It's been 55 years since the 1st Australian Task Force found itself engaged in what would become the most well-known action of it's presence in Vietnam. The anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan has since become the focal day of remembrance for the suffering and loss of Australian Vietnam war veterans, with commemorative services typically held all over the country including the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra. Until a few years ago (2016) the Vietnamese government even allowed official commemorative services on the battlefield itself - both the anniversary of the Long Tan and ANZAC Day. This said so much about the respect and relations between the two countries as quite obviously it's a historically and culturally sensitive site for the Vietnamese. Although there are countless foreign army relics scattered across the country, the replica Long Tan cross is one of only two officially sanctioned war memorials in Vietnam - the other at Dien Bien Phu.
With the pandemic still taking its toll on movement and international tourism, most of us now forced to pay respects in our own personal ways. Until March 2020, Vietnam Heritage - Healing Through History were operating both general battlefield and cultural tours, as well as custom historical research and tours for individual veterans and family members. The latter really was a profound experience for both us and our guests, for whom we determined the sites of most significance in the veterans very personal tour of duty and planned out travel based on these. Overwhelmingly the experiences provided a powerful tool in the healing journey for our veterans and family members, facilitating perspective and a strong sense of closure on their wartime experiences. We sincerely look forward to recommencing once the pandemic is under control. In the meantime, what about the countryside that our diggers operated, patrolled, fought, sweated, bled and died on?
Scenes around modern Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province (formerly Phuoc Tuy).
(Photos: Vietnam Heritage)
We at Vietnam Heritage - Healing Through History have spent decades visiting former battlefields. Over the last decade in particular we've witnessed some pretty astonishing changes to the rural areas, villages, towns and cities. The economy is strong and even through the pandemic has continued to expand (approximately 3% in 2020). Primary jungle converted to plantation forestry, tea and coffee. Villages upgraded to towns and towns to cities. Ox cart tracks on the war era maps have been turned into roads. The uneven and potholed dusty and muddy roads through the former Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat are now neatly paved streets. The main north-south road through the base has reclaimed it's title as a major provincial highway - as it was before the Australians built a diversion road around the base.
The rubber plantations of Long Tan remain as such for now, although the battlefield undergoes visual changes from time to time as the rubber trees are rotated for short term cash crops such as banana and cassava once the trees reach the end of their productive 30 year cycle. No more are the packed crowds on ANZAC Day for the official dawn service. Small tour buses and cars still flow through the area, stopping for a photo opportunity and to pay respects at the replica cross, mostly unaware of the intense poverty in the nearby villages. But for those of us who have taken the time to explore and get to know the local people, understand the way of life, learn what makes them and the places that they live tick, we take away with us each and every day is how warm hearted, rich and diverse the culture, everyday people and grassroots places are. Veterans of the 'other side' are among the most friendly people I've met. Very few hold a grudge, albeit they were the victors but they view Australian veterans as men who just as they were, doing the job that their government asked them to do. They'll be the first to offer a warm handshake and a beer. The southerners who supported the allied forces and the southern regime have done it much tougher but are equally as welcoming of us as foreigners and tourists - some eager to share their wartime and post-war stories.
We are occasionally asked our opinion on the war, whether it was right for the allied forces to fight, was it seen as protecting democracy or an invasion, were the political motivations justified. Was it an extension of colonialism, American imperialism, Vietnamese nationalism or communism. The answer is, of course, a matter of opinion and perspective and it's an incredibly complex historic kettle of fish. To a great extent now the answer is irrelevant. Our diggers did the job the government asked, and they did it well enough to achieve many of their overarching objectives. But the southern democratic government that allied forces went to fight for has been gone for longer than it existed. The modern Socialist Republic of Vietnam now even seeks strategic relations with the US to buffer itself from their Chinese neighbours - with whom Vietnam has a very, very long love-hate relationship with. The country is strong and has found a balance between single party rule and economic freedom at the individual level. As long as Party directives are met and maintained, the wheels that need greasing are oiled, individuals and businesses have the freedom to grow and expand limitlessly. Obviously there are those that fall by the wayside, unable to prosper in either jobs or businesses, and while government social security is different than in Australia, the sense of community at grass roots level is much greater and those in unfortunate circumstances can find basic support among their families, villages, or their peers if they choose.
Time and time again in our travels we are greeted by overwhelmingly welcoming everyday people in some of the most peaceful and photogenic landscapes on the planet. To me there's few greater joys than to simply be ambling about the countryside on a small motorbike and stop somewhere for a drink, a meal, to take a photo or get down and dirty scouring battlefields for artefacts...and suddenly have a local pop out and curiously ask what we're up to, where we're from, and before long invite us for a cup of tea, rice wine, a singalong and even a seagrass mat on the floor to sleep on for the night. And its not just us, countless times I've seen local Vietnamese going into barber shops or nail salon, start up a basic conversation with a complete stranger and walk out planning dinner or booze up together. It's just that kind of a place.
As for the battlefields themselves, although the scars remain, for the most part you need to look carefully to see them, or have done some detailed research to find sites, and even swing a metal detector to pickup fragments of shrapnel and spent shells to know you are actually on them. Fascinatingly though the locals always seem to know the military history of the areas we visit. Even folks that have moved in long after the war, They'll know or have heard of the plane or chopper that crashed over the hill, or which corps was based where on old bases. The very first time I rode out to Nui Dat I stopped short of the pearly gates (which are now gone) and a sinewy farmer came out from a tin shed nearby. At that time my Vietnamese was not yet developed to the fluid conversational level that I now enjoy so we spoke in simple terms and played charades until I worked out that he was telling me the barren soil upon which we were standing was where the artillery fired on Long Tan during that battle! Later that day a goat herder over on the other side of the base actually tested my knowledge of the immediate surrounds - luckily I had a pretty good knowledge as it's where my father was based with 3RAR in 1968. He knew Kapyong Pad, the Battalion line and even that the modern bitumen road followed the path of the old tank track outside the wire.
At the end of the day, the war was what it was and the country has moved on, incorporating the battle scars and many stories of trauma and loss. Not always, but in many cases the trauma remains as a part of everyone affected by war no matter which side you are on, where your political persuasions lie, who you voted for, who you protested against. Vietnam is now is a modern developing country with a strong economy, incredibly warm hearted and friendly people living in peaceful lands overflowing with natural beauty. Combine that with incredible cuisine, cheap accommodation, countless cultural and historic places to explore, in my opinion modern Vietnam is the best country on the planet to live, travel and explore. The fact that our diggers fought and died on her soil, and all who returned carry the memories with them for decades, creates an unbreakable connection, a bond, a historic link that in Vietnam opens up opportunities for conversations and friendships in the even the remotest corners of the provinces that otherwise would never happen. Lest we forget those that went before us, and lest we neglect to go forward and continue to forge new friendships and bonds in the land of the rising dragon.