Last weekend we took a drive to meet Vinh Tran and Anthony Parrello at Bowral, around 1.5 hours south of Sydney. Anthony is the son of an AATTV Warrant Officer who, sadly, was killed in action in the Battle of Ba Ria, part of the savage 1968 Tet Offensive. My father was part of the Australian reaction force sent to reinforce Parrello and the small number of other US and Australians in the town a few kilometres Southwest of Nui Đat, the 1st Australian Task Force base.
Vinh is the curator of 'Military Vehicle', a working mechanical museum. Vinh's passion for military vehicles stems from his father, Vinh Minh Tran, who was a Captain of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at Thu Duc Military Academy. His dad was involved in logistics, in particular receiving, testing and running-in US military vehicles off the dock.
Among the collection at the aptly name 'Nui Dat R&R' shed at the rear of The Mill in Bowral are a Willys CJ3B (M606) Jeep; an ex-US Army M151A2 Mutt (a 1/4 Tonne Jeep) ; an Acco International (MKIII) recovered from Viet Nam; a 1943 Studebaker US6; a 1979 Land Rover Forward Control vehicle; and a Bell 47 single rotor chopper. There's also a 1960 ex-British Army Saracens APC recovered from Hong Kong which we didn't see as it was at the mechanic for a service! All are fully functional driving / flying machines. On the day of our visit a few vehicles were out on active duty, taking tours at the nearby beautiful Joadja Estate Winery to raise funds for Vinh's affiliated charity 'Maison Chance Vietnam' - more about that later. Aside from winery tours the vehicles have been hired out for video projects, photo shoots and joy rides with all proceeds supporting disadvantaged children in Vietnam. Vinh also owns the attached 'Ms Pho Canteen' which serves mouth-watering Vietnamese street-eats which is well worth stopping by for.
Vinh's father vividly recounts the enormous, long lines of jeeps on the dock stretching as far as the eye could see. At the time his family lived in Vinh Long Province in the Mekong Delta. On occasion his Dad was given permission to run-in the vehicles from Saigon back home - Vinh jokes that after each trip home another sibling would pop out! After 1957 his father left the military and was offered a job as a government agricultural officer in the Delta providing supplies to the military. After national reunification his became a mini-bus driver in order to put food on the table. His oldest sister made the dangerous journey by boat to Indonesia before some years later being accepted as a refugee by the Australian government where she was to overcome many more difficulties before creating a new life as a restaurateur.
Aged 18 Vinh's whole family made their way to Australia. The date etched into Vinh's memory 13th September 1989. With no English and having to retake his final two years of high school again, he went on to assist and manage a successful restaurant in Bondi with his eldest sister. Business boomed, including a lucrative few years as an entrepreneur back in Vietnam, yet Vinh felt somehow unfulfilled. A weekend trip into the countryside of his childhood in the Mekong Delta generated an awakening. At a pagoda there he witnessed the terrible ongoing effects of Agent Orange on the children. Almost overnight he decided to seek ways to assist those in need and devoted himself to developing the charity that Military Vehicle has now become. Better karma than the world of business he tells me. But in order to get to where he is today he had to give up a great deal.
After a long and circuitous path Vinh has made his vision a reality. In 2012 he assisted a colleague to import two restored US Military 'Mutts' which he drove around Sydney with a sign on the back asking people to donate to 'help his people'. This drew the attention of people wanting to hire the vehicles for photo shoots, video clips and even the film The Sapphires which tells the story of an aboriginal Australian all girl band that toured for US troops in Vietnam. Sadly however due to factors beyond his control, most of the funds promised to Vinh for the children in Vietnam never materialised. Disheartened, but ever more determined, Vinh set about raising funds to import vehicles of his own. Unhindered by uncooperative third-parties, he has gone on to raise awareness of the desperate situation of many young children and families in Vietnam. With that, Military Vehicle museum was born.
The space at Bowral has has gone beyond a mere museum. While at last fulfilling Vinh's innate desire to support children and families in need in Vietnam, it's also become a place of understanding, connection and healing for Australian veterans, their family members and interested members of the public. Vinh welcomes veterans into the space as members of his extended family, as heroes. Recently quoted on the ABC News website, Southern Highlands Vietnam Veterans' Association treasurer Norm Austin described Military Vehicle museum as being like '...a vet's shed'. In the same article Vinh was quoted saying of his vehicles 'they now bring so much positivity to us and the public, it heals veterans' souls and hearts because they come here and call it a home'. And at home I certainly felt.
After I arrived at Bowral and finding Vinh at Ms Pho Canteen I introduced myself and soon after he invited us out back to the collection. After a brief chat, Vinh had to go back to assist the staff at restaurant and essentially left us to 'chill out' on our own with his coffee machine, Vietnam War era tunes and the collection of hardware! Earlier in the week I'd mentioned to Vinh that I recognised one of the previous visitors to his collection. Anthony is the son of an Australian Army training Team Vietnam member WO2 Antonino Parrello (Tony or Nino for short). Parrello was sadly killed in the line of duty during the Tet Offensive of early 1968. Our connection stems from the fact that my father was fighting with the 1ATF ready reaction force (Alpha Company, 3rd Royal Australian regiment) sent that day to assist Parrello and a handful of his US and Australian counterparts trying to maintain the defence of Ba Ria. The town was the provincial captial of Phuoc Tuy in III Corps, onle a few kilometres from the Australian base at Nui Dat. It was under attack from some 600+ enemy troops determined to take control. Over the past two decades I've spent a great deal of time researching and trying to piece together the battle and, in fact, found myself at times living on a street adjacent to where the majority of fighting took place. Through Vinh, Anthony and I had an unusual opportunity for a reunion of sorts, over 53 years later.
Feeling rather at home sipping my Vietnamese green tea that Vinh had left me and listening to classic 1960-70's tracks over the speaker, I noticed Anthony come in through the gate. Although I'd never been to Bowral and Anthony and I had never actually met I found myself welcoming him like a 'guest to the clubhouse' - such is the nature of the space. I offered him a seat and for the best part of the next hour we caught up like a pair of long-lost friends. Two guys that had never met, with a unusually large amount in common, brought together by a shared history of our fathers experience of battle. Without the space, place and energy created by Vinh, our meeting may never have taken place. After some time Vinh returned to invite us to lunch. From his restaurant he brought out a number of authentic, delicious Vietnamese dishes supplemented with another typical Vietnamese delicacy - fresh sugar cane juice. Military museum aside, the great food and warm hospitality would be enough to draw me to Bowral any day!
After lunch Vinh offered to take us for a ride in his Willys Jeep to the Bowral Vietnam War Memorial. There's something special about riding through the centre of town, wind blowing through your hair, red and golden autumn leaves, no seat belt. We passed a pair of half-million dollar luxury cars parked on the roadside, Vinh turn and simply said 'this is more fun'! The memorial itself is a simple yet moving tribute to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. We reversed the Jeep up to it and hopped down to take a few photos when it dawned on me there that we were, three men all children of Vietnam veterans with vastly different backgrounds and stories, were all connected by a very common thread. Modern, living Vietnam Heritage.
For anyone wishing to experience Military Vehicle, spend time in Vinh's company and enjoy a wonderful Vietnamese meal, head to 'The Mill', 224 Bong Bong St, Bowral. Ms Pho Canteen is open Wed-Sun from 10am. On weekends some of the vehicles will be at the stunning Joadja Estate winery down the road in Berrima where Vinh or a friend may take you for a spin around the winery. Ms Pho Canteen has a second 'branch' at Joadja open on the weekend! Also on 16th of October 2021 Military Vehicle will hold the Southern Highlands Motor Festival sponsored by Shannon's, Harley Davidson, Centennial Vinyards among others. Much of the collection will be there as well as an opportunity to fly in the Bell 47 'Sioux' helicopter - all proceeds from Military Vehicle now go solely to support Maison Chance Vietnam, an outstanding grass-roots organisation based in Ho Chi Minh CIty providing amazing opportunities for orphans, street children, disadvantaged people and the physically handicapped in Vietnam. Military Vehicle itself is a registered charity in Australia and as such also accepts direct tax-deductible donations. Please don't hesitate to contact Vinh for more information or even to drop by for a delicious steaming bowl of Pho and a warm chat at The Mill in Bowral.
Military Vehicle can be found at:
Facebook Pages: https://www.facebook.com/Sydney.Jeep/
Ms Pho Canteen: