Vietnam’s truth-tellers renew bonds of friendship

THEAUSTRALIANlogoTHE blood-soaked Vietnam War made war correspondents famous, sent them mad, wounded them, and killed them. Reporters and photographers risked death and mutilation for a key photo, or an eyewitness account of a battle. They could see as much combat as they could endure, they could hitch helicopter rides to hot landing zones; they could go on patrols through rice paddies with the South Vietnamese army, they could lose themselves in a drug-filled haze. The adrenalin of the conflict bound them in bone-deep friendships that have lasted decades.

The veteran combat photographer, Tim Page, who was seriously wounded four times in the war, is one of more than 30 photographers and correspondents who returned to southern Vietnam to commune with journalist friends, and mark Friday’s 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

In the bar of the Majestic Hotel, looking over the Saigon River, Page puts it simply: ‘‘Outside of the fact that Vietnam was a war of so many firsts and lasts — the first television war, the first photo agencies war, the first war with no censorship, the first war the US lost — the war was changed by the media. We were feral. And we told the truth.’’ He gazed round at the men and women who covered the war, which lasted from 1955 to 1975 and claimed the lives of 63 foreign journalists and untold numbers of Vietnamese media professionals. ‘‘Friendships in conflict are stronger than family ties,’’ says Page, who was born British but now lives in Brisbane. ‘‘We formed relationships that lasted. Four of the people who lived in Frankie’s House are here tonight.’’

Frankie’s House in Saigon was a confederacy of lunatics who lived with death, and kept working towards the next scoop. The story of the one-time brothel/flophouse was eventually made into a film, and Page had a legendary role. One of the Frankie’s House friends is Martin Stuart-Fox, an Australian who worked for the once mighty United Press International wire service, first in Laos and then in Vietnam.

He began as a contributor in Laos in late 1963, moved on to a full-time job with UPI and moved to Vietnam in 1965. The war was raging, bombs were falling and the Vietnamese were proving to be a wary and wily foe. Like many of the more intrepid correspondents, Stuart-Fox went on combat operations. At one point he was with the US first air cavalry for six weeks at a stretch. ‘‘We went on various operations just to see what was going on,’’ he says drily. ‘‘Obviously there was cross-fire at various times.’’
Now a respected historian and a professor emeritus at the University of Queensland, Stuart-Fox has written extensively about modern Indochina, including a book on the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnam War was a few years of madness in a reflective and scholarly life.

‘‘One operation I remember, was with the 101st Airborne on the Cambodian border, where a lot of the infiltration of the North Vietnamese were coming in,’’ he says. ‘‘We had to go through the jungle, and creep up to their camp at dawn. But we got lost in the jungle, and finally stumbled into the camp, making enough noise to wake the dead.’’

He makes it sound almost comical, but there must be few things more frightening than trying to move soundlessly through an alien jungle to surprise battle-hardened troops. He remembers when a re-supply helicopter he was flying in crashed, again making light of a hair-raising episode. Stuart-Fox decided to leave Saigon in late 1966, take a year off to travel the world, and start work again in Paris in 1967 (just in time for the massive student uprising the following year).

He wanted to go to Cambodia before he left Asia, but journalists were most unwelcome at the time. Except Stuart-Fox. ‘‘I wrote a letter to Sihanouk,’’ he says. ‘‘The prince said he trusted me enough to make an exception in my case.’’ Once he arrived in Phnom Penh, he met Wilfred Burchett, the notorious Australian journalist, who had been branded a communist and a traitor by some in the Australian press, and who had come down the Ho Chi Minh trail. ‘‘Wilfred and I celebrated his birthday with some very bad Bulgarian red,’’ Stuart-Fox remembers.

Tim Page is quick to say that Stuart-Fox introduced him to journalism in Laos in the early 60s. But neither of them talk about their scoop on the bloody Laos coup when Page allegedly rode his motorbike through an artillery barrage, then hired a boat to get across the Mekong into Thailand, so he could deliver the film and the articles to a UPI office there. Carl Robinson, a Vietnam war correspondent now living in Brisbane, and a friend of Page and Stuart-Fox, worked for Associated Press during the conflict.

An American, he spent his first years in Indochina as an aid worker before moving on to journalism. He and his Vietnamese wife Kim were largely responsible for organising the Old Hacks Reunion in Ho Chi Minh City last week, even though the war scarred him and its essential uselessness upset him. ‘‘I really was traumatised by the war,’’ he says. ‘‘Kim lost some of her family, and some were sent to a re-education camp. We came to Australia after the war, and we’ve been there ever since. I needed a new country to start my life over again.’’

Robinson and his wife opened the well-known Old Saigon restaurant in Sydney before moving to Brisbane several years ago. This will probably be the last Old Hacks Reunion — they are all getting older, and it is getting more difficult to make the trip. So it will be farewell to the scenes of their youth — the fright and the horror; the camaraderie and the adventure, and life with an ancient and alien culture. ‘‘I was never fascinated by the war so much as the country and the people,’’ Robinson says.

Brought up as a missionaries’ child in the Congo, he steamed up the Saigon river in 1964, an idealistic young man. He soon left aid work for journalism, but the glamour of combat never really appealed to him. ‘‘I was totally infatuated with the country,’’ he says. ‘‘The war was a horrible intrusion on things. I hated what the war was doing to Vietnam. I guess I was a JFK idealist.’’