Mr. John Greensill an Aussie veteran writes about his return to Vietnam after 38 Years
(Vietnam Travel Times) – I was a National Serviceman who served with the Army Construction Engineers in Vietnam towards the end of our involvement in the war. When it had been decided to pull out, projects to assist the South Vietnamese received a higher priority. We then spent our time on projects from building roads, bridges and various buildings which included accommodation for the soldiers of the South Vietnamese and families who lived under bad conditions. I spent most of my time working in the towns and villages the Australian Task Force was responsible for. I have wondered ever since how the people and the places where I had worked had fared? I didn’t know I if I would ever return there.
When my wife Judy, a travel agent, said she had been offered a trip from Saigon up the Mekong river into Cambodia, the decision was made to go. It would start with 3 nights in the areas I had been in 1970 – 71. This was a great opportunity for me to retrace my steps!
Saigon is as busy as ever with crossing the street one of life’s great experiences, especially for the newly arrived and the city bursting with activity and new building and development projects.
I noticed a great deal of change as we travelled towards the coastal town of Vung Tau, which was the former Australian support base. I marvelled at the beautiful gardens in the centre of the roadway, the polished granite walk-ways and seating around the water front and how the town had become an Asian version of the Gold Coast. It had a beautiful new high school just completed and yet another big war memorial honouring the soldiers from North Vietnam and local Vietcong which certainly attracts attention. The memorials are very “in your face” to those who served the former South Vietnamese government or army. Many of them had been sent off to reeducation camps in the period after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. This time had been a very tough period for the people under a strict brand of communism that could hardly produce enough food, until it later changed policies .
Day 2 was an official veterans tour of the former Australian base at Nui Dat which was my base (when not stationed out) and many other points of interest, including Long Tan, which receives recognition now. I was particularly interested to see if I could relocate any remaining projects we army engineers had worked on which were many and varied. This included 500 basic units in blocks of 10 erected for soldiers and families of the South Vietnamese army to help them get established before the withdrawal.
Travelling back to the provincial capital of the area of Australian responsibility, I was a little concerned because I did not recognize anything. It had grown and changed so much. Fortunately I glimpsed an old water tower which gave me my bearings. With great work by our interpreter and guide we found what remained of one of the sites.
The people were very friendly, showing me through their homes, with all gathering around making it a joyful event and with me being able to catch up on 38 years of history. When the South fell to the North in 1975, these South Vietnamese army homes were not the address to be found living at, so they were abandoned and a lot of pilfering took place. But later people moved back, repaired them, and made them livable. Recently, at the end of one of the remaining buildings a charity had donated money for erection of a couple of units for those affected by “Agent Orange”, another sad aftermath of war.
From the first site we were given directions to the second site that I was particularly keen to visit because I had spent several months stationed in a South Vietnamese military compound and district headquarter with 3 or 4 other young Australians carrying out the building projects in that area with the assistance of Vietnamese. I was completely amazed at the change in this particular area and thought our guide was way off course! There is now a four lane highway there, with gardens down the centre and electronic signs above the road. The military compound is now another grand war memorial with beautiful gardens honouring the North. Down the road we found the only remaining unit built for a soldier family, now being lived in by a hard working carpenter who also had his small workshop added on the front. Unfortunately he lost his wife in a motorcycle accident a few years ago and was raising his four lovely children on his own (3 daughters and a son). He asked Judy “which one would you like to take”? Probably fortunately, Judy did not fully realize until later at dinner that night (after asking the interpreter) that the father’s offer was serious. He felt, for the sake of the child, he or she would have a better life.
The small Vietnamese Protestant church I used to see only 200 metres away from the above site often came into my mind. It left me wondering what would have happened to it and the people. I feared the worst! But I was assured that the big new church that stands there now is on the original site. We went to have a look and, as it was open, we went inside. After emerging a short time later we were met by a man coming over the yard. He told me the Church had a Pastor since 1975. He informed us that the original little church was bombed in 1975 during the final battles with only the front left standing. There were difficult times but repairs were carried out and applications made to build a new church which was only granted in 2003. It now has a congregation of 900. Within the limits of speaking through an interpreter I asked him if the Pastor was compromised in any way? To which he replied that he was limited to only being able to preach in this church building and a few other authorised preaching stations where there were 300 people. As we traveled about it was apparent that the Roman Catholic Church had a big presence in Vietnam. At one place they have since built a huge statue of Christ rivaling the ones that might be found in South America. It is built in the middle of a huge old French Gun Battery on top of the hill overlooking Vung Tau and the ocean.
We then joined the Pandaw Cruise on the Mekong, on a replica ship with a shallow draught design used in Burma from 1865 [without the paddlewheels] by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company established by Scots merchants. The early fleet was sunk in 1942 to stop the invading Japanese army using it. These replica ships are now suitable to cruise the Mekong Delta. The cruise was a relaxing way to view life passing by, both on land and water, with frequent stops for onshore excursions visiting remote villages and things of interest along the way. We then moved on to Cambodia which is now emerging from even more terrible and troubled times, with the Khemer Rouge period being particularly dark and cruel. There is much more that could be said and perhaps should be said but this is enough for the moment. I left Vietnam this time as I did 38 years ago thankful for the blessings and privileges that we have in Australia. We could all pray that there will be more and more freedoms and opportunities to worship openly the living and true God in these countries and that old wounds will be healed.