26 October 2020

Carl Robinson on love, life, drug addiction and the Vietnam War

  • 26 October 2020

Apart from a small concrete pagoda out the front, there's no hint of the living history inside this ordinary looking home in a brand new subdivision at Calderwood, south of Wollongong.

But when Carl Robinson answers the door, his American accent and the fragrant Vietnamese pho bubbling on the stove are dead giveaways. So, too, the exotic dark wooden furniture inlaid with laquerwork and the Vietnamese antiques in a display case.

It might be unremarkable suburbia outside but inside resides a remarkable love story set against all the drama and tragedy of the Vietnam War.

Carl introduces his wife, Kim Dung (pronounced Kim Yoong) who, at 72, retains a good measure of the beauty which caught his eye back in the 1960s, when he was working for USAID, an American aid agency in provincial South Vietnam.

 

Charged with winning hearts and minds, it was a job which cast a shadow for decades.

"I've been saddled with the CIA thing my whole life, working for USAID which was indeed a cover for the CIA," he says.

"I knew the CIA guys, in fact they even tried to suggest that I work for them. And I said, 'Are you kidding? No.' I was surprised when I came here that people thought that I was a spook."

Carl's life journey - from the Belgian Congo as a child of American missionaries, to university in California and Hong Kong, to South Vietnam in the early 1960s, first as an aid worker then as photo editor for Associated Press, before he fled Saigon when it fell in 1975 and washed up on Australian shores - is set down in an autobiography published last year.

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The Bite of the Lotus came out with no fanfare, which is a pity. It reads like a fast-paced novel, but is so much better for being fact rather than fiction.

It's a hair-raising ride through the history of the Vietnam War. The are many moments of terror, including a close call near the presidential palace in Saigon, an encounter which exposed the perils of being an American in love with a Vietnamese woman at the height of the war.

"It was really hard for me and Kim Dung to go out in Saigon because people were so insulting, publicly calling her a whore and all that sort of bad shit. And these were our allies.

"Going home one night I took exception to these elite airborne troops in the back perimeter of the palace who were insulting my wife.

"Next thing I knew they were poking an M16 in me and a crowd was gathering and people were stopping in the street yelling things and she was screaming and yelling at me, saying, 'Come on, come home.'

"When I got home, I just broke down, saying 'they hate us, they hate us.'"

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Carl describes the book as a personal journey through the entirety of the war, from 1964 until 1975.

"The only hero in the book really is Kim Dung because everyone else is so screwed up," he says.

The cast of characters includes Sean Flynn, the photographer son of Errol Flynn, who journeyed with Carl into the labyrinth of drug abuse, and who disappeared mysteriously in 1970.

Carl is open about his drug use, which began with marijuana and opium and ended with heroin. He carried a small stash out with him when he fled Saigon on a helicopter in 1975.

After that, he never used heroin again.

"A lot of people will find that shocking but I'm quite honest about how that happened," he says. "That was something that I never wanted to cover up, even though I never talked about it."

Carl witnessed some of the key events of the war. After Tet, he quit his job at USAID and landed a job in the Saigon press corps. As an Associated Press photo editor in 1972, he sent out to the world Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a naked Kim Phuc running from a napalm strike, an image emblematic of the Vietnam tragedy.

But Carl bridles at being described as a "war correspondent".

His only real combat encounter was on a visit to Khe Sanh during South Vietnam's ill-fated incursion into Laos in 1971, when the base came under intense North Vietnamese artillery fire. It was there, crowded into a bunker while the shells came in that he was passed a cigarette laced with heroin.

When the end came for South Vietnam, Carl and Kim Dung spent a couple of years in the US before moving to Australia in 1977. That move helped get Kim Dung's family out of Vietnam.

"Australia had diplomatic relations so from the night we arrived here we knew how to get in touch with Vietnam, sending them messages, letters, telegrams, phone calls, packages, money, You couldn't do that in America in 1977. So that sold us on the place."

Carl worked briefly for Associated Press in Sydney before getting a role with Newsweek as a stringer at the same time he and Kim Dung were running a small takeaway shop in Bondi.

His big break came in July 1979, when Skylab fell out of orbit, raining debris all over Western Australia.

"I was suggesting stories and nothing happened until one night the Skylab crashed into the western part of Australia. We had a red phone in this takeaway food shop and it rang and said, 'This is Newsweek in New York. Are you our man in Sydney?' That actually made my career with Newsweek."

After journalism came the Old Saigon restaurant. His Vietnam experience also led to a brief involvement in film making.

He was so familiar with the opium ritual - "I became a 15 pipes a night guy" - that when Kim Dung's friend, director Phil Noyce, began working on the adaptation of The Quiet American, released in 2002, Carl was taken on as a consultant. He coached lead actor Michael Caine in the intricacies of the opium smoking ritual.

While on-set in Sydney Caine and fellow actor Brendan Fraser became regulars at the Old Saigon Restaurant established by Carl and Kim Dung in Newtown.

The couple retired to Berry some 20 years ago. Carl became involved with the local Vietnam veterans and led tours back to old battlegrounds including Long Tan. Part of the tour was to introduce Aussie veterans to their former Viet Cong foe.

"We made sure that they actually did meet. They hit it off. We played interpreter for them but after a few beers it was all just having a good time time being in each other's company."

After Berry the couple moved to Queensland for 10 years before returning to the South Coast, and their innocuous new home in Calderwood.

Apart from toying with the idea of writing another chapter in his life story - about his time growing up in the Congo - Carl is doing some voluntary work with with the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society in Albion Park.

So much living history in a little house in a quiet Calderwood Street.