Ho Chi Minh City
The problem I had with Vietnam is that I was constantly reminded of every Vietnam war film I’d ever seen.It started badly when Bernie and I were almost refused entry to the country, and, once I was there, it was impossible to see a paddy field without imagining the fireball from a napalm strike! I know that Britain wasn’t involved in the war, but our allies were, and I can’t help feeling the ‘wrong’ side won. You might say that Vietnam won her independence from France, which had ruled the country since 1859, but what about the South Vietnamese? How did they feel about being invaded and then forced to live under a Communist régime?
Cu Chi tunnels
We had three battlefield tours while we were in Vietnam: the Cu Chi tunnels, Long Tan and ‘Monkey Island’. The tunnels at Cu Chi were a vital redoubt in the war against the Americans. From 1948-68, over 250km of tunnels were built in the area. The tunnels were generally 1.6m x 0.8m - big enough for ‘tapioca people’ but not ‘KFC people’! Kevin and I went through one of them, and it was scary stuff. It was impossible to stand up straight – I had to ‘duck walk’ with my back bent only inches from the top of the tunnel – and it was completely dark apart from the torch of the guide in front of me. I don’t think I could’ve spent 12 hours in there, let alone 12 months of the year. However, they did have great tactical benefits. The VC built triangular bomb shelters, and the clay soil was very hard, so the American bombs only made 2-3m craters, whereas the tunnels went down as far as 15m below the surface (although still above the water table, so flooding was not much of a problem).
We heard all about it from an introductory video (made in 1967), which was really just a propaganda exercise. It described the 500,000 tons of ‘merciless American bombs’ that stopped the local people from ‘living peacefully’ and how, ‘like a crazy bunch of devils, they fired into women and children.’ However, despite the constant attacks, ‘the lives of the guerrillas in the circle were wonderful’. Personally, I have my doubts. We tasted some slices of the cassava seasoned with a mixture of salt and ground peanuts that the VC fighters and Thong himself used to eat as their staple food, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. As Crocodile Dundee might say, “You can live on it, but…!”
Thong’s commentary as we walked around the site made me a little uncomfortable. Communism has accounted for 100 million deaths since Karl Marx first put pen to paper, so it was a bit hard to take when our tour guide Thong gleefully told us about all the ways in which ‘we’ used to kill the Americans. Being shown the barbaric traps used by the Viet Cong was like visiting Auschwitz and hearing a German tour guide saying, “This is what we used to do to the Jews...”
Thong also told us that it was the Americans who tortured the VC and not the other way around: “When the American POWs left, it was like they’d stayed in a hotel.” I’m not sure the late John McCain would have agreed with that. He did stay in a hotel, but it was the 'Hanoi Hilton'!
All in all, the Vietnam War was a tragedy for both north and south. Over a million North Vietnamese soldiers died in the conflict and a further 250,000 South Vietnamese. Two million civilians from both sides were killed and another two million fled the country after the war was over. However, the population has grown continuously due to the high birth rate and now stands at 93m, even though the birth rate has fallen dramatically. Thong’s parents came from a family of 10, but most women now have only one or two children. The country is still run by the Communist leadership, but at least they chose to open up the economy in 1986. Since 1990, there have been many factories built with aid of foreign direct investment, and the GDP growth rate is an impressive 6% p.a., even though GDP per capita is still only around $2,500. The war may be over, but Vietnam still spends a large amount on defence. They have a large standing army to defend against the Chinese – they've never been friends with them in over 2,000 years! – and they have more soldiers under arms than the United Kingdom. Everything might change one day, just as it did in Eastern Europe, but I can’t see it happening any time soon.
The second site we visited was Long Tan, which included a trip to the old Australian base at Nui Dat. Australia took part in the Vietnam War and sent advisers and then troops from 1966-71 when conscription was abolished. Australian forces fought five major battles, including Long Tan, and lost 521 men. The battle of Long Tan was due to the presence of the Australian base at Nui Dat, which was deliberately sited to protect Saigon from the five NVA and Viet Cong units in the surrounding area. On 18 August 1966, the North Vietnamese tried to draw out the Australians from their stronghold of 3,000 men by aiming mortar fire at the base. When the Australian commander sent out a small patrol, the guerrillas didn’t attack, hoping to lure a larger force into their trap, and the Australians duly obliged, sending out three units totalling 108 men (including one New Zealander). The force was not strong enough to weaken the defences of Nui Dat itself, but the Vietnamese forces decided to attack. In the ensuing battle, conducted in a heavy monsoon that prevented effective air support, the Australians were surrounded, outnumbered and close to running out of ammunition. However, in a Rorke’s Drift-style defence, the three patrols managed to fight off the enemy with the aid of an artillery bombardment from Nui Dat before returning safely to base. Overall 18 Australian soldiers died in the battle of Long Tan, compared to an estimated 245 Vietnamese. In a thoughtful touch, our guide gave us red roses to lay at the memorial for all those who died. Among the dead was a 19-year-old from Toowoomba where Kathy and Alan live. We were all pretty quiet on the ride home after that.
The final Vietnam War reminder came on our trip to The Sac Forest Base at Can Gio, otherwise known as ‘Monkey Island’. In fact, we were really there for the monkeys rather than the propaganda video or the odd diorama that had been put up with mannequins showing what the VC must have looked like in those days. There were hundreds of long-tailed macaques and a northern pig-tailed macaque on the path from the car park, and we were warned to look after our valuables as the monkeys could be quite cheeky in attacking unwary tourists. Gerlinde actually ended up with a scratch on her forehead when a monkey attacked her and stole her (very expensive) glasses, but one of the staff miraculously managed to find them for her. For my purposes, it was great to get back to a bit of wildlife photography, and Kevin and the others took a few pictures, too.
Thong at least managed to make up for his rather one-eyed commentary by revealing his fruit-based rating system for women’s breasts, which apparently ranged in size from snails through lychees to limes to oranges to pomelos to melons!
I also had an amusing 'lost in translation' moment at the hotel when I couldn't tell the difference between the tubes of shampoo and shower gel and decided to ring reception.
“Which one is the shower gel and which is the shampoo?”
“The blue is the shampoo.”
“There isn’t a blue one. You mean the green one?”
“Yes, the grey one is the shampoo.”
“There isn’t a grey one. You mean the green one?”
“Yes, the green one is the shower gel.”
Finally, the one thing Vietnam definitely does have going for it is cheap dental care. I had my teeth cleaned for $20 at a clinic in Ho Chi Minh City and then whitened on a later visit. It only took a couple of hours, and would only have cost me $160 – until Kevin paid the bill on my behalf as a thank you for making the trip. Very generous of him.
To be continued…