In February 1973, 40 years ago this month, Australia established diplomatic relations with what was then the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), or North Vietnam. At the time, the height of the Cold War, this was dramatic and controversial. But now, Vietnam-Australia relations are strong and more Australians are calling the country home. By Walter Pearson.

In 1972, so-called Viet Cong representatives lived at the Continental Hotel and went to work daily at Camp Davis in Tan Son Nhat Airport to negotiate details of the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

The world was still polarised in a way almost incomprehensible today, divided into a democratic west and a communist east. A divided Vietnam reflected that world, where the United States claimed a red north was invading a democratic south.

Australia, like America, had had combat troops in Vietnam since 1962. They operated mostly in the province now known as Ba Ria-Vung Tau. More than 500 were killed during 10 years’ involvement. From a peak of nearly 8,000 in 1969, there were about 120 left by 1972, divided evenly between Saigon and near Ba Ria.

In Australia, at the end of 1972 a new centre-left government replaced conservatives who had ruled for more than two decades. Within a fortnight, all remaining combat troops had withdrawn from Vietnam. In a move that shocked many at the time, in February 1973, the new government recognised the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, while at the same time maintaining relations with the Republic of Vietnam in the south.

The Australian embassy, on the top two floors of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon, remained there until 25 April 1975 when it closed its doors and the last Australian staff evacuated. However, a month earlier an incident had occurred that to this day remains a mystery.

When Australia recognised the DRV, it opened an embassy in Hanoi and appointed Graeme Lewis charge d’affairs. Australia then selected David Wilson as the first ambassador. Prior to taking up his post, on 12 March 1975, Wilson met Lewis for discussions in Vientiane, Laos. Lewis then took an Air Vietnam DC4 to Saigon. The aircraft was shot down over Tay Nguyen near Pleiku in the Central Highlands. It is speculated that one side or the other mistook the civilian aircraft for a military one and it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Foreign affairs officer Graeme Lewis became the last official Australian casualty of the Vietnam War.

Australia, the first belligerent from the war to establish proper ties with reunited Vietnam — the United States did not follow until 1995 — provided some of the first aid programs to the country. Australia’s telecommunications commission helped re-establish and modernise the telephone system. Since doi moi was adopted in 1985, increasing numbers of Australians have come here to travel, work and live.

According to Saigon-based Australian consul-general John McAnulty, there are more than 22,000 Australians living in Vietnam on long-term visas; the vast majority are located south of Danang within his bailiwick.

“Many are Vietnamese who migrated to Australia, obtained Australian citizenship and have subsequently returned, often to retire,” he says. “Others are Viet Kieu who have come back to establish businesses, while other Australians have also come here for business or work.”

The Australian Chamber of Commerce represents about 200 businesses, from service industries to banking and finance.

AustCham chief Brian O’Reilly says Australia’s recognition of united Vietnam soon after the war has been important for his country’s brand.

“The My Canh Bridge and other projects are important in showing Australia’s commitment to Vietnam and helpful for business here,” he says.

O’Reilly came from southeast Queensland to Vietnam on a holiday after “looking at Asia for a while”.

“I had come to a time in my life when I thought I had better do something now, or I never would,” he says.

That was 12 years ago and he has been doing business consultancy and teaching MBA courses here ever since. O’Reilly says the key to business, as in most of Asia, is personal relationships.

“If you can build up trust and respect, you can do well here,” he says.

Australian veterans of the Vietnam War also have been important in developing tourism ties with Vietnam. They were among some of the earliest tourists here. Now, each year hundreds of Australians attend ceremonies at Long Tan, the site of a battle in 1966 that involved Australians. They gather at a Vietnamese-built replica of a cross that the Australian forces erected there in 1969.

“It is very generous of the Vietnamese to allow us to have these gatherings,” says Ern Marshall, originally from Mildura, Victoria and one of scores of Australian veterans who have resettled here permanently.

In 1968, Marshall served in Vietnam at the logistics base in Vung Tau where he now lives. He was unusual among soldiers in the 1960s because he was genuinely interested in and friendly with Vietnamese during his tour. He now plays a major role in Vung Tau Veterans and Friends Children’s Fund, an organisation of veterans and others in Ba Ria-Vung Tau providing direct support to poor rural schools in the province.

“I first came over out of curiosity to see how the place had changed; I kept coming back,” Marshall says. “Having lived here for a while, along with other Australians, I felt I wanted to put something back into this country.”

“In one two-month period last year, we were able to raise VND 40 million towards local projects,” he says.

The consensus is that it is the people that make the country.

“Half my friends are Vietnamese,” Marshall says. ”I am attracted to their spontaneous joy and ability to enjoy themselves.”

O’Reilly says it is their friendliness that attracted him to Vietnam and its people.

“About a third of my friends are Vietnamese,” he says. “It would be more if I had better Vietnamese language skills.”