A Tiger's Long Trip to Hanoi
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a tiger's long trip to hanoi

© Mick Henrys
Battalion Armourer
1st Tour

The First Attempt

In 1965 when I was posted from the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS Regt) to 5RAR it did not take me very long to realise that I had joined an extraordinary group of people. Within a few weeks I was set on a path as part of a team that trained and worked better then any that I had come across before. Now in hindsight, I can say that the team was also the best that I had ever worked with since.

Call it naive if you must, perhaps idealistic, or ill informed but I thought that my involvement in the Vietnam war was going to be part of something that was going to make a real difference to the world. I had visions of great positive achievement that would somehow have us arriving at the gates of Hanoi to cheering crowds welcoming their liberators. Well, we all know that my vision did not come true, not, I might add,  through lack of individual and team effort and sacrifice by many people.

Like all of those of us who were fortunate enough to return, I had to put this behind me and get on with the rest of my life (with the thoughts of Hanoi fading into the back of my memories). I went on to study engineering, was commissioned in the Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (RAEME) and worked throughout Australia and had some five and a half years seconded to the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

I resigned from the Army in 1985 and then took up a number of Government positions in the ACT and NSW, mostly working with heavy engineering equipment and construction and maintenance teams. Many of those skills that I had learnt when I was working with the Infantry continued to serve me extremely over these years.

Now economic rationalism has led me to an early retirement and at age fifty-five a chance to do something totally different and perhaps finally to put a few ghosts to bed. I have recently completed a Cambridge course in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) and I have been offered a position as a volunteer teacher at a college in Hanoi starting on the 4th of August 1998. I expect to be doing it fairly rough, working and living with a Vietnamese family and later backpacking to various parts of the North.

After a three month teaching stint my intentions are to travel by train to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and then spend a week or so looking around some of the areas I knew previously in the South.

From Armourer, to Engineer, to Public Servant, to Teacher, the trip of life goes on. So thirty-three years later my dreams of reaching Hanoi are finally coming true, albeit under different circumstances.

The Second Attempt:

Preparing for Hanoi and the first few days.

My preparation consisted of a visit to my GP and then a large chemist bill, some very limited language study and reading a few tourist and business books.

  • These books were;

  • 'Vietnam' by Lonely Planet

  • 'Where to go in Hanoi'

  • 'Vietnam Phrase Book' by Lonely Planet

The Lonely Planet books were particularly good. I had used them before on a visit to Japan when my wife was teaching there. They contained a good up to date background as well as incredible detail for the backpacker type traveller with how to get from place to place, which small hotels to use and which to avoid as well as advice on dealing with the socialist bureaucratic administration. They also contained some very interesting advice on drugs which was probably aimed at a younger target group in the backpackers.

Buying the ticket to Hanoi was an interesting exercise in itself. I initially went to the major carriers and finished up with a quote of $1,580.00 from a number of them including Qantas. On the off chance, whilst in Sydney, I dropped into the agent for Vietnam Airlines and was given a price of $1,120.00. Being an extremely cautious flyer (always avoiding Garuda and Aeroflot), I expressed an interest but asked the obvious question: "What type of planes do you use for that trip?" The reply was: "Actually its a seat on a Qantas flight". An experience that I'm sure has taught me something, I'm just not sure what at this stage.

My Visa was issued in Hanoi by arrangement with the college that I will be teaching at IVN, Vocational Training Centre. It all seemed very easy and the four month visa only cost $30.00. I picked it up from the Sydney consulate in New South Head Road, Double Bay ( an appropriate address for a socialist consulate???).

The Director of IVN, Mr. Le Duc Nhuan, has faxed me a number of times with various information and has organised a family to provide me with accommodation. He seems very friendly and helpful. Some years ago he completed an MBA at Sydney University and still has regular contact with colleges in Australia.

When I sent him my CV it included a mention of my service with 5RAR in 1966/67 but that has not drawn a comment from anyone with one minor exception. I had been getting some assistance with the language from a young Vietnamese doctor who was in my wife's English class at Newcastle University. He is in his early thirties, from Hanoi and is now doing post graduate medical studies here. He had a great deal of knowledge about the various Aust Aid programmes in Vietnam. When we first met he asked me if I had been to Vietnam before and of course I answered ' Yes in 1966'. His next question, 'What aid programme were you working on?', was not so easy to answer. The lessons are continuing on a very friendly basis and I expect to meet his family in the next few days in Hanoi.

For obvious reasons, most of my preparations have been focused on the North. However I could not resist reading the Baria / Vung Tau section of the lonely planet book. I found this section had a certain "déjà vu" about it :-

Vung Tau has long competed with Saigon to attract foreign "Sex Tours" to Vietnam - Massage parlours are ubiquitous. However, the AIDS epidemic has caused some soul searching and there has been a half- hearted crack down on this most lucrative industry.

Another negative - "watch out for the kids around the kiosks along the front beach. Some may try to pick your pockets or snatch a bag".

The more things change the more they remain.

On The Ground in Hanoi

It is now the 22nd of  August and I have been working here almost three weeks. I find that very hard to believe because the time has flown. I don't think that any amount of reading could prepare you for Hanoi, particularly in the way that I am seeing and experiencing it. I found out yesterday that this year is the "Year of the Tiger" in the Vietnamese calendar. A very appropriate time for a visit.

I am living in a one room flat right in the middle of Hanoi, only meters from the market. As I am the only non-Vietnamese working in the college I have often gone for days without seeing another foreigner.

Brian London asked me to give my thoughts on the people and their attitudes. Without exception everyone that I have met has been very friendly and extremely pleased that I would want to come back to Vietnam. The fact that I am working here doing something that they see as assisting their country makes them even more accepting.

On Sunday I am going on a train trip to the port city of Hai Phong. It is about two and one half hours by train (150 kms) and the business has a school there that they want me to have a look at so I am starting to get about a little bit. As most readers will be aware, this port was among the most heavily bombed areas.

In Hanoi I am riding my pushbike to most places that I need to go. The road rules are simple ---there aren't any! The cross streets are amazing. Very few cars, millions of motor bikes and push bikes and they all come together seemingly without order, accidents or road rage. I have found out that the worst thing you can do is to stop or hesitate. Just keep going and it seems to come out all right. You always ride on the right side of the road unless you are on the left.

Hanoi is very different to most other Asian cities I have ever been in. In many ways it seems to be like Manila of the early 60's with a little of today's technology thrown in. Very few cars and few high buildings and history everywhere.

There is only a handful of non-Vietnamese people but of these, Australians seem to make up a large proportion. The people here know and appreciate that. Australians are accepted very well. Americans seem to be tolerated and Russians disliked by everyone. I think it has a lot to do with the failed projects that they tried and the awful Eastern bloc cars and trucks that they dumped here. Now the only ones that seem to use them are the police and military, not that they keep a high profile at all. In fact, in Hanoi at least, the opposite is more the case.

One of my jobs is to teach business communication three nights a week. All of the other teachers are Vietnamese and in most cases this is a part time or extra job for them. I was talking to one the other night, (or perhaps I should say being interviewed by). He knew a bit about me and told me his real job is an Army Major but he only has to do that two days a week and is free to do what he chooses on the other days. He said that he couldn't live on his army pay. Like many others he had spent six years training in Russia learning the language so that he could come back here and teach it. Six years wasted. With no practice he is slowly loosing his skill.

After some time talking to him I asked if he could take me to see where he works. He replied, "Sorry! impossible. We have nothing to hide but we have very strict rules about contact with foreigners, particularly ex-soldiers. If we weren't working together here I would not be allowed to talk to you".

The Half Way Mark

Mid September and all is still going very well indeed. I am starting to make a few friends in places other than work. The American Club provides me with contact with non Vietnamese about once a week and also a change in food.

My first trip to Hai Phong was very good. The rural north is a hard and simple life but people want to remain there if they can rather then move to the bigger cities. It is a well laid out city with a number of parks in its centre. With just a little questioning the reason became obvious: the whole place was levelled and rebuilt in 1975. While there our work group, myself and six Vietnamese, stayed in an old Russian hotel on the beach. You could tell that it was Russian because nothing worked and it had been so badly designed that it could not easily be maintained. Until 1995 it had been in an area restricted to party members only. Now anyone can go there but it was very quiet. The overnight trip to the island of Cat Ba was a definite highlight. The seafood was wonderful. The scenery spectacular.

Back to Hanoi and my normal work with a bit of time for local sightseeing. I students have been great, with plenty of offers to take me places and help me see whatever I want. Even my Russian teacher/army major has come around. Last week he took me on a private tour of the army museum in Dien Bien Phu Street.

The early stages of the exhibitions were very good and in particular the detailed display of the battle of Dien Bien Phu was most impressive. The latter stages which covered the 1960's and 70's were not as good. In a way I am sorry to say that we did not rate a mention.

The major/teacher was very helpful and made a number of insightful comment. He also gave me the factual interpretation of the multi-language notices on some of the exhibits. For example, in English, a small flag was described as an award given to a hero of the peoples army. In Vietnamese it said it was given to any soldier who had killed 10 Americans.

I have attended church a few Sundays in Hanoi and that warrants a special mention. All Masses were "standing room only" and the cathedral in particular could only be described as a huge, medieval French classic. The current American Ambassador was also there on Sunday. This most interesting man, who recently married a Saigon-born Australian Vietnamese lady who was the head of the trade delegation at the Australian Embassy in Hanoi, was a bomber pilot during the war and had been shot down over Hanoi and spent some six years as a prisoner of war in the "Hanoi Hilton". Part of this old jail still exists just as it was and it is only 50 meters from my favourite bar. I often wonder how he feels when he goes past it.

Last Sunday I had quite a remarkable experience. I was on a boat on the Red River and I got talking to an American who looked like he could have been an ex-serviceman. Turned out that he was an officer in the Special Forces and had retired in the mid 80's. He had two tours of Vietnam and was now working in the American Embassy. He had worked with some SAS and others during his service. He was also married to a Vietnamese lady and she turned out to be the daughter of the previous Chief of Police in the Long Hai area. She had been working for American Express in Vung Tau for two years when everything collapsed. Her father died in "Re-Education" in 1982.

This lady was most helpful with my plans to travel to the Baria area as she had just returned from there and suggested I take the hydrofoil from Saigon to Vung Tau or perhaps even to Long Hai as that service is due to start very soon. --- Wouldn't that have made things easier?

Another great experience happened on Tuesday the 15th of September. I was at the American Club in Hanoi (nothing very flash I might add) and I was asked if I would join a group of people to preview a rough cut of a one hour TV production of the American Ambassador's (Pete Peterson) work here. I found it nothing short of inspirational. I will try to get a copy of the final work but if anyone gets a chance to see it, please don't miss it.

Hanoi Towards The End

Just over one week to go before I leave Hanoi and head South. to say that a lot has happened would be the understatement of my life. It is very hard to describe my feeling about what I have experienced here. Some significant negatives but so much very positive. In all cases I am pleased to say that the people have been wonderful. I think that alone is all worthwhile.

On the negative side my boss has warned me not to go into the Baria area alone, (take a guide) and do not try to contact anyone in particular in that area. I feel that this is just an example of the distrust that exists between the North and the South. I have also had a few people from the police checking my papers and generally just looking, but nothing serious. The worst was when they came to my room at 11:30pm to discuss my visa. This happened in Hai Phong where the police have a bad name with visitors. Misinformation in the press and on TV is also very depressing, as is the level of indoctrination in  schools with very young children.

I have found that many of my students, who are mainly university graduates, often have a healthy distrust of anything that comes from the government and they are getting fed up with the corruption in the administration. Unfortunately all anyone has to do to win them again is to link what they are doing to Ho Chi Minh. The strong nationalism and worship for their fabled leader has not weakened them much at all.

Another of my students was very proud of the evidence of democracy as shown by a photo of various groups participating in an election. After some discussion, he eventually agreed that it would have been good if they had had more than one party to vote into power.

From a positive point of view, while I may not have been the first from our battalion to visit Hanoi I think I would be one of the few to work here as I have done. This has given me a much deeper insight into the people then most would have had the chance to get. If I have been able to pick up a single message it would have to be "That the war is not still  being fought here".

The Happy Couple

My army major/teacher friend invited me to his wedding last Saturday (he has certainlyThe happy couple come a long way from not being sure if he should be talking to me two months ago). Attending a semi-military in the Ho Chi Minh Museum was a unique experience. I had an amazing day and I was made welcome as a special guest. There were over 400 people there and I was greeted by an older male member of the family who obviously knew who I was and of my background. I have learnt to treat every male of this age as a veteran. He hugged and kissed me like a long lost brother. This spirit was continued by everyone at the wedding.

I continue to get the feeling that the veterans here want to treat us as members of the "brotherhood of survivors" rather than as a past enemy. A further example of this was at my employer's house on Sunday last. His elder brother, now aged 64, a retired doctor who ran a hospital just across the border in Laos from 1965 until 1970, was there. He made it clear that there was never any question of who was right or who was wrong -- of who won or who lost. There was just this marvelous acceptance and recognition that we shared a unique bond. I hope that this feeling stays with me the longest.

As I reach the end of each of my classes I am amazed at the warmth of feeling expressed by my students. There  have been dinners and organised parties from all of them and they seem genuinely sad to see me getting ready to leave. One student, a female doctor, aged in her late 30's asked me after I had been teaching her for four or five weeks a most interesting question. She said, "Disregarding the bonds that you would have formed with the people that you served with, what was your most pleasant memory of your first time in Vietnam?" I took me a few days to come up with the answer. My reply, "The  memories of the children", satisfied her completely.

On the lighter side, on my last trip to Hai Phong (I have been there four times now), I met with a few teachers in their home. I enjoyed a wonderful meal but was then faced with the job of defending Australia's manhood by drinking a traditional brandy. "Snake Brandy" was made on the bodies of 13 large snakes stored in a raw spirit for five years. It is said to be "Vietnamese Viagra". It certainly worked on me the next morning, but that might also have been because I was just so pleased to still be alive after drinking it.

The Trip South and Home

A brief but pleasant trip from Hanoi to Hue was the first stage. Hue was very historic and well restored and required at least a full day around the citadel area.

The 18 hour train trip from Hue to Saigon was the only aspect of the whole trip that failed to meet my expectations. the train was so dirty that my worthwhile scenery was impossible to see through the windows. The arrival in Saigon at 5:45am could not come soon enough.

The hydrofoil from Saigon to Vung Tau was great. At $10.00 US the 1 hour 20 minute trip is much better value than any of the land options. Vung Tau was incredibly quiet. I stayed in the Grand Hotel which turned out to be a newer building on the grounds of the old Grand. The old building is still there but is hardly ever used.

Following my employer's advice, I arranged a guide from the hotel and headed off the Nui Dat on the back of a motor bike the next morning. My guide, Minh Vu, was very pleasant and informed me that he had first fought with the VC and then changed sides, later claiming 25 kills. He certainly showed no love for the current government.

Minh Vu and Author

Our first stop was Long Hai which is being set up as a resort town but as yet withoutMick Henrys with Minh Vu any customers. An incredible number of Australian trees are being used along the roads and hills. It was autumn and the smell of gum leaves being burnt seemed totally out of place but very pleasant.

We went straight to Binh Ba and after pretending that I was a newspaper reporter, managed to get a local person to take us to the old villa in the rubber plantation. All that was left was the slab on the ground and even the air strip had disappeared under newer rows of rubber trees. We were warned not to set off the marked paths as there were still mines being found in the area.

Ruins of Binh Ba Village

From the main road, Binh Ba looked quite different with a large and new market centre. Once we moved 20 meters from there the only change to the huts were the power lines and the TV antenna attached to them all. Still dirt floors and obviously very poor.

the ruins of binh baOur local guide then offered to take us back to Nui Dat and I am pleased that he did as I don't think I would have found it travelling from that direction without him. All that remains are a few roads in the Task Force HQ area and Luscombe field which is now the very wide main street of a village of some one hundred that was set up right after the Australians left the area. I believe its name is Xa Phong Nhu. The effect of the regrowth has changed almost everything else. The trip back to Vung Tau took us through Hoa Long. I had always remembered this as a very unhappy place and it is little changed by the years.

South of Baria, and in Cat Lo particularly, the development has been dramatic Very little of the open spaces along the roads remain. Vung Tau is a large city based on oil and associated industries. There is still some Russian influence here with 4,000 of them living and working there.

A day of relaxation and I caught the hydrofoil back to Saigon and then a crowded plane back to Sydney.

Mick's english students

Looking back I would have to say that it was one of life's great experiences. I was extremely pleased to have gone to Hanoi first and to have been there long enough to get to know the people. My advice to anyone going to Vietnam now would be to make the effort and travel to Hanoi and Cat Ba. Not everything is good but it all helps you to get a better understanding of the people and the country and this makes visiting there and the past much more meaningful.