Grant Bradley joins veterans in a tour group in Vietnam
Fifty years ago, Vo Xuan Thu had bombs and bullets rain down on him from Vietnam's invaders.
New Zealand was among a handful of countries that joined the United States in the American War, but earlier this year Thu welcomed me into his home, told me his story, shared Tiger beer with me and at the end of it pinned a souvenir Ho Chi Minh badge to my chest.
The former North Vietnamese Army (NVA) private then gave my translator and I a ride back to our hotel.
I met him in Vung Tau, now a thriving port city but 50 years ago, it was a big Australian-run logistics base to provide ''bullets, beans and bandages'' and rest and recreation for many of the 50,000 Aussies and 3000 Kiwi troops who served during the war. They were there to try and maintain control of Phuoc Tuy province in the south-east of Vietnam, an area with a strong rebel streak.
Under massive aerial bombardment from napalm, high explosive missiles and 500 pound bombs, Thu was directing fire at aircraft in a furious fight at Nui Le in September 1971. It was there our Battlefield Tour guide, Gary McKay, became the last Australian soldier wounded in the war.
There were other Aussie veterans among the 16-member tour group too; one who wanted to return to ''bury demons'' from his service there 50 years ago, an engineer once roped in to descend in to a terrifying Viet Cong tunnel complex and the son of another ''tunnel rat'' who wanted to walk in his father's footsteps.
McKay and the platoon he led was fighting for survival after finding itself in jungle territory thick with troops from Thu's 33rd regiment. McKay was shot through the shoulder with AK-47 rounds from a shooter in a tree.
Overlooking the site of the battle he tells that after a long night with mates pressing bandages into his wounds to staunch bleeding there was a harrowing chopper medivac, or ''dust off'', the next day. He spent a year in hospital recovering.
Flight check: Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City with Vietnam Airlines
Thu told me he remembers the bombardment on September 21 well, the day McKay was wounded. The two have subsequently met.
Originally from Da Nang in central Vietnam, Thu says his regiment often fought against Anzac forces but he suffered injuries after the two countries had withdrawn.
We can talk about what happened but we don't hate each other — we just do a soldier's job
In his home, the 70-year-old points to where he was wounded in a fight against South Vietnam' Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)
''I was wounded in 1972 fighting against the ARVN in my chest and in my leg - I still have pieces of bullet in my lung.''
During a four month trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join comrades in 1969 he was pounded by B-52 bombs and Agent Orange defoliant. He later suffered malaria and reckons up to 40 per cent of his comrades didn't survive the war.
''In the war we are fighting for what we think is right to try and get independence for the country but after the war we meet Australian and New Zealand veterans and we are friends. We can talk about what happened but we don't hate each other — we just do a soldier's job.''
Remembering the dead
Anyone heading to Vietnam with any interest in the conflict should first watch the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick television masterpiece, The Vietnam War.
In one of the most powerful scenes an NVA officer talks of his sorrow of not being able to return the bodies of missing soldier sons and daughters to their families.
While American missing numbered in the thousands, perhaps 300,000 NVA and VC fighters remain unaccounted for. The many well-tended memorials and cemeteries for the North Vietnamese and VC dead are a testimony to how much a proper burial means.
Thuan Quoc Khong, our specialist guide in Phuoc Tuy province was originally from North Vietnam and told how his sister's father-in-law was still missing 40 years after the war.
The government had no information on where he was but she was advised to go to a ''psychic office'' in Hanoi.
The Centre for Research into Human Capabilities has been operating for more than 20 years and, according Khong, was the key to finding the man.
''The psychic burns incense to connect the living and the dead. The spirit of the dead soldier came to the body of a nephew — he was only 12 years old but he showed where he was buried in the Mekong Delta nearly 1200km away. He showed the exact spot.''
It's in the realms of Sensing Murder but the centre claims up to 70 per cent success.
There are massive memorials throughout Vietnam (to the victors as the graves of the South Vietnamese forces were destroyed or largely forgotten) and each one tells a story — from the 14-year-olds fighting their first campaign against the Americans and their allies, those in their 50s and others who had seen off the French between 1945 and 1954.
Vo Xuan Thu, the NVA soldier who invited me into his home shares the reality of death and the sorrow of losing friends.
''We all had affection for one another and regarded death as very commonplace and were ready to die for.''
One of his friends, Ngu, replaced him in a battle near Nui Dat in 1972 as he was ill.
''The next day I saw his body together with his sub-machine gun beside the body of a puppet [South Vietnamese] soldier.''
The war was known as the world's first Living Room War, a conflict where unforgettable images were beamed directly to homes around the world. It's also a war that produced unforgettable movies that live on — you've got them playing in your head as you visit places where they were based.
On our Battlefield Tour we were among some of the most memorable. The first stop in Ho Chin Minh City — known still as Saigon in the south — for our 16-strong group was the scene of one the most powerful.
We were at the Reunification Palace which during the American War was home and headquarters for a string of South Vietnamese presidents but images of a Russian-built T54 tank bursting through the wrought iron gates on April 30, 1975 were those of total victory and utter defeat.
You stand at that spot now and can sense how momentous the day was. An example of the tank is in the sprawling grounds (the actual tank is in a museum in Hanoi) as is an American F5 jet that was part of a less well-known story.
In the final weeks of the war, a South Vietnamese pilot defected to the North while airborne, bombed the palace and Saigon Airport, making him a hero for the country's new rulers.
The palace is kept how it was — lavish and a glorious example of how ripe the South Vietnamese regime was for overthrow. There's an emergency lift for the president and his family to escape from their luxury living area to the bunker deep below. And they were right to be paranoid — corrupt regimes were vulnerable to assassination, not only from the North Vietnamese.
In the bunker 50-year-old communications equipment and early computers in mint condition are on display and the war planning room is frozen in time on June 29, 1968 — near the peak of US involvement with its allies in the country.
There, on what was a top secret document, Western and local tourists get to see the combat forces in-country. Plain to see is Tan Tay Lan (New Zealand) which had 523 troops out of 600,000.
Later and not far away from the palace, McKay points out the unmistakable building immortalised in a photo by Dutch photographer Hugh Van Es who captured the chaos of the day before Saigon fell.
A line of desperate South Vietnamese escapees snakes its way up a makeshift ladder to an Air America chopper (operated by the CIA) from the top of an elevator shaft on an office building.
It was identified as an escape spot for those who worked with the Americans by the CIA and is not, contrary to many accounts, the top of the US Embassy.
Many of the most confronting photos from the war are on display at the War Remnants Museum, the first of just a few museums we visited on this mainly (battle) field trip.
At the museum there are US weapons on display and many shocking pictures in pavilions with labels "Historic Truths" and "Aggression War Crimes".
The pictures of Agent Orange victims are absolutely heart wrenching.
They wanted to kill off the South Vietnamese puppet government.
Some 200 journalists, mainly photographers from both sides died taking the pictures which helped hasten the end of the conflict — images of the My Lai massacre and a napalm burned girl running down a road were too much for the American public to bear.
In Hue we visited the Citadel, the focus of vicious fighting and camera lenses and the Vietnam setting for the movie, Full Metal Jacket.
Later in the trip we stood on Red Beach in Da Nang, the site of the US Marines' famously filmed landing in March 1965, marking the doomed escalation of the war. The thin pines still stand on the beach and the unmistakable form of Monkey Mountain on an island out to sea.
Our local guide for that stretch of the tour, Nguyen Cong Thong, was a 12-year-old on Red Beach with his father that day and remembers many of the 3500 Marines flashing peace signs (he didn't know what they meant) and looking closely at why they were always moving their mouths — they were chewing gum.
He identified the exact landing spot by GPS which he said looked like a D-Day movie. Someone later broke the news to him it was essentially a photo opportunity.
The marines faced no opposition and were presented with flowers by local women. The war in the rugged mountains on the horizon came later.
Thong says soon after their arrival he and his family were able to find left over C rations.
''The famous ones I liked at that time were frankfurters and beans and tomato sauce and then they gave me a lot of Kool Aid.''
The first casualty
Aboard a state-owned Vietnam Airlines flight on the way to that country I watched a fine anti-war film, Hanoi 12 Days and Nights, which told the human stories behind the massive B-52 bombing of Hanoi around Christmas 1972 where an estimated 1600 civilians were killed.
It was blunt, and used disputed figures and immortal lines such as: ''I promise if you guys shoot down a B-52 the service branch will give you guys a cow.''
Vietnam Airlines is a fine modern airline but as I was to discover the tone of propaganda in places seems to have been frozen in time.
Midway through the tour in the spiritual and intellectual capital Hue, we met a former Viet Cong political officer, Nguyen Bac Xuan at a branch of a university.
His role was critical in enforcing the ideology and discipline among the VC (a term like ''Charlie'' officially banned after 1975).
Now aged 82, Xuan still teaches but in 1968 he was in the city when the VC launched a surprise attack during the Tet offensive and held the city for 26 days. There are claims at least 2000 Vietnamese civilians with ties to the South's government were massacred; some buried alive, others clubbed to death.
Nguyen tells the tour group through an interpreter that while ''Charlie'' (VC) he was a Bhuddist and says he helped save a high ranking policeman. He concedes there were some excesses.
''I will tell you something that you didn't know. The National Liberation front soldier was too young — they were living in the countryside and some of them don't know how the difference between French Americans or Germans — in their minds they believed they were all Americans so we killed them. Some of the German teachers were killed by the VC. They wanted to kill off the South Vietnamese puppet government.''
As for the mass killing of South-leaning citizens, he says: "It's too difficult to figure out how many died under American bombs.''
Thousands of his comrades were also killed as US troops won back control of the city in what was the bloodiest land battle of the war and one which marked a turning point in attitudes in America towards it.
As with others we got to meet, Xuan says he bears no animosity.
''I'm a soldier. American soldiers were in the same situation — kill or be killed. After the war we forget about and we love each other.''
Further north, in Hanoi, our North Vietnamese Army veteran, Mr Tam, has another take on attitudes to American pilots shot down while on bombing raids.
Many, including the late US politician John McCain, were held in Hoa Lo prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton.
The main purpose of exhibitions there is to show the cruelty of the French colonial masters towards Vietnamese nationalists who were kept manacled in horrendous conditions — again, the photos don't lie.
Mr Tam (as he would only be known as) worked there around the time of the Christmas bombing of 1972. He said the captured pilots were ''treated like VIPs'', and with no coercion or pressure they answered freely answered questions about avionics in their planes and upcoming missions.
''Some American pilots had a humanitarian streak.''
McKay does at times warn the group — particularly the veterans — some of what they'll see is fairly blunt propaganda that lives on, but it's part of the Vietnam experience.
''The scope of the tour is to present a balanced view of the war. Not just from the combatants but the impact on the civilian population which of course was massive.'
The truth is hard to discern. I was warned by a guide from the south that ''Charlie always lie". In the Hanoi Hilton we were told matter of factly that ''Hanoi'' Jane Fonda betrayed US prisoners to their captors by handing them notes the POWs had passed her - a story that has been debunked.
Long Tan - the battle among the rubber trees
On the fields of Long Tan the Australians have a very significant memorial to remember those who died during the worst day of that country's war — 18 were killed during a ferocious fight on August 18, 1966 and the subject of a movie, Danger Close, that played earlier this year.
Anzac forces consisting of 105 newly arrived Australian troops and three New Zealanders faced an estimated 1500 to 2500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Major Morrie Stanley from the New Zealand Royal Artillery was among them relaying grid references to the L5 105mm Pack Howitzer crews 5km away, who were landing them — ''danger close'' — only 50m in front of the besieged soldiers.
A squadron of APCs was deployed to save the Anzac force — a near certain defeat was averted. Hundreds of VC and NVA soldiers were killed. Of the 18 Australians killed, the oldest were 22.
It was marked by a white concrete cross in 1969 — still one of just two non-North Vietnamese memorials permitted in the country. It has been the focus of Australia's V-Day commemorations since but is a sensitive site, given that at the very least, 250 NVA and VC were killed.
On the 50th anniversary of the battle authorities cracked down on what was shaping as an over-the-top commemoration.
Our party was subject to checks and surveillance by up to three branches of state security on the anniversary itself.
The state apparatus remains very powerful.
But there was no detectable police presence the next day at Long Tan. Our simple,
solemn service was conducted without any problems, only banana field workers occasionally taking an interest.
The Last Post was played, floral tributes were laid, an Ode to the Fallen was read. It was a memorable morning.
Two per man, per day … perhaps
It's fascinating finding out about battle from those who were there but equally interesting is what happened behind the scenes.
Near Ba Ria — a dusty speck of a village during the war but now a town of 125,000 is famous for its fish sauce. The distinctive odour used to make soldiers sick after two days ''rest and convalescence'' in nearby Vang Tau. Back then they hung in pubs where beers were 15c and about 3000 bar girls plied their trade.
Vung Tau is close to Nui Dat where Aussies and Kiwis had their forward base, established in 1966 as part of the operation of the territory it was alive with choppers, cavalry — Armoured Personnel Carriers. Later in the war came armour; tanks .
Today Kangaroo Pad is overgrown, a rise that used to give a view of the area is being hacked down by quarrying and the rubber trees are being replaced by bananas which now deliver a better economic return.
But SAS hill where the elite squad was stationed still rises over the site (it also was a top-secret signal core listening post) and McKay and his guides lead us deep into a banana plantation and near a power pylon where there's an Anzac memorial plinth where we acknowledged those who had served and died there.
McKay is a prolific writer of more than 20 books, nine about Vietnam and tells a good story, it's relatable and he and the other vets on the trip told of the smaller, more ordinary things that were equally fascinating.
We learnt why soldiers literally went commando (their underwear would rot on to them on patrols of up to six weeks ''out in the weeds''), the highlight of being resupplied by American ration packs (the chocolate was good but the best bit was the toilet paper — the Aussie stuff was like grease-proof paper).
We learned the radio code for anyone who didn't go to ''bookshops, libraries and places of worship'' and instead contracted venereal disease during the time. They would be described as having ''plumbing problems '' get a giant antibiotic and then be taken off the frontline and face the severe disciplinary consequences.
You're trained as a soldier, you're told you're going to go and the testosterone takes over
And there was an insight into how scary and random war can be. One of the group described how he was down for a highly risky extraction mission the day before his tour ended. It had bad news written all over it but after a series of postponements, the mission was cancelled and he survived the war. The anguish he felt was still palpable 50 years later.
McKay also explained why he went in the first place.
He was doing National Service (a Nasho) when his name was pulled in the ballot and his pursuit of girls and a promising rugby career was interrupted in 1960s. He took to soldiering, became a platoon commander, was decorated for gallantry and became a career soldier then a military historian.
''You're trained as a soldier, you're told you're going to go and the testosterone takes over.''
Another of the vets was Eraldo "Benny" Bensi, a wiry Italian-Australian also a Nasho conscript who was called up as an engineer.
This meant driving bulldozers and scrapers and pulling APCs out of the mud in some hot enemy country, and doing what he could to help the local population.
Benny was on his third post-war visit to Vietnam, he knew what to expect, and the charitable streak continues. Throughout the trip he would sometimes put himself in harm's way running across busy roads to give street sellers and street cleaners ''a few bob.''
He recalled visits to bases before returning to the field. If the ''wet canteen'' was open later in the day there would be a couple of 15c beers — or sometimes more. He recalled the rule: ''Two per man, per day … perhaps.''
It was essential to collect mail for the troops at the frontline (''forget going back without it''), pick up the hot boxes of food and then often back out to the frontline by chopper.
If he shot you tough tits. If you shot him… even better
He thanks his lucky stars that he made it through and on a bus ride back from Cu Chi — where he had spent a terrifying day down the Viet Cong tunnels — he neatly explained a soldier's fatalism and bravado.
''If he shot you tough tits. If you shot him… even better.''
''It gave me a sense of what he went through.''
On the Battlefield Tour Queenslander Scott Barnett wanted to experience some of what his father Ivon went through. So at Cu Chi near Ho Chi Minh City he squeezed into the same tiny hole in the ground our Vietnamese Army guide did and disappeared.
Ivon Barnett was an engineer and a ''tunnel rat'' when he served between 1965 and 1966 in Vietnam but never fully recovered from the psychological distress he suffered.
He would be sent into the tunnels metres deep into the ground not knowing what was around blind corners.
There could be an armed enemy soldier or a deadly booby trap — which may be poisoned sharpened spikes at the bottom of a pit — in this terrifying, subterranean theatre of war.
Bombarded by Agent Orange and napalm the Viet Cong kept on digging deeper and further at Cu Chi and built a network that extended close to 250km under the American forces and their allies.
A 1967 propoganda film shown at Cu Chi painted a picture of idyllic life before the ruthless Americans ''like devils'' fired into women, children, chickens, ducks, pots and pans and into schools.
It described how bamboo stakes used for hunting animals now used for hunting Americans.
Scott, on the Battlefield Tour with partner Kristie, said his father rarely spoke of the war when he was growing up. He died eight years ago, aged 67.
Barnett snr was unable to sleep properly.
''He had nightmares all the time,'' Scott, 40 says.
Scott emerged from the tunnel after a short, emotional journey.
''It gave me a sense of what he went through.''
The tunnels are still used for Army training in some areas but those for tourists range from those widened for a short distance to those which Barnett squeezed into. Our guide, looking at other chunkier members of our group, said that they were ''not for happy Buddhas''.
Burying the demons
One of the veterans on the Battlefield Tour was Colin (Slippery) Jackson, a Nasho working on the New South Wales railways when his number came up in the ballot in 1968.
He saw the posting to Vietnam the following year as something of an adventure. He went as an infantryman, a grunt humping a 30kg pack around Phuoc Tuy from places such as Horse Shoe and Nui Dat and trying not to get killed.
When he came home he said nothing about his service in Vietnam, given the reaction of the world to which he returned.
To borrow a line from a classic song; ''There were no V-Day heroes in 1973'' - quite the opposite and Slippery didn't talk to anyone about fighting in the war if they asked. He also said little to his family about his war experience and only in the past couple of years has he attended an Anzac Day service.
Tour leader McKay asked early on what those on board hoped to get out of it. Jackson said he wanted to ''bury the demons'' from his time in Vietnam.
He was in an armoured personnel carrier that ran over a mine and had a track blasted off.
We shouldn't have been here but we were and we had a job to do
He recalled vividly the smell of cordite, heavy ammo boxes flying around the vehicle narrowly missing those inside who had to immediately escape expecting to be mown down by gun fire.
Further down the road his troop found the soldier with much heavier anti-tank mines that would have obliterated his lightly armoured, aluminium APC. Like the other Aussies on the tour who had served on the ground, he was a big fan of his Kiwi comrades who they had served beside.
''We shouldn't have been here but we were and we had a job to do,'' Jackson says.
He was on the tour with his wife Jan and members of his extended family who wrapped themselves around the 72-year-old after being surprised that he agreed to make the trip.
Towards the end of it, Slippery (a nickname based on something about trains getting loose) told me he was happy to have come; virtually nothing is left of the war. Those we met who had either sided with the US or fought against them said they had forgotten and forgiven.
This fast-growing, dynamic country knows only one way, and that is forward.
At Long Tan he was asked to recite the Ode to the Fallen. In the past that was something he would have run a mile from.
But in that hot, far-flung field with voice cracking, Slippery delivered it word perfect.
Around him, the rubber plantation where the diggers fought and died had been replaced by a field of bananas. Vietnam had moved on — and so could he.
Field Guide to Mat McLachlan's Vietnam Past and Present tour
It's hot incountry.
The tour is timed around the Long Tan anniversary, August 18, when Australian and Kiwi soldiers fought their first major battle together in the country so temperatures are in the mid-30s with humidity 90 per cent or more. Tour leader Gary McKay sensibly recommends four litres of water a day. There's plenty of it on the bus or free in the hotels - which are of a high standard. Pack light, you can get away with wearing most anything on the tour, one of the war vets in the group (on his third post-war visit back to the country) got away with an 8kg bag for the 12-day tour.
Vietnam is booming. Its population has doubled to more than 96 million since the end of the American War. There are an estimated 50 million motorcycles making crossing the road a challenge. When in a group the ''sticky rice'' technique is best — stick together is keep moving forward. It's fun by the end of your visit.
You'll get out ''into the weeds''.
The point of the tour is to help you understand a little of what Aussies and the Kiwis went through by taking you to the places they fought. In the rubber plantations, jungle and steep Long Hai hills of Phuoc Tuy province, McKay in detailed ''battle briefings'' explains how war works — or doesn't. In the tricky light under the jungle canopy you get a sense of how difficult it is to see someone who may have wanted to kill you just a few metres away in what was often a close-fought war. Bring sunblock and insect repellant although the bug count wasn't high. Stick to the paths — there is still unexploded ordinance in some parts which claims lives in Vietnam. And a jungle fighting hack. If camping for the night make sure you park up near thick bamboo — it's tough enough to deflect bullets.
Flexibilus maximus is the catch phrase
McKay is not only a war veteran but a tour leader vet and he can read a crowd well. If part of the itinerary is a bridge too far, he'll consult and if agreed readjust. You need to be prepared for standing around in the heat but tour party welfare is paramount. You're driven around in very comfortable 20-30 seat buses and hotels are of a high standard. On the way out of Saigon our local guide ran across a busy expressway to buy a bamboo chair for one of our vets to rest up in the field — that was a real touch of class.
You won't go hungry
On our second day in Saigon we dined at everything from the Bin Minh noodle soup place where meals started at around $2 where the Viet Cong secretly planned the Tet offensive to the magnificent French colonial residence of former US ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge where there was a never- ending menu including prawns which looked like a lobster and all served in palatial surroundings. It was there where coups were plotted and war planning was done. Like 50 years ago, the contrast between a local's life and the imported lifestyle was mind bending. The food never let up from there You'll also learn alot about the diet during the American war — Anzac forces in the field were often supplied with ''hot boxes'' — stews, puddings and if they were lucky American C rations by helicopter. North Vietnamese forces made do with living off the land — bamboo shoots, insects and the ''VC hamburger" — tapioca rice paper wafers.
It's not just about the war
The tour is a deep dive into battle history courtesy of McKay and local guides but they also give you an excellent insight into Vietnamese society and the lifestyle there. You're free several evenings to do your own thing for dinner (you can get a good meal with a couple of beers for around $15 -the best value beer I enjoyed was a pint of Halida in Hanoi for 70c.) There's plenty of time for shopping. In Hoi An in central Vietnam you can get great-value clothes or shoes made in hours.
Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours is part of the touring division of McLachlan Travel Group, which has been operating from Australia for 40 years and is targeting the NZ market. A 12-day Vietnam Past and Present tour similar to this year's one starts next August 9 with prices from $A3399, excluding international flights. Vietnam Airlines flies non-stop from Sydney and Melbourne to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.