2015 - Back to Vietnam

In 2015, we purchased a 10 day package tour of Vietnam and Cambodia.


Prior to departure, I used an ap to refresh and upgrade my basic Vietnamese.


I did, however, arrive in Hanoi with a degree of prejudice towards the "North Vietnamese".

I deemed the officials as surly and non-responsive to my attempts at conversation – albeit there is a significant difference between North and South dialects (see Saigon Days).

Perhaps they were fed up with the typical el Cheapo foreign tourist - particularly the yobbo Australian.

Hanoi seemed orderly and more "French" that what I imagined. On the whole, the population was oblivious to Australia's involvement. The locals consistently referred to The American War.

A two day trip to Hua Long Bay overnighting on a Sampan type vessel and tour of huge caves was interesting.

Hạ Long Bay - lovely emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests.


The evening before departure to Da Nang I paid a furtive visit to the Hotel Hanoi Hilton Gatehouse museum where the North Vietnamese “hosted” American POWs during the Vietnam war who were mainly shot down over the north.

Hoi An

We opted to take a plane to Da Nang and the bus to Hoi An - some 20 km south along the coastal route

To me, Hội An represented the best that Vietnam offers.


It is a well-preserved Ancient Town, cut through with canals. The former port city’s melting-pot history is reflected in its architecture, a mix of eras and styles from wooden Chinese shop houses and temples to colorful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese tube houses and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.

Peaceful, quiet, serene – now.

A few kilometres to the south was the village of My Lai, where in 1969, the American troops committed a massacre. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were killed by U.S. Army soldiers. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.

I could not help thinking that Hoi An was spared this tragedy.


We were taken inland to an area that was the source of a religious sect – the name for which I have since forgotten,

Along the way were shown the mounds of earth twisted and contorted due to the effects of B52 bombing.


In 1967-68. I heard them and felt the earth move – but never saw first hand the devastation the bombs did to the landscape as evidenced by the depressions.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Saigon


Still a shithouse - traffic, noise, gridlock - stinking hot.


Carmel and I excused ourselves from the tour whereupon I showed Carmel, where I worked and lived and pointed out landmarks.


I was quite animated. I took her to the rooftop of the Hotel Caravelle thinking that I could point out everything geographically – where the 107mm mortars landed; the path of the 122mm rocket barrages; the Hit ‘n Run attacks; the skirmishes in and around key strategic locations during the 1968 Tet Offensive including which buildings were damaged by helicopter gunships.

But alas – it was now built out.

The hotel area, however, was now converted to an al fresco restaurant with a designated section commemorating journalists’ involvement in reporting the War. At that time, the hotel was the HQ for many syndicated news stations.

The Manager (an Australian) somehow picked up on my excitement.

He made the usual hospitality enquiry.

Unlike Carmel who seemed to be bored shitless, the manager was spellbound as I repeated myself – I was also able to name many of the media who appeared in photos on the display wall.


He said he had never met anyone who was here during the height of the war and who had such firsthand knowledge.

He kept on asking me question after question.


I suppose we could have dined out there for free.

Distorting History at the Cu Chi Tunnels


The tour package included a bus trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

This location was an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

The area witnessed several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and was the Viet Cong's base of operations for the later part of the Tết Offensive in 1968.


The tour group was all Australian. During the outward journey from Saigon, our guide just happened to sit next to me. We spoke in Vietnamese and English whereupon, I told him I was in Saigon in 1968.

His reaction was to inform me that his father, at the time, was aged five.


The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction. Visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate tourists. Low-power lights have been installed in the tunnels to make travelling through them easier, and both sites have displays of the different types of booby traps that were used.


The group was fed “bullshit” stories that embellished military achievements over “the Americans”.


The above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M60.

At the end, there was a regathering of our group in an open conference hall which had a large wall map of the region on display.

The purpose was for the tour guide to feed us propaganda.


I was getting agitated.


There was a break in his presentation while another video was being loaded. I tried to get out of my seat in the third or fourth row only to have my trouser belt snatched by Carmel and abruptly pulled back down.


I evaded her next grab and scurried towards my guide-chum now located at the lectern.

I asked him if I could address the group.

No problem, as he handed over the pointer stick.


I tapped on our present location and said that in May 1968, a large Australian force of about 3,000 solders ( some 60% of our total commitment) was operating in this exact area and would the group like to hear about Operation Balmoral?


“Yes Please!”


The wall map was a magnificent aid. In 5-10 minutes, I explained the geo political and strategic significance of the intervention as well as the cost in terms of dead and wounded.

I was not glorifying the month long engagement - I was simply providing some much needed "Balance".


Cambodia

We traveled by bus to Phnom Penh. It seemed to take all day – the longest part being pandemonium at the border where officials were intent on making things difficult for people who were obvious tourists.


Cambodia 2015 compared to my recollection of Cambodia 1967 was incomparable.

The people seemed meeker and more friendly. But tourism is still in its infancy and the population still seems traumatised by the Killing Fields genocide. We were taken to one location where indeed there was a pall in the air. Collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979.


It was with a sense of depression that Carmel and I decided not to continue with the tour that ended by a visit to Angkor Wat. (I had been there in 1967 and Carmel was out of sorts.)

So we reorganised our tickets and went home.

It did not occur to us to advise the tour company representative.

When we got home we were greeted with a phone call from its HQ.

It seemed that Cambodia was still considered kidnapping territory and we were reported as “missing”.

"Opps! Sorry!".