When economics student Binh Tran-Nam arrived in Townsville in 1973, he experienced a quiet country town, still without a casino, without an aquarium and mostly without tourists. This is the story of Binh falling in love with Australia and its people.
Binh Tran-Nam originally hailed from Vietnam and he came to Townsville as a Colombo Plan student. During his four years as a Bachelor of Economics student in Townsville, Binh lived at University Hall, which was a surprisingly progressive place at that time.
“Male and female residents stayed in different wings of the building, but on the first floor there was a wing where both male and female residents could stay together,” Binh says.
For him as a Vietnamese, it was quite surprising to see that men and women were so comfortable in each other's company.
“In particular, the girls could stand very close to boys when they spoke. In Vietnam, only girlfriends and boyfriends stay close when they talk,” he explains.
Aussie mutton – not everyone’s cup of tea
Binh liked his room at University Hall, as it was quite spacious and had a semi-circle balcony. Some of the food that was served there, however, was somewhat less enticing.
“I disliked, in particular, mutton often served at dinner,” he says. “For me, the taste of mutton was too smelly.”
It was a relief for him that Townsville had a Chinese takeaway near Nathan Plaza (now Stockland Shopping Centre). The Chinese restaurant was Binh’s go-to place whenever mutton was on the menu. He would use a friend’s car to get there, and later he bought a little Honda motorcycle to be more independent.
There was one upside to dinner at University Hall, though: “We were given wine, cheap wine. I once drank too much and got a terrible hangover the next day.”
Beer drinking and cross-dressing
Of course, Australians have always loved their beer – and not only the men!
Binh says he vaguely recalls that beer drinking competitions were regularly held in the Student Union building. He also remembers that “at that time it was quite popular for men to dress as drag queens at dancing parties”.
There were quite a number of parties held at University Hall, where Binh was living. One morning after a party, Binh remembers that “I ran barefoot to the lecture theatre where the test was held and just made it in time.”
Inviting Australian culture
There was a lack of cultural diversity in Townsville in the 1970s.
Most of the residents at University Hall, Binh remembers, were “white Australians, and many of them children of Italian and other European immigrants, coming from all over Queensland”.
“They were warm and friendly and I learned so much from them, both in terms of language and Australian culture,” he says.
Georgie Ridge, the secretary of JCU’s Geology Department, played a special part in his life as a student in Townsville.
“Georgie took good care of me and the other overseas students,” Binh says. “She introduced us to family life in Townsville: quiet, simple, peaceful and, of course, the Australian barbecue.”
A new suit for graduation
Binh Tran-Nam graduated in 1977 with 1st class honours and a university medal. At that time, he was already working on his Master’s degree in economics at ANU in Canberra.
“I did not have much money then but spent a bit to buy new clothes and an air ticket to return to Townsville for the graduation.”
There was also another reason why Binh went back to Townsville.
“I was very happy to see my old teachers,” Binh says. “Especially Professor Harris and the late Dr Peter Corssman, and my friends again.”
Today, Binh Tran-Nam holds double appointments as Professor at UNSW and RMIT University Vietnam. He is also recognised as a leading tax academic in Australasia.
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