Published: June 6th 2009June 6th 2009
By the time we caught the hydrofoil from Vung Tau back to Saigon Kev was mighty pleased to be leaving. Memories of his time there during the Vietnam War in 1966 played its part in making him feel uncomfortable once he'd re-connected with the place. Me, I would have been happy to stay for a day or two longer and explore more of what Vung Tau had to offer.
When Kev arrived in Vung Tau in 1966 aboard HMAS Sydney dis-embarkation was at Back Beach where they made a camp amidst the sand-hills there. Now Back Beach is almost unrecognisable to Kev as it's dotted with luxury beach-side resorts while across a wide road there are 5 Star hotels and shopping centres. Well it was to be expected, after all 43 years have passed since then!
The previous day we hired a taxi to take us to the Nui Dat area where the 1st Australian Task Force built a camp in what had previously been a jungle. That was after they'd spent about four weeks camped at Back Beach. Nui Dat is about 27km from Vung Tau and at the time it was a dirt road - now it's a six
lane highway! As the C Company driver of 5RAR, Kev used to drive officers from Nui Dat to the Grand Hotel at Vung Tau which is the reason he wanted to stay there. In 1966 it was the only hotel in Vung Tau: now it's one among many - all of them grander than the one built before it!
We discovered that what is known as Nui Dat - which means something like big hill - is being mined and pulverised to the ground. We eventually found the airstrip at what had been the 1st ATF camp after somewhat of a search. The air-strip was built from scratch by the engineers after they'd completed the road - this all went on while the camp was being built on either side of the airstrip. What was the camp is now overgrown, re-claimed by nature, while Vietnamese 'houses' have since been built at either side of the air-strip, now the road. Carraboo, Hercules, Spotter planes, Chinooks, Iroquois and various other choppers once took off and landed there. We spoke to a Vietnamese woman - Le Thi Quyen - who lives in a house at the end of the air-strip. Her husband had
been a Captain in the South Vietnamese Army and was incarcerated for three years in a re-education camp once the Americans left in 1975. Le Thi Quyen had herself worked for the Americans and now runs a school for the children of the peasants who live nearby - Wayne gave her some money to buy yogurt for the children. By this time Kev had had enough and was back with the driver waiting to leave the area.
We also visited the Long Phuoc tunnels - that was quite an experience - sometimes able to stand up but a lot of the time we were crouching down as we made our way underground. These tunnels - many kilometers long - hid Viet Cong soldiers and were complete with underground casualty clearing station areas. Amazing.
We also visited the Long Tan memorial situated in the middle of a rubber plantation where, in August 1966 around 2,500 Viet Cong attacked a company of 6RAR men which resulted in the loss of 18 Australians with 24 wounded while 245 Vietnamese were killed. At the time of the battle Kev was attending a concert held at the Nui Dat camp at which Little Patty was
one of the performers. So all in all it was quite a confronting day.
That evening we were invited to dinner at Lan's mum's house. Such hospitality - we were so well fed on a beautiful meatball soup followed by prawns, blue swimmer crabs and fresh fruit. Talk about being spoilt!!
Kev accidentally left our travel documents in the bedside table at the Grand Hotel which he didn't realise until we were already on the hydrafoil speeding away from Vung Tau. Wayne saved the day by phoning Lan who went to the hotel, picked them up and posted them to our Saigon hotel which we'll pick up when we return on the 13th. We're now at Saigon's domestic airport (just heard that the plane has been delayed by an hour) and I've just realised that the envelope to be given to Hanh at the Lifestart Foundation in Hoi An is amongst the documents. Bugger - this means we'll have to post it on to Hanh when we get back to Saigon. Sorry Rachel and James. I'm really disappointed since I was SO looking forward to giving it to Hanh myself.
After writing most of this at the airport we're now
in Hoi An and my camera has packed up on me - there must be some good luck coming my way surely! There was a Heritage & Culture festival being celebrated - candles floating in the river, dancing, singing and lots of families enjoying the fun. We ate out while attending the festival - tomorrow we're off to find the Lifestart Foundation and Hanh.
There are more photos below