by Terry Edwinsmith
During the latter half of July and early August 2014, my wife and I were fortunate to travel on a river cruise along the Mekong River which flowed through Vietnam and Cambodia. Our plane from Singapore arrived at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) mid-morning and we were met by our tour guide who directed a hire car to take us to the (French) Sofitel Hotel in the city. This was my first taste of Vietnam as I had missed deployment with my Artillery comrades from 105 Holding Battery Wacol in mid-1967. After all my active duty preparation with this group including a Canungra Jungle Training course and live firing at Tin Can Bay, I missed a government sponsored trip by a mere 47 hours and instead found myself as assistant to the librarian at Murray Barracks TPNG then the inaugural librarian at Taurama Barracks prior to my teaching duties and pay sergeant stints at 1PIR to complete my National Service at the end of 1968. So to actually arrive in Saigon, 47 years after this event found me with mixed emotions. It would be fair to say that had I organised a trip with my wife, then Vietnam or Cambodia would not have been on my bucket list at all!
Prior to joining our tour party of American and Canadian companions on board ship, we had the afternoon free so on the advice of my daughters who had visited the country previously, we headed on a tuk-tuk to the War Remnants Museum, one of a number of museums in the city dedicated to the ‘American War’. We joined the tourists from around the world to view war planes, tanks, my beloved artillery pieces and other captured hardware from America and its allies. The nearby buildings provided photos and war relics of the 1962- 75 invasion from the North Vietnamese perspective. The news stories from that era came flooding back. Atrocities abounded! (Recall the My Lai massacre?) Nearby were French torture rooms with a working Guillotine which was last used in 1960. A catalogue of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ was on display. However it was definitely worth a look.
The following day our tour got underway and we were taken to the Reunification Museum formerly known as Independence Palace. It was a French Colonial building which featured in the closing hours of the war when North Vietnamese tanks broke through the palace gates on 30th April 1975, after the Americans vacated the city. It was humbling to be there and stand by the tanks that brought the war to an end, a symbolic gesture that had meaning for the local people.
After sightseeing, the tour party headed for the boat the following day for an upstream journey to Kampong Cham in Cambodia. The cruise provided local cuisine and cultural displays in various forms throughout the trip. Markets were aplenty both on and along the Mekong. Rice fields were being planted as we travelled. Honda motorcycles (125cc) were everywhere to be seen when we landed at the various ports along the way.
Whilst on board, I had occasion to speak to those men (all American – we were the only Australians) who were of retirement age about their Vietnam experiences. No one on the trip had served in the war but all had been included in the draft. Some had personal friends who had died in the conflict. The US draft allocated each eligible male a number. The lower the number, then the greater the chance was that you would be called up. Regional or state draft boards then chose a certain proportion of men for service. The less populated states returned fewer men for service. Candidates could choose to serve in other defence arms such as the navy or air force prior to being drafted but once your draft papers arrived, then it was the army only, unless you fled overseas or moved to Canada to avoid military service.
The journey continued. Rare glimpses of rural life followed, with rickshaw and sampan rides included. A lecture on Vietnam preceded the film “The Killing Fields” as we entered Cambodia. This was the first time that I heard the word ‘ Amerasian ‘ and its subsequent meaning. It is a very sorry ongoing story indeed!
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia has magnificent French Colonial buildings combined with centuries old architecture of the Khmer. Phnom Penh steeped in history, has many attractions for the tourist. Returning to the theme of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, we were shown one of the 385 killing fields which dot the country, followed by the notorious S-21 former Khmer Rouge prison and torture chambers which occupied a former Phnom Penh high school building turned detention centre. Pol Pot, the darling of Communist China at that time, managed to kill 2 million people, mainly the educated, teachers, management and other intellectuals including the lead Buddhist monks. This has had a profound effect on Cambodian life today. All surviving Cambodians now have immediate family taken from them. A visit to an orphanage at Kampong Cham upstream from the capital was organised before we boarded buses for the 5 hour drive to Siem Reap in the north. The orphanage endeavoured to teach children skills that would be useful to them in later life. All attended the local primary or high school in the town. Men with missing limbs were more evident as we moved closer to the last hideout of the Khmer Rouge fighters where land mines were evidenced by signs indicating dangerous areas that have not yet been cleared.
Siem Reap may now be found on most travel destination maps. It boasts a new airport which is close to the 12th Century temple of Angkor Wat, surrounded by huge moats which help keep the water levels down in the Mekong Delta’s alluvial plain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortified city of Angkor Thom is nearby. The following day saw us visit a 10th Century Hindu temple then on to the now more famous temple of Ta Prohm, one of Angkor’s most popular structures made recently famous by Angelina Jolie and her “Tomb Raider” film of 2001.
The gigantic ‘spung’ trees, and the parasitic strangler figs, combined with massive stone structures are a sight to behold. Each is blended into the ruins. Restoration of these wonderful temples are ongoing, financed by the wealthier Western nations. Angkor Wat has become a tourist mecca. 4 million people visit each year with another 2 million extra visitors expected as tourist infrastructure improves. For the average Cambodian, apart from rural occupations which provide 95% of the workforce, tourism is the only viable growth industry in the short term. Young Cambodians work hard at learning a foreign language such as French, German, Spanish or English to compete with others to become tourist guides. Our hotel concierge had worked as a hotel domestic for 8 years, upgraded to concierge and now he has language skills, he is applying for a tour guide position with the Cambodian Tourist Board. Your patronage of this new tourist destination would be a great boost to the Cambodian economy and an even greater boost to the people of this country by your presence.
A short flight from Siem Reap to Hanoi in Vietnam was slightly marred by torrential monsoon rains which prevented our Vietnamese Airlines aircraft landing at Hanoi airport. 3 hours later after a diversion to Vinh airport, we arrived at our Hanoi Sofitel. This Sofitel Legend Metropole was built in 1901, a magnificent structure and sight to behold. After a much shortened sleep we explored the Hanoi sights on a Sunday morning, which were teaming with families sitting on the footpaths consuming breakfast. This allowed them some break from their very small apartments. Sightseeing included a tuk-tuk ride around the old French quarter of the city, a visit to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” to be reminded of the American bomber pilots incarcerated there as prisoners, a visit to One Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature to name but a few. A nearby restaurant founded by an Australian at www.koto.com.au for underprivileged youth was nearby. The afternoon comprised a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s memorial complex where he lived as the leader of a united Vietnam after unification of the North and South. The locals hold Ho Chi Minh in very high regard. He may well go down in history as another Gandhi. He certainly was a patriot. Hanoi to me was a very interesting place but we had very little time there to gain a good impression. The people that we met seemed welcoming and friendly. Hanoi airport is being expanded to help bring in more tourists and is expected to be operational by Chinese New Year in 2015. This city has a 1000 year history and is very similar to Amsterdam as dykes hold back the Red River in the monsoon season.
It was with great regret that we farewelled our very excellent Vietnamese tour guide, the son of a VC. I would have liked to have met his father to congratulate him on his success in raising his son. Vietnam is slowly rebuilding its society with its rich history and hardworking people. From what I have seen its success is assured. I commend both Vietnam and Cambodia as travel destinations for my ‘chalkie’ peers. (I travelled as a paying guest on Viking River Cruises.)