Vietnam Revisited: Face to Face With the Enemy – Again: Part 2
David from BP, picked me up at the residence and drove to the Golden Phoenix restaurant at the Equatorial Hotel were we met up with Ian, an American biologist working with the Vietnamese government in Hanoi and the a high ranking official I will call Tran, from the Resources and Environment department. The meal was exceptional, traditional Vietnamese, the pre-dinner drinks and the table wine had loosened everything on everyone and the conversation was varied and interesting. Naturally, the inevitable question was asked about any previous trips to Vietnam and my affirmative answer generated a series of questions from Tran; time, place, who with etc. When I answered him, he held eye contact with me for an obscene amount of time and Ian and David were becoming most uncomfortable, but I instinctively knew what was about to happen.
Tran used to be an officer in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), a regular soldier who joined at the time the French were being defeated at Dien Bien Phu. In 1956, he first became involved in the Laotian Civil war and then moved back into Vietnam near the Cambodian border in the early sixties. His considerable experience over the years saw him promoted to a senior rank late in 1968 and was responsible for an NVA division for the next four years. When he mentioned the D445 battalion my stomach churned and I began to develop the normal anxiety symptoms. He looked at me again and with a sad and sorrowful expression calmly stated that he had been involved in several battles with Australian soldiers in Phuoc Tuy province during the period I was there. He named places that I was very familiar with and even an incident on the ground that my aircraft was involved in supporting at the time.
We spoke of many different things, just the two of us, as David and Ian realised that this was more than a chance meeting. Tran understood my hidden agenda for being in Saigon and silently endorsed it. He wished others would do the same thing, return to see the people and the country for what it is; peaceful, very picturesque, friendly and getting on with their lives without any interference. Sound familiar?
How strange it was to be once again face to face with the enemy; this time we parted without the hatred, or thoughts of revenge but as friends and with a great deal more understanding and respect of each other. Was he sincere? Yes, he was and the evidence to me was his love of butterflies and his face. Tran has created a large national park north east of Hanoi for a butterfly sanctuary with one of the largest butterfly breeding areas in south east Asia. Both of us are now peaceful men but we will forever resent the interruption to our peaceful lives.
Sunday was an early start too, as it was a two hour drive to Vung Tau. Vin was talkative as we discussed the needs analysis and spent most of the time commenting on the traffic, road works, what the safety issues were and observing first hand exactly what was a concern for drivers. Once you are on the road walking, driving, riding, peddling, you are on your own and the sole objective is to survive the trip. Well, we managed to avoid kids jumping off the backs of trucks on the highway, bikes with so much stuff on board you could only see the bottom of the wheels; how the hell they balanced that load is anybody’s guess. Buses that obviously owned the road fighting for space from the trucks, who thought they owned the roads, who were busy avoiding cars, bikes, motor bikes by the hundreds and pedestrians with the occasional ox thrown in as a challenge. Interesting drive down Highway 15 to Vung Tau but I was the westerner, Vin was quite calm and relaxed the whole way. Guess you have to live there.
Driving southeast from Saigon, my focus shifted from the near carnage on the highway to the geography and sign posts, anything that might be familiar. Where the road from Bien Hoa meets Highway 15 there is a signpost indicating Bien Hoa and a place named Long Tan, the location of a major battle between over 2000 north Vietnamese and one company of Australian soldiers, where we lost 17 men and the NVA lost 245 in a savage battle that lasted nearly 24 hours. In the rubber plantation just outside Long Tan, there is a large monument in commemoration of those who died in this battle and the Vietnamese government recognised the site as a significant and sacred place.
A short distance later, several landmarks were very familiar and I started to name them. Vin just looked in amazement as I pointed out the rock formations of Nui Thi Vai and Nui Dinh and said the town of Baria wasn’t far away. I have to admit I was excited about recognising these locations until just before we entered Baria, where I recognised a small mountain range to the east; it was called Long Hai. This was a location that continually struck fear into most Australian serviceman, as it was riddled with caves, tunnels and booby traps during the war and had claimed many lives and injured and maimed many more. It remained in my vision for most of the day.
Through Baria, once the province capital, and down the peninsular into Vung Tau we drove, passing the saltpans and paddy fields, that formed a beautiful mosaic landscape, past one fishing village where vendors would stand out on the highway selling live crabs and on into Vung Tau. The hills we flew over on the way in were clearly visible and the radio antennas stood atop the highest peak and we drove down the same road I traveled almost daily 30 years ago. Little had changed.
The police barracks were still there as was the fence surrounding the airfield, but the front gate no longer stood near the local produce store and other small businesses that congregated just outside the perimeter. The little I could see inside the fence was devoid of any buildings and overgrown with grass and weeds. No Iroquois, no Caribous, no FAC aircraft with their crazy fore and aft props, no Chinooks or baby Hercs. It was a dead and discarded patch in an otherwise highly developed town.
Again, the smell was so very familiar, the people scurrying back and forth through the seasonal rain shower, the conical hats so emblematic, the emancipated dogs and fat oxen wandering the streets, and the constant swivel action of my neck was causing me some serious pain. I couldn’t take enough in and I remember looking down to see if I had my fatigues on. This was much more than déjà vu, I was back in 1970 and happy!
Vung Tau is a busy provincial city with the South China Sea on the eastern side and the beginning of the Mekong Delta on the western side. It is alive with activity, especially around its centre where the markets are located. They have become larger and are all under the cover of the old theatre. They used to be totally open to the elements with the street awash with rubbish and blood from the butcher’s stand, and the smell was deplorable. Our base was six kilometers from the markets but we always knew when it was market day by the stench. I wish someone would come forth with a reasonable explanation as to why we always visited there. Even the service food tasted great after that foul odour.
Back Beach was the location for the Australian Task Force’s supply, hospital and recreational facilities. Located right on the beach it was a perfect location for some time out and laying on the sand after a swim in the surf – it was difficult to comprehend that not 20 kilometers up the beach the Long Hai was being fruitlessly fought for and people were fighting for their lives. Back Beach is now a very popular tourist spot with hotels and unit blocks taking the place of hospital wards, morgues and ammunition depots. Nice change!
We drove around the peninsular after a lunch of fresh prawns and mouth watering, pan-fried fish caught locally. The restaurant was located over a small lagoon that is fed by a small stream that runs through Vung Tau. Kids and adults were fishing along the banks and on the nearby bridge, and there were houses all around the edge of the lagoon. Waterfowl and Ibis type birds waded and hunted among the reeds and the fishermen without even a glance of the activity going on around them. The irony was, insurgents to move in and out of Vung Tau under the cover of darkness often used this stream and I recall several skirmishes here. Now here we were being waited on and enjoying the natural beauty around us.
Vin drove to the top of the main hill where the lighthouse stood. He knew the people there and said they would show me through. It is not a large lighthouse but its location is vital to the shipping lanes down the east coast of Vietnam. The people there were very warm, generous and most hospitable and they welcomed me into their home for a cold drink after the tour. Vin’s friend asked me if I would like to see a secret place not far from the house. While trying to work out what it could be, he kept on repeating “Fwench, Fwench!” He asked me to follow him down this steep, overgrown path to what looked like an old pillbox. It was a concrete structure about 10 feet in diameter with an old metal door on the side. On closer inspection the door and the nearby walls were riddled with bullet holes and dents.
Entering, albeit with a great deal of trepidation and concern that there may be someone down here who hasn’t given up the fight yet, there in the middle of the floor was a hatch cover, similar to a submarines hatch. Our friend lifted it up and said; “Follow me”. Yeah, right! It was a black hole! All I could see was a rusty ladder disappearing into 30ft of darkness straight down. You must think I’m *#^@*%# mad I thought, and then promptly followed him down the ladder.
This WWII relic had been through many battles over the years. The French, Japanese, Americans and the Vietnamese had previously occupied it. There were literally hundreds of shrapnel and bullet holes or marks on the outside, inside this top chamber and halfway down the shaft. When we reached the bottom the only light source was the guide’s torch and that was obviously pass due for some batteries. Vin and I shuffled along behind this miniscule shaft of light, feeling our way on the damp and mossy walls and because I was the tallest, guess who copped all the spider webs, and I hate spiders!
This was a well-built, underground facility and it was used as a hospital, a prison, the intelligence centre for the French, a communications centre and a defensive bastion, well hidden from view by thick undergrowth that all but obscures the only door in. The shackle rings still protrude from the thick concrete walls, the room that was supposedly the interrogation room was noticeably colder than the rest and at the end of the tunnel we saw these small light sources that were once peep holes for rifles covering the main approach to the complex. A slight design fault, from my point of view, was the one entrance and exit point. Seal that hatch cover and you were trapped.
It would not be difficult to be carried away with the historical significance of this place. My imagination was running rampant imagining what it would have been like when in use. The noise of battle would have been thunderous, resounding through the passage ways, people would have been rebounding off each other in the narrow and confined spaces and the smell of fear and cordite and death would have been everywhere.
This was a well-built fortification. It was claustrophobic but fascinating and it still echoed with past heroics and hardship. For anyone with an affinity for historical sites this place will enfold you in the spirits of yesteryear and for the equivalent of A$5, it is a personal tour with a proud and knowledgeable guide who gives you his undivided attention. Fan-bloody-tastic!
There was still so much to see in Vung Tau and I wanted to get up to Nui Dat where the Australian Task Force were headquartered, but the monsoon rains were slowly obscuring the country side and we had a 2-hour drive back to Saigon in the rain. My time for closure was over for this trip. My head was reeling and my body heavy with relief and satisfaction from what I had experienced over the past two days. I admired this country when I was here; its natural beauty was obvious even in war, its people are compassionate, friendly, proud, and welcome visitors with open arms.
There will be no end to this story for sometime in the future, I will go back to Vietnam to experience more and more of the hospitality it offers, and I will continue to write about its beauty, its diversity, the uniqueness of its culture and the simple desire to share it with the world. They are at peace now and to a great extent, so am I.