Asia

Vietnam allows Australia's Long Tan war ceremony

File photo shows an Australian war veteran wearing a helmet commemorating the battle of Long Tan Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption File photo shows an Australian war veteran wearing a helmet commemorating the battle of Long Tan

Vietnam has granted Australians restricted access to a battle site in order to mark the 50th anniversary of a bloody incident in the Vietnam War.

More than 1,000 Australian veterans and their families travelled to Vietnam to commemorate the battle of Long Tan.

A commemoration ceremony, gala dinner and concert remain cancelled.

Eighteen Australian soldiers and hundreds of North Vietnamese fighters died in the battle, deep in southern Vietnam, on 18 August 1966.

Local sensitivities are thought to have been behind the sudden decision to stop the event going ahead.

Police blocked access to the site, which is on private land, without explanation on Wednesday.

Leaders speak

Australian Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan confirmed that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc spoke on Wednesday night.

"As a result of PM Turnbull's urging for the Vietnamese government to show empathy and compassion towards our veterans and their families who have travelled to Vietnam, the Vietnamese government has decided that they will allow a wreath laying at the site," he told the Nine Network.

"They will also allow groups of up to 100 to visit the site and pay their respects."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Australia had ended its involvement in the war by the time Saigon finally fell in 1975

An official party involving the ambassadors of Australia and New Zealand will lay a wreath at the site.

Visitors to the site are not permitted to wear medals or uniforms, carry banners or make speeches.

What was the Battle of Long Tan?

Fought in a rubber plantation in the southern province of Phuoc Tuy on 18 August 1966, the Battle of Long Tan was the costliest battle for Australian troops in the Vietnam war.

Around 100 Australian and three New Zealand troops held off a Viet Cong force estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000 men in size. The most intense part of the battle lasted three-and-a-half hours and took place in a heavy storm.

The Vietnamese force was finally driven away by several waves of reinforcements in armoured personnel carriers, securing a victory against the odds for the Australian troops.

Eighteen Australians died and 21 were wounded. At least 245 Vietnamese troops were killed in the battle.

In 1969 a cross was established at Long Tan to mark the battle. Except for one French monument, it is the only place in Vietnam where a foreign memorial has been allowed.

'Be grateful'

War historian Mat McLachlan suggested that the high profile of the event may have led to its cancellation.

"They've allowed us to do it but on the proviso that it was very low-key. We should be relatively grateful that they've allowed us to do that," he told the ABC.

"I think the problem this year is that we made a bit of a mistake, we tried to make it too much of a song and dance, and eventually the Vietnamese just decided enough was enough."

Meanwhile hundreds of people have gathered at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to commemorate the battle.

Brendan Nelson, the director of the Australian War Memorial, said he hoped Vietnam would loan Australia the Long Tan cross, a monument that troops erected at the battle site.

"Several years ago we had the privilege to have the Long Tan cross on loan to the Australian War Memorial. I would very much like at some point for the Vietnamese Government to allow it to return on loan here."

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