Kiwi author Carole Brungar spends years researching and writing her acclaimed Vietnam-based novels. What she wasn't prepared for was a rollercoaster of emotions when she stepped on Vietnamese soil for real.
In 2016 I finished writing the first draft of a novel set in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was a difficult story to write and putting myself in the head of a 19-year-old soldier fighting for his survival, took me to some dark places. When I finished the story, I wondered what it would be like to feel the heat, experience the monsoon season, meet the locals and experience the food. I was about to embark on a trip I would never forget.
I boarded the last Air New Zealand flight for the season to Ho Chi Minh City. Although I had researched the country extensively, I was totally overwhelmed but exhilarated by a city buzzing with life and energy.
District 1, considered the old part of the city and still called Saigon by the locals, was magical. It was everything I imagined and more. I learnt the art of crossing the road between the millions of motorbikes that swarmed the inner city every day, and I learnt the importance of keeping hydrated in the sweltering heat and sticky humidity. I also learnt that the best fun can be had on the back of a motorbike as it weaves and threads its way through traffic. A chance to become one of the locals.
I was in Vietnam to learn and experience and see, only one way to do that, open my heart to the city and let it in. During a monsoon downpour, I jumped on the back of a bike and headed off to participate in a marathon of eating. Drenched in seconds, dry in minutes and so hot I didn't care, my guide inched the motorbike through alleyways in back streets so narrow that with our elbows and knees held firm against the bike, we just scraped through.
The food was unique, delicious, and plentiful even though sometimes a little repulsive. The trip to the Ben Thanh Market was like visiting the pulsing heart of the city, but if you want a more authentic experience, seek out the other markets, shop with the locals. I searched for all the places that played their part during the Vietnam War, like the Rex Hotel famous for the Five O'clock Follies — the daily news reports. Even the building which became famous as a collection point for the last evacuees from Saigon still stands, complete with ladder, although not the original.
The Cu Chi Tunnels turned out to be a mecca for tourists, although I wasn't there to see the tunnels, I wanted the thrill of firing an M-16 rifle and AK-47, both weapons widely used during the war.
As much as I wanted to do everything the tourist did, I wanted to understand what it was like in the 60s and 70s when our men were fighting for their survival. Vung Tau, two hours from Ho Chi Minh, was a seaside resort town used as a rest and recreation base for many of the Kiwis and Aussies during the war. There was also a large logistics support depot and field hospital there. Back Beach was frequented by the allied forces for recreation purposes, while Front Beach was littered with fishing boats and locals.
I employed the services of a guide and driver to take me out to Nui Dat, the compound built by the ANZACS for the duration of their deployment in Vietnam. As I explored Luscombe Bowl where the Kiwi and Aussie entertainers performed, the air filled with a mix of magic and sadness. Standing in the middle of a rubber tree plantation that used to be home to both Victor and Whiskey Companies, the insects rang out their Morse code messages, and I could sense the activity that had once taken place there. I couldn't leave without placing a wreath at the memorial for the 17 men who lost their lives in the Battle of Long Tan.
My emotional trip wasn't about to get any easier. The ancient city of Hue enabled me to visit American war history. The battle for Hue was one of the worst of the war, with approximately 5000 civilians killed. The whole city was almost completely destroyed. If you know where to look, many signs of the war remain.
I visited The Rockpile, stood on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and visited Khe Sanh famous for the battle that took place there. A huge, discarded C-130 over-shadows one end of what remains of the runway, and sand-bagged trenches and old bomb casings litter what remain of the Marine combat base where hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died. To stand in the middle of the compound, knowing what took place there was surreal.
One of the most memorable experiences was a trip to the Vinh Moc tunnels that linked the north with the south during the war. These are visited by fewer tourists and wind down as far as 23 metres. To think children were born in these tunnels and spent the first 18 months of their lives without ever seeing the sun, is unbelievable.
But what made the biggest impression, was not the history, it was the poverty; the huge numbers of people who had nothing, who lived from day to day, and yet were so welcoming and friendly and filled with love and happiness for what they did have. I felt humbled and thankful for the privileges I had been graced with. Vietnam is the only country I've visited that made me cry when I had to leave.
- It's cheap to eat and drink at street vendors and cafes so make the most of the vast array of food.
- If a street stall has lots of people eating the food, you can hedge your bets that it's safe for you to eat there too. With so many customers, food turnaround is fast - and fresh!
- Flying between cities is quick and cheap and will give you much more time to spend in each place.
- Organise a shuttle pick up from the airport to your accommodation or vice versa. It's quick and there's no tedious negotiating required.
Carole Brungar writes women's fiction and 20th century historical fiction. Her new book, Loving Summer, is out now.