Story 26 - Vietnam Trip Report 1998

By Ralph Schwer

Phan Thi Hong and Ralph Schwer in Dalat in 1998In November 1998, the wife of an old army friend (Lorrie Johnstone) gave him a surprise Christmas present: a new passport, a return flight to Vietnam, and a month-long leave pass. Lorrie and I had worked together as interpreter-translators in Vietnam during the war, and were now booked onto the same flight.  It was to be his first trip back since 1971 and he was most excited. I intended to stay several months to look around and then teach English in Saigon.

From Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon we took brand new, air condition taxi into town. Pham Ngu Loa Street, cam on (thanks), and we were on our way.  The driver in his new uniform explained along the way that Pham Ngu Lao Street hotels have been knocked down for a new trade and cultural centre, but he could recommend a family run hotel, which we agreed to look at, $US15 a double with air conditioning and ensuite facilities. We took it, showered and went off to hit the town.

New cafes abounded along the half of Pham Ngu Lao that was still standing. The Trang Indian Cafe got our business that night and many others.  Mrs Trang, a tall, elegant Vietnamese lady, was the proprietor and served an excellent curry. Such are the advantages of being married to Abdul, her Indian husband and a busy businessman, who regularly came and went with his fellow Indian business associates.  Mrs Trang served good, cold beer, too.

The next day I left Lorrie to explore around town alone while I went off by Honda taxi to contact English colleges around town. We met over dinner at Trang Indian Cafe.  All was going well until I began to pains in my back. They got worse, and a massage by Abdul and the cook didn’t help.  I excused myself and returned to the hotel. The doctor and ambulance took me to hospital at 2a.m. Kidney stones!  Big, painful kidney stones!  What a way to start a holiday. Five days in Cho Ray Hospital, which gave me the best treatment in Vietnam - x-ray, ultrasound, blood tests, pills, great room on the tenth floor - and overseas-trained, English-speaking doctors and nurses. Lorrie visited daily and continued his exploring alone, while I in hospital realised that the idea of staying overseas for six months was definitely not possible any more.

From the heat of Saigon we went straight to the cool of Dalat in the mountains of south Central Vietnam, six hours away.  Dalat is famous as a honeymoon town in Vietnam, with cool nights and warm days. You definitely need a jumper most evenings. The countryside outside Dalat is very much like Bandung, with pine trees and mists, but no thermal springs.  There were raging waterfalls and recent floods. The French colonial houses reminded me of the Dutch colonial houses on the slopes around Bandung. In the market we met Phan Thi Hong, a very friendly lady.  She had had both arms blown off by USAF bombing during the war. She was originally from the north and had come south with friends fifteen years ago on holiday and had decided to stay because she saw no future for herself in the north. She had tried running a stall in the market, but she said it didn’t work because the customers were afraid of the mechanical claw which she used as a hand.   We left promising to post off a letter to one of Hong’s friends back in Australia.

From Dalat we took a minibus down to Nha Trang on the coast. This is a very neat and clean city and is second after Saigon on the Vietamese government’s list of tourist sites to bring up to proper tourist standard.  International standard hotels are situated along the beach. We again took the taxi driver’s recommendation for  a room in Hotel 53 Yersin, another family run mini hotel.  These are springing up all over Vietnam with overseas Vietnamese money, government approval and family management.  All have air conditioning, en-suite facilities, and towels and beds are changed daily. There are usually a number of excellent cafes nearby for meals. 

Teachers wearing Best Ao Dais with presents in Nha Trang 1998Nha Trang specialises in seafood cafes and has an Oceanographic Institute, which opens for visitors.  The guides are oceanographic students who give a wealth of information in Vietnamese.  I don’t know if they can do it in English as well.  Boat trips are available to nearby islands at reasonable rates.  Unfortunately, they drop anchor over coral reefs and the anchors destroy the reefs. But swim two or three hundred metres along the reef and lots of reef fish and corals remain.

Teachers' Day, held annually in November, was celebrated while we were in Nha Trang. Students buy presents and flowers to give to their teachers at school, then everyone has a fun day off.  We came across a Pedicab full of kids and the pusher was having as much fun as the kids. In Hanoi the female students put on their best 'ao dais' and take photos to give to the teachers.

We had intended to go on up to the historic village of Hoi An, but a series of cyclones off the coast brought floods to the whole of central Vietnam.  In the bank in Nha Trang one day we met a group of Europeans who had been stuck on the train for three days, before finally getting into town by canoe, then ox cart, then bus, then taxis.  The newspaper on the following morning showed water flooding houses to the eaves in Hoi An. We decided that Hoi An was definitely off the travel list, and Laurie decided not to travel by air to Hanoi. Kids in at Pedicab - Teachers Day in Nha Trang 1998

So we returned to Saigon and on the following day we travelled on water to Vung Tau, a resort town two and a half hours (100km) by road south east of Saigon, but only to one-hour trip by luxury hydrofoil ferry. The scenery was beautiful as we sped along five metres above the water, passing swamps and paddy fields, and whizzing through the dozens and dozens of coastal traders and tramp steamers moored along the river for kilometre after kilometre.  On arrival at Vung Tau, we found another mini-hotel and another delicious café, the Quan Thanh Lich, on Front Beach overlooking the fishing boats. It was here I had the best cold meat and salad rolls in Vietnam for sixty cents each.  The seafood was also excellent.

We called by to see an old friend, Dr Pham Thi Hong, who is both a doctor and pharmacist. I met her first five years ago while buying dressings in her pharmacy. But to my surprise, the pharmacy was now shut. A neighbour went and got a helper, who turned out to be Hong’s brother, and he piled us three-up on a Honda 50 and took us round to Hong’s new business, Hong’s Beauty Parlor.  Dr Hong said she still practices medicine at a government hospital, and she is also a representative for a pharmaceutical company now, so she is very busy. She said she has been to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore on business trips, and over a very pleasant lunch asked how she could arrange to visit Australia. You may even get to meet her one-day at an AIA monthly event.

School yard in Vung Tau 1998On returning to Saigon I went into rapid present buying mode to get everything to restock the shelves: dress material for the three ladies in my family, shirts tailored for myself, table cloths and modern Vietnamese dictionaries. Ben Thanh market in the centre of Saigon is a wonderful place to go for almost everything you need. And if you get hungry, just go to  one of the  dozens of food stalls and join the locals in the wonderful decadence of good nosh up.

 The food in Vietnam is sensational and, like just about everything else has vastly improved over past five years since my first visit. Most cafes have menus in hilarious English, but at least you know it’s squid, pork, or whatever that you’re getting.  Most main courses cost 30,000 dong to 50,000 dong ($AU3-60 to $AU6) and were usually enough for two people.

Everything has improved vastly in South Vietnam in the last three years. More money is available from the World Bank and overseas Vietnamese are encouraged to invest. The government appears to be very focussed on where the money goes: specific health projects; community development projects; and focussed tourist developments, such as rebuilding temples and national monuments, and building lots of small, privately owned and run hotels.  Now is a great time to go, before the mass tourism sets in and ruins the place, as has happened too much of Bali.


Ralph Schwer
did two tours in South Vietnam, the first with 104 Sig Sqn in 1968 and the second with 547 Sig Tp in 1970/71 and HQ AFV until early 1972.  Ralph lives in Vietnam with his Vietnamese wife and famly.

Lorrie Johnstone also did two tours in South Vietnam, the first with 110 Sig Sqn (1967/68).  Much of the first tour was on detachment to 104 Sig Sqn at Nui Dat.  The second tour was with HQ AFV and 1 Psych Ops Unit in 1970/71.  Lorrie lives with his family at Golden Beach, Queensland.

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