Tag Archives: Vietnam War

In war, there are no winners

Vietnam was the war of my generation. While I marched in moratoriums, my male peers were conscripted into the army. About sixty thousand Australians served in Vietnam, a small number in comparison with the nearly three million Americans but even so the war left its battle scars. Five hundred and twenty-one Australians died and over three thousand were wounded. The American dead isn’t far off sixty thousand. And all of those who returned were scorned for decades for having fought in an ‘unpopular’ war. There were generational scars, too, the long-term results of exposure to Agent Orange.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Vietnamese casualties.

As it happened, one of our group of ten was a retired career soldier who had served in Vietnam back in the sixties. We were given a choice of visiting the area around Long Tan where the Australians won a significant battle, or to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, part of the network the Vietnamese used in their battle with the US Forces which included troops from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. We all elected to see the Cu Chi tunnels.

Tranh, our guide for this tour, was a lovely young lady whose family had fought for the South Vietnamese forces. She explained to us the North Vietnamese army was known as the Viet Minh – soldiers of Ho Chi Minh. They came down into South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh trail and recruited villagers to their cause. Poor subsistence farmers were easily persuaded to believe the basic teachings of communism. Everyone is equal, share the wealth. They became the Viet Cong, farmers by day and guerrilla fighters by night. I remember a former Australian soldier telling me they’d go through a village and they’d never know what side the people were on. That’s what led to the notorious Me Lai massacre.

The Vietnamese largely used guerrilla tactics. They couldn’t compete with the American helicopters, bombers, and tanks. They used the tunnels to move troops and many actually lived in them. The tunnels at Cu Chi are just part of a network stretching for hundreds of kilometres. This article is an excellent summary of how the tunnels were created and how they were used. The part we visited has been opened up for tourists and the tunnels enlarged so that people can actually experience what it’s like to be down there. The Vietnamese soldiers had to crouch, moving on their haunches to move between the rooms. There were no lights down there, just flickering candles. I’m a bit claustrophobic and I can’t imagine spending hours and days in these places. Add to that the constant use of booby traps to deter US forces who might have found an entrance. Just the thought makes me shudder.

US tank

On our way to the tunnels we paused to take pictures of several military vehicle which would have been used in the war, then moved on into the jungle. The ground is gouged with craters – the legacy of bombs dropped by B52s. We stopped at a termite mound and the guide explained the Vietnamese used artificial termite mounds to disguise positions where soldiers could hide and fire on the enemy.

Tranh gave us some graphics to illustrate the location of the tunnels and who controlled what areas, and a second graphic showing how the rooms in the tunnels were used. This was how people lived. Children were born down there. After the war some ended up with diseases resulting from time spent away from sunlight and I imagine cramped conditions would have been hard on muscles.

The location of the Cu Chi tunnels

Cross section of the tunnels

The US forces didn’t have the local knowledge to combat the VC guerrilla tactics. But they had technology. I’ve mentioned the blanket bombing. They also dropped Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle so the fighters couldn’t hide in the scrub. And they used napalm to clean out fox holes and trenches. Read this article for more information.

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut) – Widely available; This version available at http://www.elenaphotograph.com/blog/noticia.php?id=36, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36615211

This is the famous picture of the ‘napalm girl’ which shocked the world when the devastating results of napalm bombing were displayed for all to see.

When all of this failed they used soldiers of small stature to go down the tunnels. They were known as ‘tunnel rats’. Maybe terriers would have been a better description. The US forces used dogs, too. The dogs would detect the presence of Vietnamese soldiers by their smell. The VC learned that if they killed the dogs that act would reveal their presence. So they deceived the dogs by eating US rations and wearing US uniforms – all stolen from bodies. The VC improvised because they had to, using any raw materials they could find. I don’t think the expression IED ‘improvised explosive device’ had been coined then but it might as well have been.

The VC wore black farmer clothes and carried camouflage cloaks. The neck scarves were common wear for farmers but they could be used to signal others if knotted in particular ways. Sandals were made from salvaged rubber tyres.

A soldier took us around the Cu Chi site, pointing out camouflaged traps and tunnels.

This was  fighting bunker. That slit in the middle of the picture was where VC soldiers would wait for advancing US forces.

leaf litter – but there’s a cover in there.

Our guide illustrates how he would enter the tunnel. Most of our group wouldn’t fit in there.

He lowers the lid over his head so the path looks the same as it was. He might leave a grenade or some other booby trap. for good measure.

Several of our group defied the rules and went down into the tunnels that had been modified for visitors. I only went into the open air one, which showed living conditions.

This woman is making garments. Note the rifle hanging on the wall behind her.

Here, soldiers scavenge parts from shells.

The VC used booby traps, placing cunningly covered pits filled with stakes to trap soldiers. The stakes were coated with feces or poisons to induce infections.

Step on the pivoting cover…

… and you fall into the stake-filled trap. This was just one variation on the theme.

After we’d finished the tour, Trahn introduced us to a Vietnamese war veteran who was, of course, much the same age as us. He explained his arm was blown away when he’d been in a shooting bunker. He’d not been aware that the troops he was firing at were being followed by a tank. He said he was pleased to welcome us and that the war was in the past, something he didn’t wish on anybody. Our war veteran, Peter, had some photos taken with him. It seems many American veterans are coming to visit Vietnam to lay some of their ghosts to rest.

On our way back to Saigon Trahn talked about the aftermath of the war, when the North had won. Two things happened almost immediately. People supporting the South’s regime were sent to re-education camps (prisons) and the State took over private property. So those poor farmers who had swallowed the communist doctrine lost their land. They no longer worked for themselves but for the state and they received a proportion of their harvest in return. Vietnam was an economic basket case, reliant on overseas aid and during the eighties many people fled the country. That didn’t change until the fall of the Soviet Union which had been Vietnam’s main source of support. The Vietnam Government took a look at China and decided that model of communism might be more effective. Vietnam started to open up in the early nineties.

But the old animosities still linger between north and south. Trahn’s uncle, who had been a pilot for the south, escaped to the US. Recently he was persuaded to come home for a family reunion and he and Tranh visited Hanoi. She said they went to a restaurant, where they spoke to each other in their distinctive South Vietnamese accents. A woman marched up to their table and abused them for being there, told them to get out. Time heals most wounds, but it may take another generation in Vietnam. As Trahn said, more than once, ‘in war, there are no winners’.


The sights of Saigon

It’s amazing what you can pack onto a little motorbike

Because we’d elected to arrive a day early for our tour, we had a day to ourselves. The Park Hyatt is centrally-located, within a stroll of the major tourist stops on the map so, having fortified ourselves with a wonderful breakfast, we ventured forth.

I’ve already explained that walking in Saigon is fraught with danger. For a start there are few footpaths not covered with street vendors and parked motorbikes. Then you have to be ready to dodge the motorbikes who find the road too crowded and take a shortcut. Add to that a closed-off area being excavated for an underground rail system and one has no choice but to face the trial of Crossing the Road. We discovered that If we found a crossing with lights, we’d at least have a better chance of making it over the road unscathed. Also, you can join in with others and make a larger target.

A typical street scene. Note very low stools. It’s the kind of place most people use for lunch

Traffic is always noisy, but Vietnamese traffic is constantly underscored by the toot of horns, ranging from a blast from a bus to the polite chirps of motorbikes. While in Australia using a horn without good reason is illegal and usually means “get out of the f***ing way *sshole”, in Vietnam it’s normally just saying “hey, I’m here, coming through.” It’s important because of the absence of any regard for traffic lanes or right of way. If you don’t push in you’ll stay where you are. It’s all quite amicable. I only saw one incident where a bus pushed somebody off the road, no doubt for very good reason. And because the traffic isn’t moving fast, any accidents are minor.

Vietnamese houses tend to be tall and very narrow because the land is expensive. We were told later that multiple generations lived in the houses, one floor each. And often a business was conducted at street level. All the power poles were covered in wires – common in Asia. And street vendors were everywhere, doing a roaring trade. I have heard street food is safe as long as you see it cooked and while I know my inflexible creaking Western bones might have been able to sit on the little stools, I reckon I’d still be there trying to stand up.

Ladies in Vietnamese costume. It’s very common.

We noticed that many of the women kept themselves covered up. We saw lots of surgical masks, too, especially on motor bike riders. The city has a high level of pollution, so that was understandable. But the head to toe covering for women was apparently more about aesthetics. Very pale, ‘porcelain’ skin is highly prized in Vietnam so the women do what they can to protect their skin from the sun. For those working in the fields, that’s not possible, so smooth, pale skin is also a sign of class. There’s a roaring trade in skin whiteners, too. Just like in the West but the other way around. Fashion’s a bitch.

Vietnamese national dress for women was full length, loose trousers topped with a long sleeved, full length tunic, as at left. It’s elegant and beautiful – although it looks warm to me.

Needless to say, the shops around the Park Hyatt were the upmarket retailers, all air-conditioned and all filled with Christmas carols. It goes to show that living in a communist country doesn’t mean there aren’t any rich people. We saw a LOT of expensive cars on the road with badges like Mercedes and Audi, and lots of high-end Toyotas. It seems a Merc (say) would cost $US100,000. But the government taxes these vehicles at 200% so it’ll cost you $US300,000. That’s in a country where an average worker will earn around $US150 a month. I think it’s safe to assume some people are more equal than others. Certainly the Communist Party exercises the most control in the country.

Bookshops and shade

Harry Potter!

After dodging the traffic for a little further, Pete and I headed down a laneway which turned out to be devoted to bookshops and coffee – and NO motorbikes. It was surprisingly quiet after the crowded main road. Seems Harry Potter has been translated into Vietnamese. After a double latte in a cafe, we found that the road came out next to the main post office and opposite Saigon’s Notre Dame cathedral, which is closed for renovations.

Notre Dame de Saigon

We visited the post office, of course. Call it ex-professional interest. Like most POs it has diversified into tourism, if not up-market hotels. Once again, it was colonial French architecture.

The post office

Heroes of the revolution outside the PO

Ho Chi Minh in front of what used to be the town hall

We walked past a park fronting what used to be the town hall, built in elaborate French style. It’s now the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Building, an official Vietnamese government site. The large golden statue of Uncle Ho was erected in the park and makes a subtle statement about the current political situation.

Very sixties architecture – for a reason. Photo by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30078153

We visited the Independence Palace, a site redolent with Vietnam’s post world war II history. There had been a palace on this site for many years, originally the Norodom Palace which was the home of the (French) governor of Vietnam from the 1870’s. It’s fascinating how, after being overrun at home by the Germans in WW2, European powers like France and the Netherlands thought they could just return to Asia with the Japanese now kicked out, and resume business as usual. The Vietnamese had had enough of colonial masters and the French were sent off to their shattered homeland in 1954. In 1955 Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam. It wasn’t an entirely popular move. Diem’s family was notoriously corrupt and they also tried to push Catholicism on a mainly Buddhist population. Here’s more about that story – and the iconic photo of the burning monk.

In 1962 a young pilot in the Vietnamese air force let the world know his feelings about the Diem regime by bombing the palace, severely damaging the building. Diem decided to build a new palace, which was completed in 1966 and was the site of several historically important meetings between the Americans and the Vietnamese. That’s the building we visited. It was also the place where a Liberation Army tank crashed through the gates to signal the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. In July, 1976 Vietnam was reunified under a communist regime and the Independence Palace was renamed to the Reunification Palace.

After visiting the palace, we spent some time in a museum attached to the site. It contained audio-visual footage showing life in old Saigon and explaining some of the history.

The opera house

Although we didn’t visit the opera house, we walked past it on our way to a group dinner. The opera house is French colonial style, a remnant of the past. I don’t think the French did much for Vietnam other than use it for raw materials. It was going to be interesting to see a little more of the country’s own history later in the tour.

The group dinner was at Luc Nguyen’s “Vietnam House” restaurant. He’s just one of many successful Vietnamese refugees who made it to Australia. He’s best known in Australia for his “Red Lantern” and “Fat Noodle” restaurants in Sydney.

Yes, we did go to the central markets – but we went to markets everywhere, crowded alleys with stalls offering everything you can imagine and I’ll show you those later. This Saigon market was famous for knock-offs. Reebok, Nike, Samsung, Apple, Dior, Chanel – you name it. Some of it may well have been good stuff, too. After all, they make a lot of brand names in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the factories make a few extra and sell them on the side.