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Vietnam last hurrah: Seeing to unfinished business

I was left conflicted after an experience at the start of my trip. One of my reasons for visiting Vietnam was to see where dad had been based during his tour of duty between 1967-68 with one of the New Zealand rifle companies. I organised a private day trip from Saigon out to Phuoc Tuy Province and did manage to see everything I wanted to… except the site of the 1st Australian Task Force camp, the place where up to 5,000 Aussies and Kiwis had been based. (Aerial photo)

My guides either didn’t know about it or didn’t want to stop on account of the time. Whatever the reason, the outcome didn’t rest easy with me and I hated that I would leave Vietnam without achieving that goal.

In 2007 Dad's company marked the 40th anniversary of its deployment to Vietnam

In 2007 Dad’s company marked the 40th anniversary of its deployment to Vietnam

Dad's old pocket guide to Vietnam - a US publication distributed to foreign soldiers

Dad’s old pocket guide to Vietnam – a US publication distributed to foreign soldiers

A few days later it dawned on me: could I somehow squeeze it in? And so plans were put in place: my flight from Da Nang was brought forward and another car/driver/guide was found to hustle me out there on my last day in Vietnam.

One minor problem – I was due to check in for my flight at 1pm and it was a 6-7 hour return trip. It would be tight!

They picked me up at 6.30am and I sat back for another loong ride out to Nui Dat, near Ba Ria, on the way to Vung Tau on the coast. Even with the help of a ‘short cut’ it was still three hours before we were in the vicinity… and then I was horrified to discover that neither the driver nor guide knew exactly where to go. They fluffed around for about 15mins, stopping no less than six times to ask locals for directions. I couldn’t believe it! (Later he said the area had changed and landmarks he had known were no longer there.)

Eventually we were at the old brick gate posts where I’d been a couple of weeks before, marking the entry to the 1ATF base. Once I understood the lay of the land, I was completely taken aback – the camp was ‘just there’. How easy it would have been to stop here on my first visit! Exasperating.

View entering the camp

View entering the camp

Gate post, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Concrete remnants on the corner of what could have been a main entry into the camp

Concrete remnants beside what could have been a main entry into the camp

Same concrete bit from behind

Looking out what I think was the main entry into the camp (the concrete shown before was in the top left corner of this shot)

Looking out what I think was the main entry into the camp (the concrete shown before was in the top left corner of this shot)

We couldn’t stay for long so I blasted around, inspecting the gate posts and wandering through the rubber plantation, down the lines where tents and whatnot had been erected 40 years before. Surreal stuff. I found a few residual remains of concrete structures but there was very little else to be seen. With more time I would have headed in deeper.

A local man came up behind me and gestured hello, then he and my guide chatted. Turns out he was ex-Viet Cong. He took us over to a sunken well that the camp had apparently used.

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Me

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

I think there are a couple more rocks with faded paint residue but this was all I had time to find

I think there are a couple more rocks with faded paint residue but this was all I had time to find

This was the 161 Battery underground telephone exchange, dug out in 1966

This was the 161 Battery underground telephone exchange, dug out in 1966

Concrete remnant, 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

A concrete... thingy... ?

A concrete… thingy… ?

On the thingy is etched 'G. Love, 1967'. I did some scouting online and there was a Corporal George Love with an Australian army engineer corps who was posted to the 1ATF headquarters in 1967

On the thingy is etched ‘G. Love, 1967’. I did some scouting online and there was a Corporal George Love with an Australian army engineer corps who was posted to the 1ATF headquarters in 1967

The ex-Viet Cong soldier who showed us the well

The ex-Viet Cong soldier who showed us the well

The old well

The old well

Track, site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

View exiting the camp

View exiting the camp

It was too rushed really and all too soon it was time to head to the airport where we literally arrived with three minutes to spare. A bit of stress for all concerned but I was very appreciative to both men for their help in getting some closure.

And with that, I went home.

Mum and dad met me during transit in Auckland

Mum and dad met me during transit in Auckland

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow…what a poignant visit. So glad you got to make the trip. I love the pocket guide — what a treasure. Thanks for sharing, Hayley.

    23 April 2013
    • Thanks Steph, I was so stoked to pull it off.

      23 April 2013

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