Off to Vung Tau. 14/9/71. Showered, shaved, dressed in clean uniforms, kit bags and weapons in hand we board the truck for Vung Tau. Out the front gate we go in our open aired Mark 3, sitting on the plank seats and still checking out the surrounding countryside as we motor along. It’s down route 2 to Ba Ria, the capital of the province, through the town and along a causeway over mudflats. There are people living in pressed tin shacks that cling to whatever dry land they can find. The tin is leftover rolls from wherever Coca Cola or Budweiser get their cans from. Garbage is heaped against the sides of these shanties, barefoot children scamper and play amongst the refuse. Back on solid land again we head down to Cap St Jacques, or Vung Tau. There’s no escaping the fact that this is a country at war, US military vehicles are everywhere, ARVN troops crammed into the back of trucks, their GI helmets looking ridiculously large on them. The people have seen it all and it’s only the small children that take any notice of us. We motor through the main gates at 1 ALSG, our main command base in Vietnam. It is located next to the beach and it’s built on sand dunes. Anticipation mounts as we traverse the camp, down to the road that fronts the sea and we arrive at the Badcoe Club. A cluster of modernistic concrete and steel buildings that housed a recreation centre, swimming pool, bar and theatre.
Main gate, 1 ALSG.
The Club. My diary tells me we placed our weapons in the armoury, found our allocated rooms in a modern two storey barrack block and hit the beach. (For those who have watched China Beach on television and I can’t find any you tube vids, well this wasn’t it, no Dana Delany in a tight green T-shirt looking well, busty and gorgeous. No funky little thatched huts on the beach front. Their south China sea even looked better than ours.) Don’t complain Laurie, you’re here. There was a surf club where you could sign out surfboards, kayaks, footballs etc from a very disinterested lifeguard. What the hell, let’s hit the water. Standing, facing the sea you could see the Long Hai hills in the distance. Look left and the beach went on forever. Look right and a barbed wire entanglement jutted out about a hundred metres into the sea. No, it wasn’t to keep hordes of Viet Cong from nicking our surf boards. It was there to keep us from going onto the American beach next door. Yes, segregated beaches. There were beaches set aside for other countries involved in the war. It didn’t detract from the fact that the water was great. While you were floating on your back, the sun beamed on your face and with ears underwater, well, the war had gone. The waves were small and your body bobbed along, no cares, worries or stress only you and the water. Sploosh! A soccer ball hits the water next to my head, then a shout, ‘Come on Smithy, we’re going to town.’
Like thousands of garrison towns throughout most wars in history, Vung Tau had its ‘Sex centre.’ Theirs was colloquially known as The Flags.
A wall had been built at one end of the square and it had the flags of every nation involved in the conflict emblazoned on one side. On each side of the square stood a large collection of: bars, massage parlours, pickup joints, more bars. The list goes on as did the scope of places where you could empty your wallet. Your senses were assailed. Smells wafted from the nearby markets: ducks, chickens, varieties of vegetables, cooked and uncooked meats, fish sauce, raw fish.
The bars: cheap perfume, spilled beer, hormone soaked bodies, sweat.
Sounds: raised voices, jeeps, trucks, motorbikes, horns, bells and if a whistle blew everybody stopped.
The Canh Sat, or ‘White Mice’ were the police. If the person they wanted didn’t stop after they blew their whistle, then it was out with the .45. Bang! No second chances, no please stop, and as we will learn in a future post it didn’t matter who you were.
The sing-song voices of the bar girls calling out, ‘Hey, Uc da loi, (Australian) you want take me home. I love you long time. Me clean, no VD like girls over there.’ They would point at a barber shop that specialised in oral sex. Children’s voices as they pestered you for money, cigarettes, or chocolate. Some, carrying wreaths of flowers on their arms pressed close and tried to pick your pocket, or steal your watch. Others would play tic tac toe on scraps of paper for money, they always won. Adults and children would offer to exchange Military Payment Certificates or US dollars for Dong, the local currency. Trusting and unwary soldiers soon found that the wad of Dong they had swapped their currency for consisted of a real note top and bottom, the rest, newspaper. Tastes: Cold beer cleaning away the taste of ration pack food. Scotch, harsh, tangy biting your taste buds. Sights: Overwhelming in a way, a mish mash of humanity, White, Black, Asian, Indian. All with a purpose in mind as they made their way through the streets and markets. Buyers and sellers, everybody brought down to the common denominator of supply and demand. Poverty and wealth sat side by side, shops selling gold next to small clothing traders. Farmers selling produce, food stalls, music stalls where recent hits belted out from huge speakers. You could buy reel to reel tapes and cassettes. Vung Tau could be described as hustle central where every taste was catered for. Music group Christie, singing Yellow River is an endearing memory of my first night in town.
Butterfly Girls. The early afternoon sun filtered through the trees that overhung the courtyard of the French colonial hotel. Waist-high walls, their blue painted stucco cement rendering had peeled away, revealing a palette of colours going back a century. The spear pointed, cast iron railings hung in between shaky pillars. All held together by trailing, blue flowered vines. Wooden tables with benches on each side were placed against the wall, giving peeping Tom views out into the main street on one side, and an alley on the other. The two storey hotel rose up above the clutter of the markets, a fading reminder of wealthier times. The ground floor sat in the shade from sloping awnings, cool darkness peered out from the arches. American soldiers in neat, green uniforms, Australians in civilian clothes clustered at the tables, drinking, laughing and casting glances at the ‘hostesses’ that fluttered from group to group. Butterfly Girls, who, like their namesakes moved from flower to flower sucking up the life-giving nectar. We sat and drank our beer, young men full of hope, life and a need. Nobody was in a hurry. Here it seemed safe, you can fool yourself most of the time. Three Hueys flew overhead, the distinctive whup-whup-whup of their rotor blades made everybody stop and look upwards. The war intruded until the sound faded away over the coast, the hum of conversation took over and the girls came back.
I felt a gentle, small hand on my shoulder and looked up. She stood there, slender, no older than myself and dressed in a simple floral shift. I stared into her deep brown eyes. They held a hint of promise, knowing and a dare. Putting her hip against me she pushed, I took the hint and she sat down. She smelled delightful, her hair had a touch too much lacquer on it, I could ignore that as she breathed lightly in my ear. Aware of her closeness, the feel of her breast against my bare arm I listened intently to her offer. ‘Hey Soldier, you come back to my room? I make you very happy, we go short time. Very cheap.’ I went to stand, ‘No, no, you buy me tea first.’ An elderly woman appeared out of the shadows holding a tray with a tall glass of what could only be iced tea. I pulled out a wad of notes and slapped them down on the tray, the woman tottered away shoving the money into her blouse. My new friend took a few sips and pushed it away, ‘Hurry, drink your beer. We need to go.’ Inspired by her eagerness and my body’s responses I downed my Budweiser and slid off the seat.
The whistles and catcalls from my Mates faded as I followed her. I ignored everything, except the way her small bottom wiggled under her dress as she walked slowly up the stairs ahead of me. Stairs that had felt thousands of feet over time. Now I would stop and take in the feel of the building. Not then, I wanted to feel her, to run my hands over her firm brown flesh. To know her in all ways. My face felt flushed but not from exertion. She stopped on the landing and looked down at me, she couldn’t hide the look on her face, one of triumph. Giggling she ran ahead, stopped outside a wooden door at the end of the landing and stood with her back to me. I caught up and held her by the waist, pulling her against me I bit at her neck. Fumbling with the doorknob she managed to push it open. Turning she wrapped her arms around my neck, I lowered my head and continued nipping at her throat. She pulled away and lifted her dress up and over her head. Part of me was aware of the room, cool, dim. An iron framed single bed stood in the far corner, trying to hide under dinghy sheets, yellowed and rumpled. Standing next to the bed, her slender body revealed, she stroked her hands over her breasts, across her taught abdomen and down to the wisp of straight black hair.
Fumbling, cursing I tugged at my shirt and jeans. They conspired to hold my urgency at bay, hopping on one foot I tumbled to the bed. Still giving me that knowing smile she crouched down and pulled my boots off. I couldn’t focus on her, there are other rooms here. A lace curtain lifts at the French doors leading onto the veranda. The breeze brings muffled voices with it and the distant sound of gunshots. Her practised kneading brings me back to the moment, pulling her towards me I roll her over onto the sheets. I’ve never felt such urgency as we join together, heat, pressure an instinctive, rocking plunging. Something boils deep inside me, arching back, panting it’s over in a wet rush. I’ve lost all sense of place and time, my mind is elsewhere. Her insistent pinching at my waist restores me to the now. Rolling away I lie back, she strokes my face gently then jumps off the bed, ‘Hurry, must wash, shower now.’ Groaning I roll off the bed, with an itching burning feeling on my appendix scar. Looking down I see something brown latched onto my skin. A bedbug feeding on my blood. it seems everybody makes a living in this game.
‘Hurry, shower now.’ Ancient lead pipes grumble as she turns the cold tap on. Chipped enamel washbasin in hand, she squats down over the toilet hole in the floor and washes my essence out of her body. I step inside the concrete shower cubicle, the water dribbles out of the rusted head as I lather myself. I hear her moving about the room and look out, she hastily drops my jeans back on the bed. Still naked she dries me down with a well laundered towel, fussing and clucking she takes a little longer than necessary and helps me dress. I wait on the landing for her, she comes out in a clean dress. Her hair has been sprayed again and fresh dabs of perfume glisten on the inside of her elbows. Hand in hand we return to the table, my mates are still there and a fresh can of icy cold Budweiser waits for me. Stretching up she kisses my cheek, smiles and flutters away. A new group of soldiers sit down two tables away and I hear her sing-song voice. ‘Hey Soldier, you come back to my room? I make you very happy.’
Mini Golf. 15/9/71. You better believe it, the body can only take so much cheap sex and scotch so the following morning belonged to social pursuits, mini-golf. I found it quite relaxing, we had fun as only big kids can when they’re happy and alive. Of course after the rigours of 18 holes the beach called again. I’ve always loved to swim, besides the saltwater cleaned up the hole the bedbug left, I could fit a match head in it. At least it wasn’t the dreaded Pthirus pubis, or crabs, although it annoyed me greatly. The simple pleasures of life are fine but the delights of Vung Tau called out to me like the Sirens of Greek mythology. But unlike Odysseus of old I didn’t tie myself to the mast of a ship so I could listen and not be tempted. I sailed forth and cast myself on the naked bodies of cheap, willing bar girls and drank myself into a stupor.
16/9/71. We return home.
Nobody gives a damn about the scenery, war, or poverty only stomachs tortured by too much drinking and the worry that comes from sticking your little mate into strange, exotic places. Sickly smiles are exchanged as tall tales are recounted about narrow escapes from roving duos of Military Police. Home is where you hang your rifle. I pack away the gifts and trinkets I bought into my trunk, undress and give myself a quick short arm inspection, Hmm, he looks okay. Grabbing my tray it’s a quick walk over for an early dinner, eat and then prepare for night ambushing. We rumble out along the ring road, head for the back gate, load our weapons and head off for another night at the office. War can be heck sometimes.
Note that all the photos except the last one are courtesy of Rolly Wood, RIP Mate. The last one courtesy of Jock Taggart.
Next week, Just when you thought it was safe to play in the jungle.