April 30, 2010

‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie .. He no buy me Saigon tea ..’ is the first verse of a song sang in Vietnam by Australian soldiers and bar girls going about their trade.‘.. Saigon tea costs many

'Long Tan Memorial'

'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

many P … Uc dai loi he Cheap Charlie ..’. It was with this song running around in my head, that I made my own‘Cheap Charlie’ dash from Vung Tau to the site of the Australian war time base at Nui Dat and the memorial cross at Long Tan.

Long Tan – two words etched into ANZAC folk law alongside names like Gallipoli, Fromelle, Changi and Kokoda.

I visited Gallipoli in 1997 and being in Ho Chi Minh City earlier this month, I felt the same attraction to see Long Tan – the site of our bloodiest battle during the Vietnam War.

It was a ‘Cheap Charlie’ trip because I didn’t want to take the official $48US Long Tan tour. (Four hours departing at eight o’clock, air-conditioned coach, lunch included along with a collectors edition embroided hat!!!) It wasn’t the money, I just wanted to see and experience Long Tan at my pace. I’d read online that the Long Tan Memorial was on a private property and access is granted only with an official guide. But, I thought: “..this is Vietnam, I’ll take my chances”.

So, arriving in Vung Tau by hydrofoil from Ho Chi Minh City I first rented a motorbike for 200,000 Dong ($11US) and enquired with the taxi drivers about Long Tan? Immediately a guy said Australian soldier’s, then a moto-taxi driver named Trin said he knew where it was and in two minutes we’d negotiated a private tour for 300,000 Dong ($16US). Then we were off … on a ‘Cheap Charlie’ run, without the limited edition hat and no time limits.

Site of the former Australian Army Base at Nui Dat, Vietnam

'Nui Dat' - site of the 1st Australian Task Force base

Thumping along at 50 to 60 kilometres an hour, passing the scenery not too unlike the diggers would have seen minus the paved roads and satellite dishes, in around 45 minutes we’d covered the 30 kilometres to Nui Dat. Now open fields and rubber plantations, there isn’t much to see. Two brown brick columns mark the entrance to the old Australian base. Buried in rubber trees are a couple of brick bunkers and gun emplacements. Trin said later, a cement company called ‘Long Dat Cement’ now owns the area. He says the plan is to remove the soil and gravel to manufacture cement.

Several kilometres away is the Long Tan battlefield.

Riding on, navigating the dirt tracks .. crossing the former base and 20 minutes later a large sign appears in the distance – ‘THAP TU GIA LONG TAN’ – with an arrow pointing to the left it says ‘Long Tan Cross’. The area is rubber plantation country – trees as far as the eye can see. A few minutes along another dirt road and Trin pulls over – pointing into the trees he says: ‘there .. there it is’. 150 metres from the road, is a lone white cross standing tall protected by a metal chain barrier, concrete wall and gate – surrounded by thousands of rubber trees.

Once the bikes are turned off – deep in the middle of the rubber plantation it’s dead quite and in an odd way peaceful. Trin, in broken English says: ‘.. many fighters .. Long Tan fighters .. many were Nui Dat and then Long Tan here .. VC here and ‘Uc dai lam’ (Australian) Army over there .. fighting you know .. boom boom boom .. very very sad .. before .. very sad’. I invite Trin to join us at the memorial, but he declines. Either he’d seen it one time to many or it just wasn’t his thing, it’s a memorial to foreign soldiers.

'Long Tan On Two Wheels'

'Long Tan On Two Wheels'

Walking the short distance from the road, my mind began to think about what the men on both sides went through that afternoon in August 1966. Where did they hide? Did they cover behind that tree or in that ditch? Officially, 108 diggers including three New Zealander’s from D Company 6RAR repelled attack after attack of between 700 and 1500 Viet Cong soldiers. For five hours, frightened, staring death down a gun barrel – they fought for their lives until reinforcements arrived from Nui Dat as night fell on the battlefield.

18 Australian’s were killed during the battle – all between 19 and 22 years old. 40 diggers were wounded. Three of the dead were married, the rest single, seven were National Servicemen called up for duty and the 11 other men were volunteers. Estimates to the number of Viet Cong dead range between 47 to 245, the official number. This higher number is disputed by Terry Burstall, a Private who survived the battle. Burstall claims only 47 VC were killed and around 700 North Vietnamese soldiers took part in the battle, half the official account.

But, do the numbers really matter? Saying we killed 29 or 227 more Vietnamese than Australian’s, does it make the victory more palatable or justified? People were killed – men who had lovers, wives, kids, families, friends and parents. There is one constant is all the battlefields I’ve visited and the same goes for Long Tan too. Years after the fighting’s ended, I always end up asking myself; What was so important about this ground that cost so many lives? Was it worth it?

Trin - Freelance Moto Guide

'Trin' - the freelance moto guide

On the way back to Vung Tau – we stop and grab a ‘café su-nap’ (Vietnamese coffee). I learn Trin is 48, a father of two grown boys and a girl. We talk about life. He tells me how good things are now compared to during the War. ‘We had very little to eat ..’ He says his father was killed by a mortar or bomb, leaving him to fend for himself with his mother. Never given the opportunity to go to school, Trin is now happy – his children are working and studying in Ho Chi Minh City, he tells me. I ask if he has an email address, ‘No’ he replies, ‘but I’ll give you my son’s ..’ . He writes it down and I promise to email his son a few photos and this story.

I saw Long Tan the way I wanted to see it – the wind in my face surrounded by the smells and noises of South Vietnam. Meeting Trin was a bonus. But as I said goodbye and rode off I could almost hear him hymning – ‘Uc dai loi, Cheap Charlie ..’ at the 100,000 Dong tip I’d given him!


This article first appeared on Ninemsn:      http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=1043483 



In Ho Chi Minh City, board the hydrofoil to Vung Tau. Cost is 180,000 Dong ($10US), trip takes one an a half hours. If you plan to return that afternoon to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s worthwhile for peace of mind to buy the return ticket at the same time.

In Vung Tau, you’ll be offered a motorbike to rent by moto-taxi riders as you walk out of the port arrivals building.

Motorbike rental is around 200,000 Dong ($11US) per day.

Enquire with the rental guy or the moto-taxi riders across the road about Long Tan, ask for directions and then offer to pay for someone to guide you there.

It is worth paying the 300,000 Dong ($16US) for a guide. Then you can ride along enjoying the sights without the worry of getting lost!

The old Australian Army base at Nui Dat is approximately 30 kilometres from Vung Tau, less than 45 minutes on a motorbike. The Long Tan Memorial is a few kilometres further on from the base. Allow between three to four hours for the Nui Dat-Long Tan tour. Wear a helmet and don’t be a ‘Cheap Charlie’ , make sure you have travel insurance!


The multi-media video clip ‘Long Tan on two wheels’ was filmed with a Olympus 6 megapixels stills camera using the movie mode.

The photographs and movie clips were first imported into a folder on the desktop and then the folder was imported into Final Cut Express 4.

‘Long Tan On Two Wheels’ was edited in Final Cut Express 4. A sepia effect was added to the finished timeline to compensate for the washed out quality of the original video images, as well as to create a 1960’s era feel to the multi-media clip.

Road To Long Tan

'dirt road enroute to Long Tan Battlefield' Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966



Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966

Site of the Battle of Long Tan, 16th of August 1966


Long Tan rubber plantation

'milking a rubber tree'


'Long Tan Memorial Cross'

'Long Tan Memorial Cross'


Poppies at the Long Tan Memorial Cross

Poppies at the 'Long Tan Memorial Cross'


Directions to the Long Tan Memorial Cross

'Sign directing visitors to the Long Tan Memorial Cross'


Trin - Freelance Moto Guide

'Trin' - the freelance moto guide


March 18, 2010

Illegal Boat Crew - Photo Courtesy Channel Nine

22 alleged people smuggles were flown by a charted plane from Christmas Island to Darwin last night, arriving just after midnight.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans spokesperson Simon Dowding denied the men were being move to the Darwin Immigration Detention Centre to relieve overcrowding at the Christmas Island facility.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship responed with a statement saying – “No, Christmas Island has not reached capacity. Crew transfers to the mainland are normal procedure and happen as needed.”

The men who said the were from Indonesia were escorted by five minders as they walked from the Customs arrivals area at Darwin Airport to a coach parked near a side exit.

Questioned about the conditions at the Christmas Island Detention Centre – one of the alleged people smuggles said .. “It’s pretty good, it’s very good .. (where are you from?) .. From Indonesia.”

The men, believed aged in their late teens to mid-30’s were driven from Darwin Airport to the Darwin Immigration Detention Centre at around 1:30am.

Australia Federal Police will interview the men to determine if they have committed people smuggling offences under Australian law.

According to the AFP website, 118 people have been charged with people smuggling since September 2008.

The offence carried a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and/or a $220,000 fine.


February 6, 2010

Link to a ‘Live Cross’ with Sky News Australia – while covering the ‘Fire Bombing’ of a Territory Insurance Office in Darwin NT, Australia.



'Mopping Up After The Blast'

The first emergency workers to arrive were confronted with a horrible scene.  A dozen badly burnt victims .. clearly in a lot of pain.

(A woman screams) Ahhhh…. it’s hurting even more…

The concrete pavement became a make-shift medical clinic.

(Another woman with burnt arms screams) ‘…. I want to kill him .. ‘

 “I want to kill him” – yelled this woman .. as bystanders tried to comfort her .. frozen peas on her shoulders, trying to cool her down.

 (A Police Officer orders people back) ‘.. Behind over there behind the shelter ..’

 Around 11 o’clock .. witnesses say the fire and explosion occurred – when a man pushed a shopping trolley loaded with three ‘jerry cans’ full of petrol and fireworks through the front door of the TIO Office.

(Water is pouring out of the Territory Insurance Office sprinklers) ‘ .. Shhhhhhhhhh … ‘

The man .. lit the firecrackers and then ran.

(Tim Ryan – Witness) “It was like a number of fireworks going off, maybe like ten twenty like – bang bang bang.”

Six TIO staff and several customers were inside when the home made bomb went off.

Near-by Woolworths employees and shoppers raced to rescue those trapped.

(Steve Cordona – Witness) “.. hectic, hectic, people didn’t know what was going on just waiting for people to walk out the door ..”

Fire fighter’s using breathing apparatus searched the burning office – after reports, someone was still inside.

(Bradley Fong – NT Fire Service) “The jerry cans were still burning as we were entering the building.”

The Crime Scene

'The Crime Scene'

(Phil Rout – NT Fire Service) “Very limited visibility .. um probably only a foot in front of your face.”

St John Ambulance Officers transported 14 people to Royal Darwin Hospital.

Most suffering burns and severe injures to their lungs from inhaling the toxic smoke.

(Dr Len Notaras – Royal Darwin Hospital) “We have 4 people in the high dependency ward suffering burns, the worst to 15% of her body – another half dozen are being treated for smoke inhalation.”

As a precaution ..

(Sound of bomb detection robot driving along) ‘Vhhhhhh…..”

.. the Territory’s Response Section bomb detection unit inspected the area – and gave the all clear.

(Justin O’Brien – piece to camera) “Immediately after the explosion – a local man turned himself into Police at the near-by Darwin Station. He was uninjured – Investigator’s describe him as a disgruntled customer.”

(Commander Colleen Gwynne – NT Police) “This is not a terrorist incident – it was definitely a dissatisfied claimant. We have that person in custody at the moment.”

The Territory Insurance Office is reviewing it’s security procedures .. at the three other Darwin Offices.

(Richard Harding – CEO, Territory Insurance Office) “The key message I want to leave with people is this appears to be an isolated incident. It doesn’t appear to be any ongoing threat as the suspect is in custody.”

Late this afternoon .. forensic investigators removed the shopping trolleys used in the fire bombing.

Police are yet to question a 45 year old man in relation to the fire bombing.


October 13, 2009

Earthquakes are life examining – even if you are lucky enough to escape being trapped in the rubble of a



collapsed building. The first earthquake I experienced, changed my sleeping habits forever.

It was Los Angeles – January 16, 1994 .. 4:34 am.

A 6 point 8 earthquake hit and I remember the terrifying feeling of being left helpless alone in the dark. So, now I sleep with a flashlight or torch beside my bed. In Padang reporting on the recent earthquake – I adopted a new strategy .. each night I hung my clothes over a chair at the door with the hotel room door unlocked! .. ready for a quick escape if it starts to shake.

I might be a robber’s dream come true – but surviving an earthquake is a bit like sport. You want to win! Winning is survival, second place hurts.

Very few hotels were left undamaged – cracks in the walls, collapsed awnings, broken water pipes .. were the norm. The first night, home was the tiled floor of a garage at a nurses residence at the damaged Padang Central Hospital. Laying down alongside Graham Morrison and Erwin Pieterwisz two cameramen I was working with, in the morning we joked that the floor wasn’t that bad once you got use’ta the mosquitoes, the 30 degree heat and the sirens from ambulances bringing in the dead to a make shift morgue 50 metres away.  Other people had it a lot worse – they were sleeping in the grass outside what was left of their damaged houses. I was ‘on the clock’ and would be compensated for the long hours.

Things improved overwhelmingly the next night .. a mattress in a Hotel dining room with 12 other journalists, TV engineers and cameraman. Small things matter and it was a bed, a place to brush your teeth and take a ‘nature break’. I tried to forget the roof panel that was dangling down directly above my head – it was a place to sleep.



The people are what impressed me the most about Padang. Their strength and determination to pick themselves up and get on with it. Five story houses/apartments had been reduced to two stories as the earthquake pancaked the floors entombing anyone who couldn’t get out within 30 seconds.

One of the first places we stopped was a car dealership with an apartment above where the proprietors lived. A mother, father and three kids couldn’t get out and were killed instantly. There I met the only surviving son .. a kid of about 14. Without emotion or hesitation he just told me his parents, brother’s and sister were gone. He was waiting for heavy machinery to come and dig his family out.

At another stop – local rescue workers were digging out the body of a woman, stuck, jammed (I’m not sure of the best words to use) .. trapped between two floors. You could see her in the rubble – long dark hair, yellow pants with a black top. Just 20 meters away was her immediate family and relatives. I cannot comprehend what it must have been like for them – sitting, waiting, and watching. I liken the family members to security guards – they were going to protect the site until their loved one was brought out. It was a scene being played out at hundreds of sights across Padang City.



When I went to Padang Airport to interview the Australian Urban Search And Rescue members 48 hours after the earthquake had struck, I was met by a 60 strong team of Swiss Rescue Specialists along with their dogs. I thought great – they are here to save people. Then I thought .. the Swiss have travelled all the way from Switzerland and the Australian’s haven’t even arrived yet! When the Aussies did arrive, one confided to me privately .. “Yes .. the Swiss’ first thought is humanitarian .. Unfortunately, Australia’s is politics!”

My gig was to be on the lookout for Aussies. Australian’s caught up in the quake. After three days it seemed more and more unlikely any Australian’s had been trapped. We heard of one Aussies’ escape from the Ambacang Hotel, but as I told the foreign editor back in Sydney .. “Mate .. it’s 95% Muslim here – there are no bars or strip clubs .. any Aussies that come to Padang go straight out on boats surfing.” Suffice to say – the only other Australian’s I came across were either Darwin soldier’s, Queensland firies or AusAid reps.



AusAid are a funny bunch on the ground – suspiciously they turned into doves once I mentioned I was from Channel Nine. Australia’s help in Padang is a positive story and it’s Australian taxpayer dollars at work – just tell it. Yet, even the most senior AusAid representative didn’t have permission to speak to the media. I believe it was so the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith could have his moment in the spotlight – it was a pity, because help is help and politics creates delays.

In a sign of how desperate some people had become, at the site of the Australia Army water purification units – locals were pirating the fresh water. The Engineers had placed a bladder or water tank to hold the converted sea water until trucks arrived to transport the fresh water to holding tanks in the suburbs. The people who lived close to the sight couldn’t wait for a holding tank to be established in their neighbourhood so they just syphoned it from the source! It started with one person and a piece of garden hose, then within 30 minutes two dozen men, women and children had arrived with hoses, tins, bottles and buckets – ‘pirating’ the water. The most alarming sight was the condition of the hoses and buckets. Some looked like petrol hoses – one man had two oil drums, to which he explained that he had cleaned them out! ‘Detergent .. Detergent’, he said.

A woman of about 50 years old then attempted to ask if the water was safe to drink? – by rubbing her stomach. I then reached into the five gallon bucket she had filled, scooped out a hand-full of water .. sipped it and gave her a thumbs up! Off she then went, struggling with the bucket between her legs – on her way home.

By Tuesday, people began to get their confidence back again. Slowly shops and restaurants re-opened and the ‘lookie-loos’ came out .. families on motorbikes – Dad driving, son or daughter on the handlebars, another in the middle and Mum on the back. As a Westerner’s, people would smile at us and say Hi, always interested in our equipment. Then one afternoon I understood why? A man speaking broken English came up and said – “Thank you for being here, you will tell the world what has happened to us and we will get help .. thank you for coming.”

Back at our Hotel – six days on, a certificate in a picture frame appeared nailed to the wall near the reception desk. Written in Indonesian, it was a certificate confirming despite the numerous cracks in walls, holes in the roof and the leaking water tank – the Hotel was structurally safe. Even so, I still slept with the door unlocked and my clothes slung over a nearby chair.


April 30, 2009


When I first heard the term ‘Caveat Emptor’ (Buyer Beware) in a business class – I thought ‘cool’ Latin, but having just purchased a second hand Jeep I understand its meaning, in plan English.

         Okay – the 1992 Jeep 4×4 Sport was a bargain. Advertised on ‘Craigslist’ saying it required a new alternator – after a test-drive the Jeep’s owner Daniel Holzman accepted my 12 hundred dollar offer. I returned late the next afternoon, paid his Dad (John) the cash and off I drove into the darkness.

         I got two miles up the road when without warning the radio died, all the lights in the dashboard went out and the engine started to ‘skip’-‘chug’ and ‘stumble’ (It ran great during a test drive the day before).

         Aware I wasn’t going to get far – I started to drive North, hoping to make it to the safer streets of Santa Monica where I could crash park my wounded vehicle. My journey ended 30 blocks later outside an industrial complex at the corner of Olympic and 20th Street.

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Immediately I called Daniel’s father John to explain what had happened. He said quote: ‘Oh .. no .. I can’t believe that. My son wouldn’t sell you a dud – let me speak to him. I don’t want you out of pocket on this .. I want to make this right!’

         In the darkness, I arranged a tow truck then telephoned Daniel Holzman who is working as a chef in New York. ‘Oh ..’ he said .. ‘my Dad did say the lights looked a little dim when you drove off!’ Daniel offered to take the car back – but I liked the car. Then came the statement of truth (Daniel) ‘I thought you would have at least made it home!’ We came to a verbal agreement to reimburse me for the

The Dints Show Character!

The Dints Show Character!

towing and taxi fare home.

         Carlo’s the tow truck driver arrived an hour later and we dropped the Jeep off at Pep Boys workshop. The repairs came to $500.

The next day I left a message on Daniel’s cell phone, telling him I was now on the road and gave a breakdown of the costs for towing and a taxi. He never called me back. So I telephoned John, his Dad. ‘Oh … I’m not taking money out of my pocket’, he said. ‘It’s an issue between you and Daniel’.

Feeling I had been ‘Somali Pirated’ after recounting down the phone line his commitments made two days before, I slipped into LA mode – ‘something along the lines of how was he going to sleep tonight with a crooked back!’

I didn’t pursue the issue after that. I could use the cash, but any funds reimbursed would have had been tainted – sometimes it’s best just to walk away.

But for what’s worth, I did learn a practical lesson no lecturer could ever teach – Buyer Beware or ‘Caveat Emptor’ for those who speak Latin.