DAY 1

Our first day proper begins with a short walking tour from our base at the Liberty Central hotel, near Ben Thanh market, to the centre of the city. Notre Dame Cathedral, the city hall and the Central Post Office, designed by the same M. Eiffel who built the tower in Paris are fairly obvious reminders, if any were needed, that Saigon was once a jewel in French Indochina’s crown.

Along the way our tour guide Tam points out the rooftop of the former CIA building which was the scene of that famous iconic picture of people desperately trying to get on the last helicopter out of Saigon before the city finally fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

An all-too-short bus ride (thank heavens for air conditioning) takes us to the former Presidential Palace with tanks in the grounds that are the same tanks (but not the exact ones) that crashed through the gates on that fateful day. There is also a similar (but different) jet fighter to the one used by a rebel South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the palace in the closing months of the war.

The real tank and plane are in the war museum in Hanoi, the capital. But it seems that in this, the booming capital of replica watches and “end of run” but genuine clothes, bags and shoes, even some of the military relics are knock-offs.

The palace is opulent and extravagant, and its award winning architecture is worth a visit alone. But it’s the subtext of privilege, revolt, betrayal and assassination that tells the whole story. Upstairs has the elegant reception rooms, furnished and fitted out in a style better suited to European princes than a struggling Third World economy.

Downstairs in the basement there is all the evidence of the other side of the story. Bunkers built to withstand a direct hit from a 500 pound bomb contain planning and communications rooms. Ancient radio equipment that probably has less grunt than your average mobile phone fill map-lined rooms. A secret passageway leads directly to the president’s offices upstairs. A secret tunnel leads to another official building, the railway system and the Saigon river. The South Vietnamese and American led allies may have been planning for victory but were well prepared for defeat.

Another short bus ride takes us to the War Remnants Musem – previously called the American War Crimes Museum., before diplomatic thawing and typical Vietnamese pragmatism and business sense prevailed and the anti-American propaganda was toned down a lot. By the way, the Australian contribution barely rates a mention, typified by the displays at Cu Chi tunnels (which we will visit tomorrow) where not only do they fail to recognise that they were discovered by Australians, but fails to acknowledge that Aussies were ever actually there.

The highlights for most of us were the captured American military vehicles parked in the forecourt- fighter jets, tanks, helicopters and field artillery, the tiger cages and guillotines used by the French to behead Viet Minh insurgents, and the amazing gallery of photographs of the war taken by foreign Press photographers. The display of the effects of Agent Orange on subsequent generations of Vietnamese was a bit too confronting for some of our group.

Lunch in a pho restaurant offering a wide range of the iconic noodle soups – OK, just two … beef or chicken – is an opportunity to prepare for the next day’s trip to Cu Chi with our No 1 Tunnel Rat, Sandy MacGregor explaining how, as a young captain, he and his men in 3 Field Troop had discovered the tunnels and had explored them (at a time when American troops were specifically ordered not to do so). Sandy’s chat and a TV min-documentary on the tunnels were the icing on the cake after a simple but tasty meal.

Our next stop was the atypical Bitexco tower, at 44 storeys by far the tallest building in Saigon with a viewing gallery near the top offering 360 degree panoramas of this city of nine million souls.

Later that day some of the group took a cyclo tour of another part of the city (paid in advance to avoid the hassle of the street rip-off merchants) while we all came together in the evening for dinner at the Na Hang Ngon restaurant which serves authentic street food that you can see being prepared in little stalls around the perimeter – but delivered to your table in a more western restaurant setting. Allegations that one of our group said: “I don’t like Asian food – can’t we go to a Chinese restaurant” are being hotly denied.

Our first day proper begins with a short walking tour from the Liberty Central hotel, near Ben Thanh market, to the centre of the city. Notre Dame Cathedral, the city hall and the central post office, designed by the same M. Eiffel who built the tower in Paris are fairly obvious reminders, if any were needed, that Saigon was once the jewel in French Indochina’s crown.

Along the way our tour guide Tam points out the rooftop of the former CIA building which was the scene of that famous iconic picture of people desperately trying to get on the last helicopter out of Saigon before the city finally fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

An all-too-short bus ride (thank heavens for air conditioning) takes us to the former Presidential Palace with tanks in the grounds that are the same tanks (but not the exact ones) that crashed through the gates on that fateful day. There is also a similar (but different) jet fighter to the one used by a turncoat South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the palace in the closing months of the war.

The real tank and plane are in the war museum in Hanoi, the capital. But it seems that in this, the booming capital of replica watches and “end of run” but genuine clothes, bags and shoes, even some of the military relics are knock-offs.

The palace is opulent and extravagant, and its award winning architecture is worth a visit alone. But it’s the subtext of privilege, revolt, betrayal and assassination that tells the whole story. Upstairs has the elegant reception rooms, furnished and fitted out in a style better suited to European princes than a struggling Third World economy.

Downstairs in the basement there is all the evidence of the other side of the story. Bunkers built to withstand a direct hit from a 500 pound bomb contain planning and communications rooms. Ancient radio equipment that probably has less grunt than your average mobile phone fill map-lined rooms. A secret passageway leads directly to the president’s offices upstairs. A secret tunnel leads to another official building, the railway system and the Saigon river. The South Vietnamese and American led allies may have been planning for victory but were well prepared for defeat.

Another short bus ride takes us to the War Remnants Musem – previously called the American War Crimes Museum., before diplomatic thawing and typical Vietnamese pragmatism and business sense prevailed and the anti-American propaganda was toned down a lot. By the way, the Australian contribution barely rates a mention, typified by the displays at Cu Chi tunnels (which we will visit tomorrow) where not only do they fail to recognise that they were discovered by Australians, but fails to acknowledge that Aussies were ever actually there.

The highlights for most of us were the captured American military vehicles parked in the forecourt- fighter jets, tanks, helicopters and field artillery, the tiger cages and guillotines used by the French to behead Viet Minh insurgents, and the amazing gallery of photographs of the war taken by foreign Press photographers. The display of the effects of Agent Orange on subsequent generations of Vietnamese was a bit too confronting for some of our group.

Lunch in a pho restaurant offering a wide range of the iconic noodle soups – OK, just two … beef or chicken – is an opportunity to prepare for the next day’s trip to Cu Chi with our No 1 Tunnel Rat, Sandy MacGregor explaining how, as a young captain, he and his men in 3 Field Troop had discovered the tunnels and had explored them (at a time when American troops were specifically ordered not to do so). Sandy’s chat and a TV min-documentary on the tunnels were the icing on the cake after a simple but tasty meal.

Our next stop was the atypical Bitexco tower, at 44 storeys by far the tallest building in Saigon with a viewing gallery near the top offering 360 degree panoramas of this city of nine million souls.

Later that day some of the group took a cyclo tour of another part of the city (paid in advance to avoid the hassle of the street rip-off merchants) while we all came together in the evening for dinner at the Na Hang Ngon restaurant which serves authentic street food that you can see being prepared in little stalls around the perimeter – but delivered to your table in a more western restaurant setting. Allegations that one of our group said: “I don’t like Asian food – can’t we go to a Chinese restaurant” are being hotly denied.

DAY 2

An early start saw us at Saigon River docks by 07:45, ready to board our speedboat to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We differ from most tourist groups in this regard if no other: we go up and back by boat and we visit both tunnel systems. The furthest away tunnels are at Ben Duoc (which is why most tour groups don’t go there) and are very popular with local school groups.

The tunnels here are slightly larger and link interconnected chambers, giving visitors a sense of what it was like living and working underground. But first we are invited to sit through a frankly cringe-making propaganda movie from the 1960s in which an earnest young female voice-over denounces the American and their evil ways: “They shot our hens, they shot our ducks … they shot our pots and pans …”

OK, we get the picture. And then we went past displays of weapons used by the Vietcong as well as some captured from the South Vietnamese Army and the Allies. Some of them – like the cluster bombs – were particularly evil devices. But then the Vietnamese booby traps weren’t exactly kids toys either.

The braver members of the group went down the tunnels to get to underground bunkers including a planning room (where two of them seemed to take part in a meeting with Vietcong officers).

Back on the boat to the second, more touristy tunnels. This time the tunnel was closer, at least in part, to the original dimensions and two determined souls made it all the way along the 100 metres while a few brave but sensible bods baled out at escape points along the way.

The rifle range proved a popular distraction and we blasted away, giving new meaning to the phrase “aimless pursuits”, before re-boarding for a speedboat ride back to Saigon.

The evening was rounded off by an Opera House performance of the A O Show – a Vietnamese take on Cirque De Soleil style dance and acrobatics – and dinner at another Saigon restaurant.

Sandy and Mr Fuong

Day 4

Day 4 dawned with another early start as we left our hotel in Saigon city centre and headed up to the site of the battles of Coral and Balmoral. We were joined on the trip by Mr Fuong, a former VietCong soldier had operated in that area (albeit a couple of years after Coral-Balmoral). Overnight we’d loaded everyone’s laptops and tablets with a couple of video presentations about the battle so that everyone knew by the time we got there what had happened in what would turn out to be the largest battle of the war involving Australian troops.

Typically, neither of the two memorials – one religious, the other political – mentioned the fact that the main Allied  force was Australian, focussing instead on the peripheral involvement of the American Big Red One aka the First Infantry Division.

This, by the way, is typical of the Vietnamese view of the war – after all, they call it the American War.  Australians are often puszzled to find very few references to Australian or any other country’s involvement in the conflict.  But then, most Aussies are unaware that there were 10 times as many South Korean troops here that there were Australians.

But the Americans were involved in this battle. Up near the site of the Balmoral Fire Support base we found a long run of bomb craters from US B52s.

Next we visted Bien Hoa airfield, which was the Aussies of 3 Field Troop’s first home in Vietnam, as well as being the US Army’s Saigon base and military airfield (a function it still serves today – only now it’s a Vietnam Airforce base).

Warning signs about contamination from Agent Orange that will require remediation costing hundreds of millions of dollars had us scurrying back to the safety of the bus.

From there it was on to Vung Tau with another hectic day of the Travelling Tunnel Rat Tour under our belts.

DAY 5

This was a physically very demanding day a visit to the Minh Dam caves in the Long Hai Hills. These caves, some several hundred metres into the heart of the mountains, served as the Vietcong’s local head quarters throughout the Australian’s presence at their Nui Dat. They survived both carpet bombing from the air and search and destroy missions on the ground to present a constant threat to Australians ground forces, especially after the creation of the Barrier Minefield.

The more active members of the group squeezed, crawled and climbed their way through gaps between rocks and boulders to reach what was once the impenetrable inner sanctum of the Vietcong with its own kitchen, medical centre, offices, sleeping quarters and radio communications room.

The memorial outside the entrance to the first caves was of particular significance – the dates on it 1966-72 reflected precisely the time Australian troops were based at nearby Nui Dat. Aussie patrols found plenty of other caves and bunkers in these hills, cleared them and destroyed them – but the Minh Dam caves were never located and remained intact throughout.

Sandy told us of how his brother Chris was involved in the rescue operation after the Black Saturday disaster In 1970 which took place on the other side of the Long Hai mountains, claiming the lives of nine Australian soldiers and injuring another 26. It would be the last time Aussie troops went into the mountains to seek out the enemy.

Apropriately, the next stop was the Horseshoe – the former Fire Suport Base where Barrier Minefield began its 11 km march to the coast. The Barrier minefield was the source of many of the booby-trap land mined ‘recycled’ for use against Allied troops in incidents like Black Saturday.

We climbed the distinctively shaped hill, which is mostly a gravel quarry now and looked down the line the minefield would have taken as more than 23,000 M16 Jumping Jack mines were planted, only for 3000 to be lifted and used against the Allies.

We returned to Tommy 3 for lunch via the site of the Ba Ria bridge and the War Heroes Cemetery in Baria (with little solar powered lamps on the graves that come on at night).

At Tommy 3 we watch a video about the minefield and the deadly consequences of this tactical error that our book – and many other sources – claim is Australia’s greatest military blunder since Gallipoli.

Free time in Vung Tau – a delightful town in itself with three popular beaches – was followed by dinner at the Bamboo restaurant which brought a long and challenging day to a pleasant close.

Day 6

An exploration of Vung Tau revealed its many roles in the lives of the Aussie troops, many of whom passed through on their way to the Task Force base, or returned later for a few days R&R in the bars (salubrious and otherwise) of this town that was also once a holiday resort for French colonialists.

The White Palace (the former French Governor’s summer retreat) speaks to a more distant history while the statue of Jesus – reached by a 700-step climb – is the more obvious remnant of American presence. The airport that once served the Huey, Chinook and SkyCrane Allied choppers is now a helicopter base servicing oil rigs in the Eastern Sea (aka the South China Sea … but you’re not supposed to call it that any more).

Up on the lighthouse hill we got a great view of Vung Tau below us and you will see a brass coloured dome on the lower left of the panorama which is roughly where the Australian Logistical Support Groups (ALSG) was once based. The Imperial Hotel now occupies the site of the Peter Badcoe Club (archive picture) where Australian soldiers were billeted while on R&R.

In the bars, Russian oil workers have replaced Diggers but the girls seem to offer the same services their grandmothers once provided to the Australian and American troops. Vung Tau has grown tenfold in size since the 1970s when it offered blessed relief from the stresses of jungle patrols and camp life in general. But it’s still a beautiful town with well-kept roads and streets and friendly smiles wherever you go.

We finished our tour at Tommy 3 bar where former Digger Glenn Nolan has created a little corner of Australia with everything from footy shirts to Anzac memorabilia. He also set us up to watch a couple of videos, while we ate lunch, to set us up for our impending trips to Nui Dat, the Horseshoe and Long Tan.

Thanks to our tour guest Brendan for these shots from the Lighthouse Hill above Vung Tau and the hotel on the site of the former Peter Badcoe Club.

DAY 7

This would turn out to be a highly emotional day for all concerned. Packed and ready to return to Saigon, we had two very important stops en route. First we went to Nui Dat and stood on the village’s main road, a strand of bitumen that was once the Australian Army Base’s air strip. We visited the kindergarten school built by Australian ex-servicemen (they have repainted the gates but the kangaroos remain) and the helicopter landing pads near the SAS hill.

We passed the concert bowl where Little Patty and Col Joye had been performing for troops the night of the Long Tan battles and we also made a special pilgrimage to the Ucdaloi (Australian) well which was discovered and properly established by Sandy and his men in 3 Field Troop as a precursor to establishing the base camp at Nui Dat for the incoming Task Force.

Nearby we found the foundations of the Task Force HQ huts and Sandy explained how the attacking enemy force intercepted at Long Tan had been heading for the 3 Field Troop lines, en route to the HQ. And we walked to where 3 Field Troop had pitched their tents – a special moment for the family of a Sapper who had served with Sandy.

We had been joined by local tour guide Huong who has been working in this area for 10 years and speaks three languages other than her own (and is learning a fourth). Among her other many insights, she pointed out the cashew nut trees on which the nut grows outside the fruit.

The next stop was the Long Tan Cross and although the rubber trees have been cut down for replanting, we benefitted greatly from having watched video material about the battle in the previous days.

Jimmy explained the political significance of the cross – it is one of only two memorials to foreign troops in Vietnam, the other being to French troops at Dien Bien Phu – and then Sandy led a small remembrance service for our group.

Having seen what we had seen and knowing what we now knew, it’s no surprise that there were few dry eyes as we concluded the purely military part of our tour and headed onwards to Saigon.

Along the way, we stopped at a Viet Cong Heroes Cemetery where all the graves have little solar powered lights that come on at night.  It must be a magical sight.  And then we walked across the new bridge at Ba Ria, the sit of that amazing feat when Australian and American sappers, working together, in the course of 24 hours replaced a bridge that had been destroyed  by Viet Cong explosives.  As you’ll see from the pictures below, it was quite a stretch but it kept the road to the docks at Vung Tau open.

DAY 8

The final full day of our tour was a trip into what would have been considered “bandit” territory during the Vietnam War – the Mekong Delta where some islands had 90 percent support for the Vietcong.

But for us it was a much more peaceful and contemplative trip, starting with a detour to the Cau Dai temple. This odd mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hindu and Confucianism has about 3 million followers in Vietnam and is the country’s third largest religion after Buddhism and Catholicism.

The Mekong is about three km wide where we join it and we pass several floating fish farms, working freighters, working fishing boats and ferries as we cross to the four islands – Turtle, Phoenix, Unicorn and Dragon – and embark on the most touristy part of our trip.

The coconut factory makes sweets and other by-products of the coconuts grown nearby, there is a snake wine (whiskey) tasting, a ride on a wagon drawn by a pony and a paddle through a canal on a long punt.

We turn into tree sniffers as we try to detect chocolate aromas from the fruit of the cacao trees and one of our party has a close encouter with a python.

But then we have a fabulous lunch at the Hao Ai riverside restaurant featuring the famous elephant ear fish wish well and truly lives up to its reputation. We all agree this is the best meal of the whole tour, a plaudit that lasts until the evening when we returned to Saigon for a fabulous farewell dinner in the Hoa Tuc restaurant – located on the ground floor of a former opium factory.

The rain came lashing down as we headed back to our hotel (Liberty Central) for a farewell drink.

We never did find that Chinese restaurant …

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