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Vietnam: 7~Disappointment in the search for Dad’s army base

There were two main purposes of my being in Vietnam: celebrating a friend’s birthday, and looking for some key sites of the Vietnam War. In particular I wanted to see where Dad was based during his six month posting in 1967-68. Day four in Saigon would start to tick off both goals.

Dad while stationed at Terendak Camp, Malaya, before they got sent into Vietnam. (Photo of a photo at Mum and Dad's place)

Dad's platoon section during their six month posting in Nui Dat, Vietnam. He's standing at the back in the middle. (Another photo of a photo at Mum and Dad's place)

On account of the chaotic traffic they strongly recommend that tourists in Vietnam do not drive themselves and so a common way to see stuff is to book a car with a driver and guide (or guide with motorbike). I found a standard guided tour offering out to Nui Dat, an area 100km south-east of Saigon where a large force of Kiwis and Aussies had been based. The tour seemed to cover all the main points of interest so I went with it.

It was an earlyish pick up from my hotel. We headed out of town along a 30km straight stretch of highway bankrolled by the US in the 1960s as the main supply route to the large military base at Long Binh. The roads were extremely congested and very slow going, perhaps not helped by it being the weekend. However, there was always something interesting to look at out the window.

At a town called Ba Ria we picked up a local guide; hadn’t realised that was the plan but anyhoo, I now had two guides and one driver. Their English wasn’t awesome but I could understand the jist of what they were saying. Ba Ria wasn’t far from Nui Dat and finally, after three hours in the car, we were out there.

First stop was Long Phuoc, site of a Vietnamese Liberation Army base about 5km from Nui Dat. Today its tunnels are a tourism attraction. While not as big a deal or with the same volumes of tourists as the more well known Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, it was still a good first introduction. I would be visiting three tunnel complexes during my trip.

A temple at the Long Phuoc tunnels to honour the district's war dead

We arrived the same time as a couple of Aussie tourists with their guide, so we did a tunnel tour together. An ex-Viet Cong soldier worked there as a guide, a small nimble looking unsmiling man probably in his 60s. I didn’t have much time to register that we were heading into a small space – it’s not my favourite thing to do – before we were stepping down into the tunnels. They’ve been enlarged a bit to allow for foreigners, but I still had to stoop quite a ways.

All was well to start with… then the Aussie bloke shrieked “oh my god there’s a spider I can’t stand spiders!”. I was both amused and completely horrified, as they’re far from my cup of tea either. I tried not to look… but then noticed another large creature on the wall ahead of me (next to the freaking out Aussie bloke). And then realised they’d probably be everywhere – basically my worst nightmare. The Aussie was now speaking in very panicked fashion telling the guides that he had to get out. Luckily there was an exit not far away, and I took first chance to bail as well. I’m sure Mr ex-VC was highly disgusted!

Inside the tunnels at Long Phuoc

A replica Vietcong solider inside the tunnel before we noticed the spiders and rapidly exited!

Next stop was the cross at the site of the 1966 Battle of Long Tan in which 18 Australian soldiers died. It is a very peaceful place in amongst rubber trees. You need a permit to visit here which was something like US$30 of my tour price.

Road into the Long Tan Cross site through a rubber plantation

My guide next to a rubber tree which is having its latex harvested. They give each of their clients a rose (she's carrying mine) to place beside the Cross.

Long Tan Cross

Then we headed to the Horseshoe, a circular hill about 8km from the main base which was home to a fire support base. This was only viewable from the road a couple hundred metres or so away.

The Horseshoe

After that we pressed on to where the Luscombe airfield was, which is now the road going through Nui Dat village.

Driving into Nui Dat village

The main road through the village today used to be the Luscombe airfield runway

Nui Dat kindergarten had been built with Australian Vietnam Veterans' assistance but appeared to have been closed for a while. However, it reopened in Oct 2010 after a joint project which saw it refurbished and extended.

We drove by a Vietnamese wedding reception or some such

A bit further on we turned off and drove to the bottom of SAS Hill, which Nui Dat (‘small hill’ in Vietnamese) was more commonly known as. Being a large military base there had been all sorts of facilities and the guide pointed out where a concert stage had been, now completely overgrown.

At the base of the hill it felt like such an achievement to finally be at this iconic place. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to walk to the top so I spent 10 minutes wandering around, looking at the landscape, the concrete pad, the little hut that’s still standing. From this link you can see an aerial photo of the base roughly the time that Dad was there.

SAS Hill. When the 1st Australian Task Force moved in nearby, an SAS Squadron set up base on the hilltop.

There was a bit of a mad dash for photos when it was apparent that rain was on the way

Below SAS hill are concrete remains, which I think (based on photos I've found) was the old heli pad

A hut - never been able to confirm what it was - on the road at the base of SAS Hill

An impending downpour forced a return to the car and I assumed that we would next go to the gateposts that commonly feature in others’ visits to Nui Dat, and the site of the main base.

But, I had a niggling suspicion so I pulled out some pictures and pointed at the Nui Dat gateposts (I had no idea of my bearings to know where we were in relation to them). They said “ahh” and we duly drove there and I was able to see them and take pictures, albeit in heavy rain.

I had a couple of minutes to look at the gateposts which marked the entry to the base at Nui Dat. Where the base was, I had no idea.

We headed off again and I then realised we were heading back to Ba Ria – without having seen the site of the base camp. Again, more gesturing at pictures and explaining – however it clearly wasn’t part of the standard tour. After going all that way to find that the tour to Nui Dat did not include going to the camp…

I was gutted beyond words.

The guides didn’t really grasp why I was upset – think it got lost in translation, or they just assumed it was general emotion regarding the war. Maybe the local guide didn’t know about the site. Anyway, we dropped her off in Ba Ria, where I was asked to complete their standard client survey. You betcha I had some feedback.

Still, this had a learning for me and I’ll be doing more homework in future before going on tours that I have a particular interest in, especially private tours which have more flexibility.

The traffic wasn’t as bad on the return journey and for all the crazy driving and apparent lack of road rules, I finally saw an accident – even though it was just a bit of a nose to tail.

That night I was to meet up with Danielle and group to begin the week of birthday celebrations. After the long and draining day, I was looking forward to a drink.

* * * * * *
This is part of a series recounting my July 2009 trip to Vietnam. For the starting point and some background go here.

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