Travel

Vietnam's untold Aussie war stories

More than 60,000 Australians fought in the Vietnam War, including about 19,000 national servicemen whose birthdays were drawn from a lottery barrel between 1965 and 1972. Writer and historian Dr Mark Dapin – who wrote The Nashos' War: Australian National Servicemen and Vietnam (2014) and Australia's Vietnam: Myth vs History (2018) – shares his experience of the South-East Asian country where 523 Australians died in the war.

By Mark Dapin

There are secrets in the mountains and the caves of Vietnam. Some are fiercely beautiful, others heartbreakingly sad.

In the south, the sites of Australia’s part in the Vietnam War are rarely visited except by veterans returning to the battlefield. In the north hides some of the loveliest country on earth.

 

Vung Tau was where Aussie troops flocked in the 1960s

The port of Vung Tau, 90 minutes down the highway from the thrilling chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, grew up as a rest and convalescence centre for Australian troops. In the 1960s, when thousands of young Anzacs first poured into its bars and brothels, it was a town of about 30,000 people. Now it’s a city almost ten times larger, which swells like a crashing wave with weekend visitors.

The beaches are unspectacular, the nightlife seedy and intense, but there are fine Vietnamese and French restaurants, and there’s still a Grand Hotel, where “Frankie” drank “tinnies” in Redgum’s ballad ‘I Was Only Nineteen’.

Redgum’s lyrics to the song I Was Only Nineteen were inscribed on the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in 1992.  

The Battle of Long Tan was fought in a rubber plantation 27km from Vung Tau on 18 August 1966. On the third anniversary of the battle, Australian troops built a three-metre-high white concrete cross in the combat zone.

Pipers lament at the 1969 service to commemorate the 1966 battle of Long Tan. Photo by Christopher John Bellis courtesy Australian War Memorial

It was removed after the Communist victory of 1975 and placed over the grave of a local Catholic priest, and is now on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. A replacement has been erected where the original memorial stood.

The Long Tan Cross rests on a small patch of cleared ground inside what is still a working rubber plantation. All around stand tall, tapped rubber trees, straight and still like sentries. A ceremony is held here on Anzac Day, but visitors can make pilgrimages to the cross all year round.  

Twenty-eight kilometres from Long Tan, at the other side of the town of Dat Do (known to the diggers as “Dapto”) are the bullet-scarred Minh Dam caves, from which the Viet Minh once fought against France and the Viet Cong battled the US, Australia and their allies. A local guide can squeeze through cracks and crevices and lead tourists into the naturally bomb-proof former guerrilla headquarters.

It’s a challenging scramble to reach empty chambers that were once a guardroom, kitchen and offices, but it takes only a small effort to imagine the war raging around the rocks.

The tunnels of Cu Chi, where the Viet Cong built bases and hospitals underneath the earth, are an established attraction. Some stretches have been widened and lit, to allow tourists to stoop through them.

The 2 open sections of the Cu Chi tunnels are north of Ho Chi Minh City, at Beh Dinh and Ben Duoc.

 

The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. Photo by Jorge Láscar courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There is an Australian story here too. In January 1966, Australian Army Engineers were among the first non-Vietnamese to enter the Cu Chi tunnels. They climbed head-first into the darkness, armed only with daggers and pistols, with no idea if they might meet the enemy.

Just north of central Vietnam, near the old Demilitarised Zone, the city of Dong Hoi sits calmly on the broad and vibrant Nhat Le River. 

Vietnam has a rich culture of fishing, with more than 3000km of coastline and extensive inland rivers and waterways.

At dusk, the local people gather at the makeshift seafood restaurants near the ruins of Tam Toa Church to eat fried fish and barbecued squid, the provenance of timber fish traps, or nets cast from a fleet of small, traditional fishing boats.

Dong Hoi hopes to develop into a staging post for the spectacular Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The highway from the city to the park follows the old Ho Chi Mihn Trail, the route used by the North Vietnamese to resupply their comrades in the south.

It passes family tombs that rise like small pagodas from the rice fields, their traditional architecture mirrored by a cluster of Catholic graves, each with its own spire. 

The park, with its ancient karst mountains and dense evergreen jungle, is impossibly gorgeous, like a fantasy diorama of Eden before the Fall. Inside the park is Thien Duong or Paradise Cave, which saw its first commercial visitors in late 2010.

 

Paradise Cave is one of many caves and karsts across Vietnam.

Only the first kilometre of the 31-kilometre cave is open to tourists, displaying countless astonishing formations that appear at once prehistoric and futuristic, like components of a landscape drawn by H R Giger but coloured by Albert Namatjira. It feels like a privilege to stand inside the cave, like a private blessing, rarely granted by God.

North of the capital Hanoi is the friendly city of Haiphong, where the market swarms with life, with chickens, crabs and frogs, with big fish gasping in baskets, and crayfish jumping from their bowls. Other stalls sell votive candles, incense sticks for altars, and money to burn for the dead. 

In early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is low in the sky, the locals gather in the two squares in front of the neoclassical Opera House. Under a huge portrait of a glowing, grandfatherly Ho Chi Minh, older women dance the slow steps of tai chi, while young people play soccer and sepak takraw, and all around them screeches a Chinese opera of beeping, blaring city traffic.

Vietnamese architecture still carries some legacies of its communist past.

The Phuc Lan Pagoda, with a garden of Buddhas around a pond, offers a big, peaceful space away from the crowded roads, but at the smaller, unvisited temple on Le Loi street I am treated as an honoured – if unexpected – guest, and pressed with bananas, tea and rice wine. 

From Haiphong, it’s a 45-minute hydrofoil ride to Cat Ba, the biggest island on cinematically picturesque Halong Bay.

The interior of the island is riddled with caves. The Quan Y Grotto was once another defensive position of the Viet Cong, a military complex built inside a mountain by Vietnamese and Chinese soldiers.

At the entrance, unfortunately, it is possible to pose in an army officer’s helmet carrying a plastic submachine gun, but the hokum ends there. There were seventeen rooms in the base, built over three levels. Only the first storey was man made, the second and third were natural caves.

A guide shows off the cinema and surgery, the pharmacy and bathroom, inside this vast hidden bunker, where the Communists once again displayed how they could use the natural features of the country as fortification against the modern weapons of their enemy.

They even employed the low-hanging rocks for guerrilla training, crouching and rising among them as if they were moving through the jungle. From the mouth of the cave, the views across the lush, green island are as wondrous as the vistas at Phong Nha-Ke Bang.

 

Vietnam’s Love Waterfall is one of many stunning waterfalls in the country, which naturally look more spectacular in the rainy season, which runs from June to November.

But these caves were once bomb shelters where peasant soldiers hid as the land around was turned to an inferno, where forests and people once burned together as US bombers dropped fire from the sky. And for a generation afterwards, most of Vietnam was closed off from the outside world.

There are still secrets in the mountains and the caves. Some are heartbreakingly beautiful, others fiercely sad. And there are sites such as the land around the Quan Y Grotto that are both.

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