War veteran Walter Pearson recalls his first return to Vietnam in 1989, when Australians and locals began to honour the dead on both sides.
I first returned to Vietnam after the war in 1989 as a television journalist working for Australia’s Ten Network. My assignment was to cover a group of veterans heading for the rubber trees outside Long Tan village in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province.
The location was the site of a battle on 18 Aug 1966 between Vietnamese Resistance Forces and Australian soldiers. Subsequently dubbed “The Battle Of Long Tan”, the date has become Australia’s official Vietnam Veterans Day.
Now — thanks to the generosity, forbearance and foresight of the Vietnamese people — each year on that day hundreds of Australians gather at that spot to honour Australians and Vietnamese killed during the war. In 1989, I was in Vietnam to witness the genesis of this annual event.
The battalion involved in the 1966 battle returned to Vietnam for a second tour of duty in 1969. The battalion regimental sergeant major had a concrete cross made with a plaque commemorating the battle. On the anniversary of the battle, members of the battalion paraded at the site and erected the cross.
After the war ended, a Catholic citizen took down the cross and used it on a family member’s grave. Government authorities later recovered it, and it is now a war relic on permanent display at the Dong Nai Museum. In early 1989, the District People’s Committee administering Long Tan village built and erected a replica cross on the battle site. The veterans I was with in 1989 were to deliver gifts to schools and take part in a sort of dedication ceremony at the replica cross.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed at a little hotel that sat on the site of what is now the New World Hotel on Le Lai Street. The hotel overlooked a huge empty space, once the main railway station and goods yards, now the 23 September Park.
Apart from that major change, nothing else in the city had altered since I left in December 1972. The buildings were exactly the same, the roads remained unchanged. But the city was cleared of all barbed wire and sandbagging, and the old deuce-and-a-half US Army trucks now rumbling around the city were painted blue. There were a minimum of motorbikes, mostly old Honda Cubs and Vespa Sprints. Most people rode bikes.
On our first night, we ate at Maxim’s Restaurant on Dong Khoi Street, once a hive of US military officers. Now, only Vietnamese occupied the tables. We went to a nightclub where a disco ball spun lazily in an almost empty room. A few young Vietnamese danced forlornly. It all seemed a bit sad, but I was buoyed by the fact that at least the city was in the hands of Vietnamese and not overrun by foreigners with too much money. By 9.30pm everything had closed down.
The next day we drove to Ba Ria. I noticed the rice harvest was in. Areas we had once occupied with temporary artillery bases and areas of abandoned rice fields were now under cultivation. Where there were small Army posts, now there were houses. Pepper was growing all over the place, fruit trees more abundant.
Sadly the Nui Thi Vais and the Nui Dinhs had lost their magnificent 30-metre-high forests, cut down to raise much needed foreign currency because of the US policy of isolating Vietnam from foreign investment.
The veterans delivered their gifts to the schools. The Vietnamese allowed us our ceremony at the replica cross. The chair of the People’s Committee said they built the cross hoping it would bring Australians back in peace, to help reconstruct the province by spending money. They also hoped to reconcile the two peoples and remember the dead on both sides. I am pleased to say his hopes have been achieved. Before we left, all the visiting media were ceremoniously given medals.