Story 1 - Return Vist to Vietnam in Jan 1999

By Trevor Hopper

Saigon - Jan 1999I decided to go back to Vietnam just before Christmas and booked a flight to Tan Son hut Airport with Qantas for January 12. My wife and I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on January 13 at about 11 a.m. to be greeted by Vietnam immigration. They were a surly lot and made sure you came to the desk one at a time and did not get too close. However we made it into the country only to find that our suitcase had not arrived. Consequently we set off for Vung Tau a little later than we had planned. First we had to get some transport to Vung Tau and this is either a ferry, which leaves from the river, or a mini bus that leaves from opposite the Saigon Hotel. We opted for the latter and after 3 hours of adventure with a bus load of Vietnamese we were in Vung Tau.

The town has grown considerably since 1969 however the Grand Hotel is still on the main promenade facing front beach. We booked into the Palace hotel next door which is reasonably modern and air-conditioned. That day we had the afternoon to acclimatise ourselves and buy some clothes to wear the following day. I purchased a shirt for about $4 that probably would have cost $25 in Brisbane. As it was very hot we ventured into a bar on front beach and downed a few Bai Moui Bai (33) before sundown.

The following day I hired a 90cc motorbike from the hotel for US$7 a day. At about 8 we set off for Baria and points east. The roads here are not the best although work is progressing everywhere ever so slowly. At Baria I turned east toward Long Hai and it was pleasant riding along in the countryside enjoying the country views and salt pans. Long Hai is quite a big town now and has hotels, guesthouses and people everywhere. We did not stay long as one town is like another here, dirty, noisy and full of people and traffic so we went along the coast to a small beachside resort. It cost us 2000 dong to park and 10,000 dong each to sit on the deck chairs in the resort. We paid and sat and had a drink and relaxed for an hour by the sea. As I had not visited this area during the war other than flying over in a helicopter, I was interested in the geography and the lie of the land.

After our short rest we again ventured up the coast through Phouc Hai and inland to Xuyen Moc. Xuyen Moc is a very large village now with a large dam and many government and private buildings. The road was reasonable and the countryside was fully developed with farms and paddies everywhere. The people seemed fairly prosperous and farm buildings were substantial and well built. Obviously since the war the locals have prospered as there were many more people and all available ground was cultivated.Dat Do - Jan 1999

We rode back to Dat Do and turned up towards the Horseshoe. There is a quarry at one end of the Horseshoe now and I rode up into the centre of the feature. My wife got off the bike and unfortunately I should have also as soon after I fell into a pit which had been a bunker halfway up the feature.

Well I walked to the top of the hill and took some photographs of the area and decided that I had ridden the bike enough for one day.The Horseshoe - Jan 1999 We headed back to Vung Tau down the Dat Do-Baria road. When we got to Baria there was the old picture theatre on the corner as it had been 30 years ago. The bullet holes and rocket holes had been repaired but it still looked the same. Much more traffic going through there now, trucks, motorbikes and cars.

The following day we had to go to Tan Son Nhut to get our suitcase. It had arrived. We caught the Vina ferry back to Ho Chi Minh City at the cost of US$10 each one way. Vietnam Airlines had a huge room full of lost luggage and we went in and found ours. We caught the ferry back and that was a day wasted.

Baria - Jan 1999Next day I ventured out on my own. I hired a bike again and went straight up to Baria then on through Hoa Long to Nui Dat. When I rode through the gateposts, still there in 1999, I came across a man with a mine detector looking for "Bombs". It seems they find unexploded ordnance around the camp area still.

I drove down the road in front of Kanga Pad and over onto Nui Dat hill, which is now a quarry. I parked and walked up the hill for a better view of the area. When I looked down I could see the Engineers Dam and the roads which were still in use.

Luscombe Field - Jan 1999The rubber is still there but it is all new growth. There are lots of farms around the area and substantial houses along the old Route 2. Kanga Pad is a paddy field, no indication of its previous use. Luscombe field is still there. The bitumen is in good condition and houses are built on either side with a school at the western end. The view from the top of the hill was good and I endeavoured to take pictures of the whole 360-degree view.

The Long Hais and Warburtons were clearly visible although denuded of growth. The whole countryside was farms and rubber with very little jungle. It brought back memories just standing on that hill looking at this view.

I rode around the roads inside the camp, many of which are still bitumen. I went over to the dam, where children were fishing. Where the artillery lines had been there were two stones in the rubber. One was painted with 1 Field Regt on it and another that was illegible but painted in artillery colours.

Route 2 disappeared just after Luscombe field and the bitumen has also disappeared. However the locals said that I could get to Binh Ba if I kept going but the track was too rough.

Trevor Hopper visiting the Long Tan Cross - 1999I left Nui Dat and went back through Hoa Long and on to Long Tan. There were memorials to the Viet Cong in well-tended parks beside the road. At Long Tan I went into the Government offices and asked if I could see the Long Tan Cross. They were happy to see me and sat me down and said that it would cost 150,000 dong (about A$16.85). I handed over the money and received a receipt. One of the officers went out the back and got the brass plate off the cross. He got his motorbike and we drove out into the farms and rubber to where a well tended barbed wire fence surrounds the cross. He hung the plate over the cross and left me to my thoughts. I said a prayer and stood for some considerable time at the cross.

The 4 posts with hooks that had held the chain surrounded the cross and the cross has been freshly painted white. I took the plate off and placed it over the holes in the cross and they all matched. I believe it is the same cross that was planted in the area by 6 RAR in 1969 and probably in the same position. I saw it in 1969 while in the bush and took a photograph of the plate. The plate is exactly the same. I know there is a lot of conjecture about the cross but I think that it is the original standing in the rubber now.

After this moving moment I went back down the road past the Horseshoe, through Dat Do and Baria and back to Vung Tau.

We stayed in Vung Tau for a few more days just relaxing and driving around. We found the old Badcoe Club swimming pool at back beach. It is now in a state of disrepair and home to some ducks. Where 1ALSG was there are hotels, some of which are quite substantial. Massage Parlours and bars are in evidence everywhere in Vung Tau but especially at back beach.

Old Badcoe Club - Jan 1999The flags have gone but there are shops and offices around a clean well developed square. Vung Tau is still a wild little town but instead of soldiers on the streets there are oil workers from the oilrigs at sea. The Grand Hotel has a big massage parlour and dance hall out the back. Good seafood may be had from restaurants in the street behind the Grand. The Hong Van restaurant had good mud and sand crabs that were cooked while you waited.

My voyage back to Vietnam has settled my mind and made me feel better in myself about the part I played in the war. The people seem very much better now, as there is no war and there is some degree of prosperity, although the country is obviously very poor. It is hard to believe that 30 years ago we were fighting in this country so far away from home. And it is even harder to realise the effects that Vietnam would have on the lives of those who served in that country.

Footnote: These are some of the places that I visited on my recent tour. As can be seen from my photo at the Horseshoe, I was wounded in a mishap with my motorcycle. (I fell into an old disused bunker - even though I was sober at the time).  Sure I was!!!

NB. Actually this is a case of Engineers' Revenge. - Ed.

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