Vietnam in the 1990s - Qantas returns to Saigon - Rusty Compass travel blog

Vietnam in the 1990s - Qantas returns to Saigon

| 15 Apr 2019
, 0 Comment
15 Apr 2019

In December 1990, I was aboard the first post-war Qantas flight to operate between Australia and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). It was a time of profound change in Vietnam and the beginnings of an economic transformation that has continued since. Here’s how the flight came about and why it meant so much.

In the mid 1980s, Vietnamese people might have assumed that four decades of war and poverty would never end. When the US scrambled out of Saigon in April 1975, the country disappeared from international view. But the battle weary Vietnamese faced two more wars in the late 1970s - ending Pol Pot's genocidal reign in Cambodia (from late 1978) and a short violent border war with China (1979).

The post-war period was marked by economic misery too. The damage of decades of war was compounded by failed hardline communist policies and a punishing US trade embargo.

So when the Communist Party Congress convened in December 1986, Vietnam was on the brink of economic collapse, with food shortages, malnutrition and soaring inflation. Vietnam's global benefactor, the Soviet Union, was facing a crisis of its own.

In 2019, it's hard to imagine how bad things were.

The Party Congress responded by adopting major market-oriented reforms known as Doi Moi. They were the first steps towards a process of economic revival, that has placed Vietnam near the top of global economic growth rankings for decades.

The economic reforms also brought a change in the political climate. A new sense of optimism took hold.

The Lismore on the tarmac in Saigon - the first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990
Photo: Mark Bowyer The Lismore on the tarmac in Saigon - the first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990
 
The first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990
Photo: Mark Bowyer The first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990
 
Heading back to Vietnam after years of separation - 1990
Photo: Mark Bowyer Heading back to Vietnam after years of separation - 1990
 
The emotional wait -Tan Son Nhut Airport 1990
Photo: Mark Bowyer The emotional wait -Tan Son Nhut Airport 1990
 
Flowers and ao dais - the first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990
Photo: Mark Bowyer Flowers and ao dais - the first post-war Qantas flight between Australia and Vietnam - December 1990

 

For the million-plus Vietnamese around the world who had left in panic as the US backed South Vietnamese government crumbled, or those who had fled poverty and political repression on boats in the late 70s and 80s, the changes were a sign of hope too.

In June 1990 - at the same time these dramatic changes were occurring - I made my first visits to Saigon and Hanoi. I was working with an Australian publisher that produced an investment guide book, - Discover Vietnam - an Investment guide 1990. We were also in the process of setting up the Vietnam Investment Review business newspaper. They were early days.

An Australian Vietnamese entrepreneur was also visiting Saigon and Hanoi in 1990. Nguyen Anh Tuan was hoping to take a punt on operating Qantas charter flights from Sydney and Melbourne for the large Australian Vietnamese community, keen to take advantage of changes in Vietnam. For most, this would be the first opportunity to reunite with family and friends after a long and painful separation.

Tuan succeeded in negotiating permission with Vietnamese authorities to operate what would be the first post-war Qantas flights to Vietnam and a milestone in relations between former enemies.

An engineer with Air Vietnam before 1975, and a prominent member of Sydney’s Vietnamese community, Tuan’s dream of running charter flights between Australia and Vietnam became a reality on 22 December 1990. In retrospect, it was an extraordinary accomplishment - especially for a man who had arrived in Australia just fifteen years before with nothing.

I managed to score a gig doing PR for the first flight after meeting Tuan, and then worked with him in the years that followed as his charter business grew.

The flights symbolised Australia's early efforts to build business links with reforming Vietnam. We carried a letter from then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who also visited Vietnam in those early years. The fact that the charters were initiated by an Australian Vietnamese community leader added to their significance.

In the early 90s Tan Son Nhut airport was a place of rolling heart-wrenching reunions. There was incredible joy. And there was pain. Reunited families couldn’t contain their emotion. It was a profound thing to see. Millions of Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War - the American one - and it’s estimated than more than 200,000 boat people died at sea trying to escape its aftermath.

Yet for all the tragedy of the past, the overwhelming sentiment in Saigon - that's what everyone still called the city - was optimism.

After touching down, we mixed our time between official meetings and exploring a city I was just getting to know. It may have been more rundown, but the Saigon of 1990 was little changed physically from the one US forces departed in 1975. The welcome we received was incomprehensible given what the country had suffered at the hands of foreigners.

Our hotel was a new arrival. The Saigon Floating Hotel (aka. The Floater) had been shipped up from an unsuccessful stint on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I penned a couple of press releases about the flight and faxed them to Australia (18USD a page) before getting swept up in the excitement of my first Saigon Christmas.

The streets were packed on Christmas Eve as one of the poorest places on earth - a Buddhist and Communist country - gathered to celebrate. I've since discovered that the Vietnamese love a good celebration - any excuse. These days everything from Halloween to International Women's Day will bring out the crowds. And football victories have brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets as long as I can remember.

Saigon Floating Hotel - Ho Chi Minh City
Photo: Mark Bowyer Saigon Floating Hotel - Ho Chi Minh City
 
Welcome drink for the Qantas captain and a Vietnamese counterpart.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Welcome drink for the Qantas captain and a Vietnamese counterpart.
 
Nguyen Anh Tuan was the Vietnamese Australian entrepreneur who made the Qantas charter flights a reality.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Nguyen Anh Tuan was the Vietnamese Australian entrepreneur who made the Qantas charter flights a reality.
 

There were other things to catch the attention of a wide-eyed mid-twenties Australian - the orchestra performing nightly at Maxim’s looked like it hadn’t taken a break since the 1970s, and couples danced the cha cha in near complete darkness in the ballroom at the Rex Hotel.

Cyclo drivers, mostly former South Vietnamese soldiers, would invariably be the best English speakers we'd encounter. They were surprisingly outspoken and loved an opportunity to chat.

There was ample evidence of poverty too - beggars, slums, homeless, amputees. Saigon would still shock.

But the energy of the people was the most remarkable thing about Vietnam - bright, optimistic, resilient, keen to engage, and irreverent. It was a captivating cocktail.

After several years, the charter flights became Qantas scheduled services. I moved to Saigon and started a travel company with a mate from school. The US embargo was lifted by Bill Clinton in 1994, and Vietnam's economic development gathered a momentum that has had only minor interruptions across three decades.


Photo: Mark Bowyer
 


Vietnam by the Book - join me on a special two week tour of Vietnam

Vietnam by the Book is a unique tour I've created focused around 3 books. We use the books to help us explore the stories of Vietnam. We'll see beautiful and historic places, meet amazing people and eat exquisite food. For more, check out Vietnam by the Book from Old Compass Travel.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
Support Rusty Compass
Rusty Compass is an independent travel guide. We’re focused on providing you with quality, unbiased, travel information. That means we don't receive payments in exchange for listings and mostly pay our own way. We’d like tourism to be a positive economic, environmental and cultural force and we believe travellers deserve disclosure from publishers. Spread the word about Rusty Compass, and if you're in Saigon, pop in to The Old Compass Cafe and say hi. It’s our home right downtown on Pasteur St. You can also check out our unique tours of Ho Chi Minh City at www.oldcompasstravel.com Make a financial contribution using the link below. Even small amounts make a difference. Thanks and travel well!

  • Previous
  • Next

There are no comments yet.