The Vietnam War reached its bloody crescendo 50 years ago and its veterans have marched into history's pages. Yet an observant traveller to this lovely shape-shifting country cannot escape that war. It permeates the national personality as profoundly as Honda motorbikes permeate Hanoi streets.
The peace forged from pain has, poignantly, created a thriving travel destination whose complexity owes much to conflict. Our journey takes us from the Vung Tau peninsula and Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north. We have come for history, specifically Australia's involvement in the war. But every country's past informs its present, none more so than Vietnam.
In Australia's area of operations, Phuoc Tuy Province, we experience a bustling new world overlayed by the ghosts of war. We enter the old Saigon of Vietcong spy shops and weapons caches, street fighting and loss, while negotiating a new Vietnam of tourists and bargain bazaars.
In Cu Chi we drive through peaceful villages to imagine the underground world of the Vietcong's tunnel maze. In Danang we pass resorts now colonising Red Beach where US Marines first landed. We negotiate shrapnel-pitted rocks on our hike up Minh Dam Mountain, once a VC hideout and now a picnicker's paradise.
We walk Hue's tourist-thronged ancient Citadel, where the war's bloodiest battle took place. We cross the 17th Parallel, formerly the bloody Demilitarised Zone separating South and North Vietnam, and stop for coffee on a peaceful lake.
We imagine the layered history of Hoi An's Old Quarter, and cross Hanoi's Red River into a city whose past – the Hanoi Hilton prison, the Military Museum with its jumble of military equipment and the VC tank that burst Saigon's Presidential Palace gates to end the war – is woven through its present.
We immerse ourselves in Vietnamese food, noting foreign influences, for Vietnam's conflicts have been frequent, violent exclamation marks in an unspooling 4000-year narrative. Antagonists include Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans.
Conflict has forged a resilience tempered by humour, a steeliness Vietnam's aggressors sorely misjudged. As our tour guide, author historian Gary McKay says, "We were embroiled in a civil war that should never have involved us."
McKay, 72, former lieutenant colonel, Australia's last Vietnam War Military Cross recipient, was a "nasho" (national serviceman) who tried to dodge the draft but was conscripted courtesy of an unlucky ballot.
As our journey progresses, the "love the soldier, hate the war" refrain intensifies. Those who served did their best in a war that made pariahs of its participants. It was a failure of politics and leadership. Soldiers fought a war so foreign that they, like Mackay, had no idea in which hemisphere Vietnam existed.
Our Mat McLachlan Battlefields Tour: Vietnam Past and Present leads us to conclude that, to quote Ken Burns' excellent documentary, The Vietnam War, "Meaning can be found in individual stories of courage and forgiveness, reconciliation and understanding".
We hear tales from all sides – Australian. American, former South and North Vietnamese. Though worlds were upended, people survive and thrive, their interwoven experiences shaping the complicated tapestry that is modern Vietnam.
DAYS ONE TO THREE
HO CHI MINH CITY
We begin where it all ended – in former Saigon, when the North Vietnamese Army's tank No 843 smashed the Presidential Palace gates after the last American helicopter left. We see that tank later in Hanoi's Military History Museum. The palace tank is a replica and the palace name is now Reunification or Independence Palace.
The former seat of the French colonial, then South Vietnamese governments is overrun with tour groups jostling for selfies. You have to be nimble to view the 25 rooms detailing Vietnam's complex history from the life of colonial Saigon to the stories from the underground war rooms.
The presidential living quarters offer a dark metaphor for a country's exploitation. Decorative elephant feet line a wall, hacked from the limbs of some of the 3000 elephants alive before the French arrived. Today, there are 180 left after the addition of blanket bombing and Agent Orange. The rhinos, Javan sub-species that once roamed here, are long gone..
Vietnamese from the country's south talk of "before '75 and after '75" - referring to how the war that ended in 1975 changed lives. Our Saigon guide, Thuan-Tong (Tiger) Nguyen's father and grandfather were on the wrong side of history - South Vietnamese military officers. They underwent harsh post-war "re-education", losing everything, including their Saigon homes.
For his first seven years, Tiger, 41, lived on tapioca root and hard corn. Work-seeking Vietnamese are still required to declare whether relatives were ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). Tiger refers to his family as a "black family", unable to hold certain official jobs.
A maze of alleys leads us to coffee shop 287/70 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, former home of a Vietcong secret agent. He built underground bunkers that could accommodate dozens of people, three tonnes of weaponry including TNT and C4 explosives, AK-47 guns and grenades - weapons used at the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. We slip through a hidden trapdoor to view this other world and then enjoy a drink at the adjoining vintage-decorated coffee shop.
Lunch is "peace soup" at Pho Binh (Peace noodles), a nondescript District 1 pho shop. There was nothing insignificant about it during the war. This was the VC's secret headquarters, launch pad for Saigon's Tet Offensive.
There's beef or chicken pho, served southern-style with richer broth and bounteous herbs, lime, red pepper and pickled garlic, made by the original owner's son. Upstairs is a museum and shrine to those who died during the offensive that was a military failure but moral victory for the communists. It marked when Americans turned against the war.
Reconciliation is also to be found in Saigon's War Remnants Museum. The name has softened from American Crimes Museum/War Atrocities Museum. The consequences of napalm and Agent Orange and war atrocities are still displayed but peace encroaches. John Lennon's Imagine plays on a loop and exhibitions highlight reconciliation.
Outside, juxtaposing the tanks, weaponry, Apocalypse Now helicopters and aircraft whose significance McKay explains, is a video screen describing the work of global humanitarian and advocacy organisation, MAG (Mines Advisory Group). Vietnam remains one of the world's most contaminated countries with about 800,000 tonnes of unexploded bombs. Buried bombs and mines have killed more than 100,000 civilians since 1975. Our guide, Tiger has first-hand experience. A bomb killed his eight-year-old neighbour and destroyed his grandparents' kitchen.
Dinner is at Henry Cabot Lodge, home of the former US Ambassador during the 1960s. The tour group shares stories at the ambassador's original dining table. Long Tan veteran Barry Proctor, a guest on our tour, and former field artillery corporal in 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) is returning not only to revisit Long Tan but also Hoi An, sister city of his own Kiama.
DAYS THREE TO FOUR
CU CHI, HCMC
Cu Chi, Land of Many Flowers, 40 kilometres from Saigon, is where one of the first Australians died, Corporal Bob Bowtell of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers, asphyxiated in the VC's vast, 400-kilometre underground tunnel system.
The sounds from the neighbouring rifle range, the jungle smells and the uniformed officials render Cu Chi unsettling for returning veterans. Today, orchid farms replace the trenches, foxholes and caves, while frangipani and paw paw trees line the tapioca fields and rubber plantations.
Gary McKay details Operation Crimp - also known as the Battle of Ho Bo Woods - a joint 1966 US-Australian operation that uncovered the heavily defended tunnel system. Its extent, sometimes three levels deep, surprised the Allies, as did the Vietcong's ferocity and organisational skills.
Eight Australians were killed and 29 wounded, mostly from mines and booby traps. We see those gruesome spiked traps, named "frog, fish, clipping armpit, rolling, sticking seesaw". We descend into the dark earthen tubes that harboured up to 10,000 VC troops before the Tet Offensive. They are enlarged but are still too claustrophobic for half our group. Even fewer brave the VC's tiny spiderholes.
Over Tiger's bete noir, slow-cooked tapioca root, and firm rice blocks dipped in spicy salt, Gary tells us how the Americans blanket-bombed this "Iron Triangle", incapacitating the tunnels by 1969. An estimated 12,000 people died here. Today, Ho Chi Minh's rubber sandals and chequered scarves sell like hotcakes.
Thousands of name changes of towns, cities, provinces and official buildings mark the layers of Vietnamese history, the most famous being Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Departing Saigon, we join Highway 51, which used to be Highway 15, the road to Ba-Ria-Vung Tau, which used to be Phuoc Tuy Province, and Australia's war.
DAYS FOUR TO SIX
BA RIA, NUI DAT, LONG TAN, VUNG TAU
During the next few days, McKay elaborates on Australia's war. Ba Ria, once capital of Phuoc Tuy, bore the brunt of February 1968 Tet Offensive attacks along with neighbouring Long Dien. Ba Ria is now famous for its fish sauce and its blockhouses whose music lures the birds that produce the $2500-a-kilogram ingredient for bird's nest soup.
Ba Ria is where Australia sent its washing from its main Nui Dat combat base. Nui Dat operated from 1966 to 1971, separately from American operations, about 30 kilometres from Vung Tau where HMAS Sydney ferried troops and supplies. The base was where soldiers served their 12-month tour of duty, the jumping-off point for Australian counter-insurgency operations.
McKay takes us to the base site, now a stone quarry, and the heat is intense. He explains the history of what once was a military town with field hospital, helicopter pad and airstrip (now a rutted road with a rubber factory and tiny shop selling Long Tan and Waltzing Matilda stubby holders).
It's an emotional return to Long Tan, site of Australia's most costly Vietnam battle on August 18, 1966. In torrential rain, 18 Australians were killed and 24 injured in a battle that followed a VC attack on Nui Dat. We gather on the battlefield where the battered rubber trees once "wept latex".
McKay tells of the reduced visibility due to the mud mist caused by monsoonal rains, and how the aftermath resembled a charnel house. Barry Proctor remembers the darkness, how the enemy, unaware, passed within metres, how gunfire damaged the Anzacs' radios, cutting communications. They were heavily outnumbered - 108 Anzacs to 2500 North Vietnamese.
Long Tan Cross is a sensitive site, one of only two non-North Vietnamese memorials allowed in Vietnam. It's fitting that in conducting a service, McKay remembers not just the Anzacs but also "the many hundreds of young Vietnamese lads who also fell on this battlefield".
DAYS SIX TO SEVEN
VUNG TAU, MINH DAM, BINH BA, NUI LE
Vung Tau, Cape of the Welcoming Wind is 129 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City and possesses excellent fung shui. It was a major rest area for Australian troops and, allegedly, Vietcong. Today, the Russians have arrived to man the offshore oil rigs. This southern port city sits on a narrow, 23-kilometre-long peninsula. Its fishermen, whose round boats line the shore, still worship whales.
Modern Vung Tau is almost unrecognisable to returning soldiers. Now a tourist hangout, Back Beach was the former site of the Australian logistics group and Peter Badcoe R&R Club. Today, the flash Imperial Hotel sits atop the club site close to a huge VC war memorial. The Grand Hotel, an Australian officers' haunt, still graces the beachfront, as does the Ned Kelly Cafe.
Nearby Long Hai Hills, also known as Minh Dam secret zone, was once a major VC base, with its thick jungle and caves. We hike up to the Cao Dai Temple, keeping to the trail for fear of unexploded mines, to appreciate the views and take tea with the gentle monks, who worship, among others, Jesus and Jane Fonda.
Under a spreading cashew tree in a pepper grove, we drink tea the landowner cordially provides. Former 11 Platoon commanding officer, Gary McKay, recounts the Battle of Nui Le, Australia's last major battle on September 21, 1971. Five soldiers died – the last Australians in the war - and 24 were wounded. McKay received a Military Cross, the last of the war.
The discovery of major fortified bunker systems, including the headquarters of the 33rd Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army, resulted in a cat-and-mouse battle. McKay tells of fierce hand-to-hand fighting in thick jungle, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, American and Australian airstrikes and artillery attacks and his grief at having to leave behind the bodies of three of his men. He was shot twice in the shoulder, almost bleeding to death.
DAYS SEVEN TO NINE
HUE, HOI AN
Hue, about 70 kilometres south of the DMZ was once the Imperial capital and remains Vietnam's cultural and spiritual heart. Today, visitors flock to the UNESCO heritage-listed Imperial City on the banks of the lyrically named Perfume River, 1100 kilometres north of Saigon, 700 kilometres south of Hanoi.
The Imperial City is a walled enclosure within Hue's Citadel, with palaces, shrines, the Forbidden Purple City, exclusive home of the emperor, his family, eunuchs and concubines. We are here for the Nguyen dynasty's rich history, which intersected with French colonial rule, and also for Hue's war. An important Allied supply line - Highway 1 - passed through it from coastal Danang to the DMZ.
The resulting Battle of Hue between January and March 1968 when North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive was one of the war's longest and bloodiest battles. Hue was almost destroyed and more than 5000 civilians killed.
History collides with the present when we visit former Vietcong, historian, writer, scholar, Buddhist and communist, Nguyen Dac Xuan, 82. He spent four years in the jungle. His two brothers were his enemies - South Vietnamese Army officers. One underwent "re-education" after the war. They are friends today.
Xuan joined Hue's Tet Offensive as a political commissar, preparing a blacklist of those disloyal to the communists. After 25 days and nights, he withdrew to the jungle where he "wrote poems about reunification, dreaming about going home to a family meal". He denies the Vietcong killed civilians.
We accompany him to the Dong Ba East Gate, almost demolished during heavy fighting. He recalls nightly collection and burial of bodies. Today, Xuan, with a tiny kangaroo embroidered on his cap, tells of his two daughters, on scholarships, studying abroad. He is writing a history of his beloved Hue.
Hue's Pagoda of the Celestial Lady houses the Austin car that drove Thich Quang Duc to his death. The photograph of the Buddhist monk self-immolating is one of the war's starkest images.
DAYS NINE TO 12
HOI AN, DANANG, HANOI
Crossing the DMZ, it's 140 kilometres over the scenic Hai Van Pass via Danang to Hoi An, with its World Heritage-listed old town famous for its tailors. Here, we learn a useful bargaining tool: "Oi troi oi! Makwa! - Oh my god! Too expensive!"
The coastal city of Danang, where US Marines first landed, was a major air base for US and South Vietnamese forces. Today, a fire-spurting dragon bridge loops across the Han River and resorts scroll along those golden sands - one of them being My Khe beach, once nicknamed China Beach. Sun-seeking young Vietnamese, who, like 75 per cent of the population, were born after the war, flock to an entirely different place.
Colourful Hoi An glows golden on the banks of the Thu Bon River, offering narrow lanes, pedestrian streets, well-preserved architecture, including the 400-year-old Japanese Covered Bridge, and distinctive local cuisine. Once a trading port for the sandalwood, spice, tea, rice, elephant tusk and rhino horn vessels that blew in on the trade winds, Hoi An is now a shopping paradise for those after silk or jewels.
Hanoi wears its multi-layered history like a rich garment. The heritage-listed Hanoi Citadel, whose artefacts date from the sixth to the 20th centuries, highlights Vietnam's 10-century-long independence battle. The early 19th-century Flag Tower is one of Hanoi's only buildings to have survived both the French and American conflicts.
The nearby Military History Museum narrates Vietnam's long march to freedom, from early colonisation and occupation to the Vietnam War. A magnificent diorama of the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu underscores Vietnamese guile in defeating the French and ending the First Indochina War.
We wander through a courtyard strewn with tanks, aircraft and weaponry, whose centrepiece is a dramatic sculpture constructed from shot-down B-52 bombers. Indoors, a Vietcong war exhibition (including the victory tank) shows the war's impact. Some may say propaganda, others, truth.
We spend our Hanoi days plunging through history – at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, also known as Maison Centrale or "Hanoi Hilton", the brutal prison where the French tortured and killed political prisoners and where American pilots were kept, including the late US senator John McCain, now revered in Vietnam for his efforts in normalising relations and ending economic sanctions. Peace exhibits now grace it.
McCain was shot down at Ho Tay or West Lake and it's at his small memorial that a former Vietcong artillery gunner greets us. We file past Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body in his massive mausoleum, before wandering the grounds of Hanoi's former Presidential Palace. "Uncle Ho" lived here until his death in 1969, eschewing the palace for a modest stilt house. He is honoured at every turn.
Our farewell dinner is at Jimmy Pham's KOTO (Know One, Teach One). Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy Pham AO came to Australia with his mother and five brothers aged eight in 1966. Hard work and opportunity meant he could open a small Hanoi sandwich shop to provide employment for nine street children in 1999. KOTO has grown and operates as a hospitality training school for disadvantaged young people. The food is amazing.
Pham's past has informed his present. His resilience, optimism and determination symbolises the Vietnamese character, forged by hardship, inspirational, like the country.
FIVE STARTLING FACTS ABOUT THE VIETNAM WAR
1. About 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1972. Of those 521 died and more than 3000 were wounded. Of the 15,381 conscripted national servicemen served from 1965 to 1972 202 were killed and 1279 wounded.
2· More than 58,000 Americans died and 2,709,918 Americans served in Vietnam, representing 9.7 per cent of their generation.
3 Vietnam's official war dead estimates are 2 million civilians on both sides and 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died.
4. The ammunition fired was 26 times greater than during World War II. By the end of the war, America had unleashed the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.
5 From 1961 to 1971, the US sprayed 73 million litres of herbicides and defoliants including 45 million litres of Agent Orange. Between 2.1 million to 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed, 3 million suffering severe illness. About 2.8 million US troops were also exposed. The US dropped 388,000 tonnes of napalm bombs from 1963-1973. The UN banned it in 1980.
FIVE WAR HOTSPOTS, NOW TOURIST DESTINATIONS
1. KHE SAN
Near the DMZ and Laotian border, it saw the war's bloodiest battle. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and countless civilians died. Today, Khe San has one of the best DMZ museums.
2. HO CHI MINH TRAIL
This communist military supply route started near Hanoi and ended near Saigon. Today, multi-day motorbike tours are available from companies like Hanoi-based DNQ Travel.
3· CAT BA ISLAND
This strategic Ha Long Bay island was heavily bombed during the war. Visit Hospital Cave, a secret hospital and VC safe house and Cannon Fort's bunkers and helicopter landing stations. Now an area of great natural beauty.
4· MARBLE MOUNTAINS, DANANG
This cluster of five limestone hills about nine kilometres south of Danang was a Vietcong hideout. Today, it is popular for its peaks, caves, tunnels and temples. Hiking and exploration tours are available from Danang.
5· DA LAT
Vietcong attacked this charming central highlands mountain town during the Tet Offensive. Otherwise it was used for R&R by both sides. Founded in French colonial times as a mountain retreat (it has about 2000 French villas), it's popular with tourists who come for, among other things, the biennial flower festival.
Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours 12-day Vietnam Past & Present Tour departs August 9, 2020 from Hanoi, from $3399 per person twin share. Includes excursions, tipping, most meals and internal flights. Led by Vietnam veteran Gary McKay. The Mat McLachlan Signature Tour to Vietnam departs in August 2021.
Alison Stewart was a guest of Mat McLachlan Battlefields Tours.