First published: 1985
When you write a book about the Vietnam War the story never ends.
Forty-five years after I was there, people still write to me about the War. People I’ve never met visit Saigon and send me photos of the Continental Hotel with my room marked with a cross, or ask if some building in a picture was the Reuter office. Foreign correspondents e-mail reminiscences or check details from the 1960s.
Saigon 1967. I arrived age 25 in Vietnam to cover the war for Reuters. I was befriended by a local reporter, Dinh, who warned me “very quick and easy to be killed”. Dinh knew things that I could not: Vietnam is always too short of fortune-tellers; my Melbourne roommate Bruce Pigott is “not long-live man”; and Heaven hurts fair women for sheer spite.
Faced with the daily US military news briefings where fantasy is put out as fact, I found myself questioning a war that could not be won, and my role in it. My year of duty was almost up when the cataclysmic Tet Offensive changed everything. Four friends were killed.
I finish the book with Dinh’s final revelation that the most trusted and influential Vietnamese journalist in Saigon was, all along, a Viet Cong colonel.
“Hugh Lunn’s description of his term as a war correspondent in Vietnam, culminating in the Tet offensive of 1968 and the deaths of three fellow journalists, makes a moving story, well written, genuine and convincing. The difficulties and frustrations of journalists trying to interpret for readers in countries far distant from the battlefields are recounted calmly, without dramatics. The fantasies fed out daily as fact at the official American army news briefings are described with humour and quiet despair. Hugh Lunn’s writing in Vietnam: A Reporter’s War ranks with some of the best expository prose of recent years in this or any other country.” Judges Report, 1985 Age Book of the Year
“!!!! Exceptional.” Today’s Books USA “Best Reads 2002”
“Powerful, first-hand evocation of the 1968 ‘Tet Offensive’.” Ross Fitzgerald, The Bulletin
“To hell with you, Hugh Lunn. You have tapped some powerful memories. Now I’ll have to read your book again.” Tim Bowden, National Times
“It was this book, and Bowden’s One Crowded Hour, that first got me thinking about being a war correspondent. Years later, I’m now covering conflict…” Michael Ware, while working for Time Magazine as their war correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq
“This is, I believe, as good as anything I’ll ever read about the crunch year in the Vietnam War.” Dennis Butler, Newcastle Herald
“A mind-blowing depiction of a non-combatant in US uniform.” Rosemary O’Grady, Adelaide Advertiser
“Lunn has a fine style, and his descriptions of scenes, events and of people etch deeply on the memory. He is able to convey the excitement of a moment and describe everyday events with a realism and conviction that carries a reader into the scene. His dry sense of humour lifts the book and is a great asset.” Kristen Vizjak, Canberra Times
“A valuable and timely antidote to the rampant Rambo mentality…Hugh Lunn has written about it truly. Even the lies are true.” Mike Carlton, Sydney radio
“Clear-eyed honesty, meticulous fact-finding, and a disarmingly informal style.” Peter Richardson, Sunshine Coast Sunday
“Hugh Lunn, thankfully, has no Rambo-esque pretensions. He is as frightened as most of us would be by booby traps going off, mortars falling…and machine gun fire cutting up the dirt…His book presents in memorable detail exactly what it is like to be a non-combatant reporter in a war zone. More than that, it provides major insights into how news is manipulated and twisted to suit governments and editorial policies…Written in Lunn’s typical laconic and laid back style, it is very easy to read – perhaps too easy as one gets to the end much too soon. But for all the facility of his prose, there is nothing facile about his observations on a reporter’s war. This is an important book. It may well become a classic of its kind.” Ken Methold, Australian Book Review
“An absorbing tale of conflict, subterfuge and errors of judgment… Lunn is an enthusiastic, observant and precise storyteller.” Michael Jacobson, Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin
“Warm, witty, pithy and always entertaining.” Jeremy Fenton, Northern Rivers Echo
“Hugh Lunn’s strength is finding human drama in complex issues.” Melbourne Sunday Age
The night before Dinh was finally to be let out of
Vietnam in 1980 to go to live in Australia, his old friend, journalist Pham Xuan An
invited Dinh around to his house for a farewell drink with
An’s wife, Nhan, and Dinh’s new wife, Vy. Dinh was
surprised to see An’s home was a luxurious former British
Embassy house. He suddenly knew he was with a very powerful
communist figure. Leaving the wives in the lounge, Mr An
took Dinh upstairs and opened a safe in the bookcase with
Mr An turned to Dinh and said, ‘Many rumours said I
am a Viet Cong. I never deny or confirm that. Now I show
you one magazine.’
Dinh recalled, ‘An get out one magazine published in
Hanoi and he show me a picture in there of he and Ho Chi
Minh. It said, “Uncle Ho with Viet Cong hero in the south
Colonel Pham Xuan An.”’ The date was 1969, the year after
the Tet Offensive, when Pham Xuan An was still working
as a reporter for Time magazine in Saigon. ‘Thus he confirm
he a Viet Cong with rank of colonel!’ Dinh said. ‘I surprised.’
Dinh was also secretly angry: ‘How can American win
war? How can ARVN win war? What CIA doing?
Something corruption, black market? He very important in
the war for VC. Any story he have all information he can
give to VC but, more important, he can give American journalist
anti-Vietnam war information.’
Dinh thought that there was no doubt Colonel An gave
the US Embassy information, ‘and not good information’.
So, even as he worked for Time, An secretly visited
Hanoi early in 1969, a year after the Tet Offensive. There
he was photographed with Ho Chi Minh, who welcomed
him as a hero. No one in the West—least of all Time—knew
In fact on 20 June 1969, Time magazine also published
Colonel An’s photo. Standing stiffly between the five animated
American correspondents working in the Time Saigon
bureau was a balding, cigarette-smoking Pham Xuan An.
The photo appeared just above the magazine’s famous ‘Letter
from the Publisher’, which makes international heroes of its
Colonel An was being photographed and feted by both
sides at once: communist and American.
On 27 January 1975, An even earned honourable
mention in Time’s Letter from the Publisher, signed by Ralph
P. Davidson. An and other correspondents around the
world, he said, had been assigned to interview people to get
their predictions for the year 1975. The forecast for Vietnam
in that edition of Time was that ‘…what persists is the same
old “policy of confrontation” that the US pursued…for a
decade. The alternative, “the political solution”, is the only
one that can end the War.’ Three months later, North
Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon.
Dinh did not believe that An was a ‘Genving’ (pure)
communist cadre like Ho Chi Minh. ‘He is really “patriotic
man”,’ Dinh said. ‘He only doesn’t want his country to be
invaded or dominated by foreigner, even if Soviet Union or
Chinese.’ Dinh said the presence of the French and then the
Americans gave the communists perfect opportunities to
mislead not only An, but most young Vietnamese by
appealing to strong patriotic feelings.
Dinh believed that his friend Pham Xuan An played a
leading role in the downfall of the US in Vietnam ‘because
he is a man who contributed a lot for communist side to win
war. He is a person very powerful because anyone scared of
Time magazine. He could let the communist side know what
the South Vietnamese army plan doing; what the Americans
plan doing. That the reason they call him “hero”.’
Which sums up why the US could never win the Vietnam
War: they didn’t know who the enemy was, even if he was
sitting at the typewriter next to them.
It perhaps reveals much about the complexities of the
Vietnam War that, in the end, it was not the Australian
government or influential Reuters who got their faithful
reporter Dinh out of Vietnam but this Viet Cong journalist-colonel,
who acted as ‘guarantor’ for his friend and former journalism
pupil, and used his influence to get him a visa. ‘Because he
work with me so long he know I not pro-American, not procommunist.
I only report. I do nothing during the war.’………..
…My Australian flatmate Bruce Pigott, who was now 23 — two years younger than me — still seemed in a daze. In the last day he had seen a soldier with no legs trying to run to a helicopter. I realized for the first time how much war could change a man. It wasn’t so much the death and destruction, but the mutilation of man and his society. Here Bruce was involved on two fronts: he lived and worked with American troops, and he hoped to become a part of Vietnamese society by marrying Miss Nga. Her religious family had fled North Vietnam as refugees after the partition in 1954. She had been educated at the best Saigon French schools and spoke several languages. She was twenty-one, attractive without being beautiful, open-faced, cheery, and vital. Always trimly and neatly dressed she looked to me like she might end up a businesswoman. Of course Bruce never told me he was planning to marry her, but he did confide this to Dinh.
Dinh had become the focal point of this beautiful love affair between two very young people from very different worlds. And, although Miss Nga could speak English well, the relationship was obviously difficult, to put it mildly, on account of the emotional trauma it caused between the girl and her parents: they could not believe that their perfect Confucian daughter could have fallen in love with a foreigner waging war in their land. So Miss Nga went to Dinh and wanted Bruce reassured; and Dinh looked up the words and assured Bruce that Miss Nga loved him ‘exactly, truly, already’.
Dinh had told me that when I was out of Saigon Bruce would do the nightleads and then ask Dinh to sit with him outside the hot office and look at the trees in the park opposite. Bruce would then ask him detailed questions on Vietnamese customs and history, and also how he would go about marrying a girl like Miss Nga—what he should do for her parents, how to talk to them if he met them, and similar points of etiquette. Dinh was impressed by Bruce’s interest in Vietnamese customs, particularly after enduring the lack of American interest for so many years. “He very carefully man, not like American who hurry up to marry and early to forget. He loves her carefully. He thinking too much because he want he and Miss Nga to live together long time,” Dinh said. He liked the fact that Bruce continually asked Miss Nga to wear the Vietnamese Ao Dai rather than the Western clothes she usually wore as a result of her French schooling. Bruce also worried a lot about the war and the effect it was having on the Vietnamese. “Really he love Vietnam country,” Dinh said proudly. “He has very social heart.”
Next morning Bruce left Pleiku for Saigon while some forty other media people and I boarded helicopters for the remote outpost camp of Dak To, eighty kilometres north of Pleiku and just twenty-two kilometres from Hill 875.
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