. Could it have been intentional that it was now protecting nothing?
Further down the road was the Unification Palace, the final bastion of the South’s determination to be independent and democratic. This was the setting for the vision of the North Vietnamese tank pushing down the front gates, a vision captured by the world’s media and seen as the final act of aggression that ended the conflict. Tank 843 now stands well preserved and on display inside the grounds of the palace, as a constant reminder of that final day. Touching that tank was not a defiant gesture but one of respect, for even though it was a war machine it was now silent, disarmed and peaceful. It would never fire in anger again.
Since renaming the palace in 1975, the government has turned it into a place of cultural and historical significance visited by many local and international visitors. It comprises of a ground floor, three main floors, two mezzanines and a terrace for helicopter landings, complete with a UH-1H Iroquois helicopter left by the US Airforce. It sat unserviceable, abandoned and alone, out of reach of any visitor, an object to regard from a distance of both time and space. This presented a stark contrast to tank 843 at the front gate yet both were being used symbolically as historical relics. However, compared to reflecting at the tank site, my anxiety level now rose rapidly, my pulse quickened, sweat beaded on every exposed parts of my body and I left the area without even a backward glance. This ghost will be with me for a long time to come.
The palace includes many rooms such as; a reception room, cabinet conference room, separate studies for the President and Vice President, diplomatic credentials presentation room, banquet hall, sitting room of the First Lady, cinema, map and communications facilities. The palace maintains its regal beauty with all the rooms set up with their original furniture and fixtures.
Visitors are directed from the bottom to the top floors via a particular route and to leave the building it is necessary to pass through the “gift shop”. It sells badges, flags, drinks coasters; some carved cork scenes (extremely intricate, and I wondered how a person would get one home intact) and lacquered art pieces. However, among these normal souvenirs I was disturbed to find Zippo lighters with US service numbers engraved on the sides, hundreds of them, some dog tags with the names and numbers unrecognisable, polished ammunition of all shapes and sizes and other war relics and personal belongings of past servicemen. This visit was becoming just a little too traumatic for my liking so I headed down to the basement where the old communications centre was hidden.
This centre was literally the main operations communication centre for the allied forces during the conflict. As silly as it sounds, if we wanted to open fire on something suspicious while we were flying, we had to make radio contact back to this location for permission from a superior officer. Often enough the situation or contact would be long gone before a reply came through. You can use your imagination to work out how we maneuvered around this practice at times. The thick and shiny concrete walls still resonated with the radio patter of a thousand voices, sometimes quiet and calm and other times shouting with a life and death urgency. A disparity of sounds all vying for the attention of some unseen persons represented by a pinpoint on a map.
We drove in silence until we were nearly back at the compound when Vin advised me I was going to dinner with the boss and a government official that evening. I was grateful for the some company; being alone may not have been a good choice after the emotional roller coaster ride this day. However, a good story plot, or roller coaster should always have a final and unexpected twist to snap your mind back after regaining some semblance of control or accomplishment.