Here’s part 4 of Myles Stone’s Viet Nam Diary.– a day exploring the former imperial capital of Hue, which combines both ancient and modern history, including stark reminders of the Viet Nam War.
For those who missed Myles’ previous three posts, he’s a Tucson physician who recently spent two months in Hoi An, Viet Nam, with his wife, Aimee, and baby daughter, Mimi. They were joined for part of their stay by my son, Grael, his wife, Nona, and baby son, Conrad.
How did two toddlers do in Viet Nam? Just fine.
I’ll now turn it over to Myles..,
There’s a time and place to eat authentically, but we had been craving a good American diner breakfast for several days, and this was a respectable approximation. Don’t judge us.
Our hotel was about a mile away from the main attraction of the city, the Hue Citadel. The Citadel was the capital city and palace between about 1400 and and 1940 when the area we now know as Viet Nam was run by a series of Emperor Kings. It was a relatively small empire, but an empire, nonetheless.
Like most major cities in Viet Nam, Hue is built alongside a river. This allowed for a series of moats to protect the palace, but it also makes walking the city in modern times a tricky task.
A small fleet of tourist boats has capitalized on that, and it didn’t take long for one of them to convince us to take the easy way through the city.
The boat dropped us off relatively close to the Citadel, and I’m not sure if what happened next was a brilliantly orchestrated scheme to separate tourists from a few bucks, or just a coincidence. But at three different points on our walk, people on the street told us to go right when my map said to go left.
It’s not hard to tell where people are going in Hue. There’s one major attraction, and we were clearly tourists (see above). At first, I was skeptical, but when the third person (a woman running a mango stand) pointed us to the right, I figured that they all couldn’t be wrong. We were on a well trafficked major street, and it’s not like they were pointing us down a dark alley.
In all fairness, the Citadel is huge, and there are several entrances. The strangers may have been pointing us to the closest one, or maybe they were getting a cut from the bike taxis that descended on us, promising to get us to the Citadel much faster.
But today wasn’t our day to find out. We politely declined, and turned back in the direction that the map suggested we go. The bike taxis dispersed.
Maybe I was reading too much into it, but I wondered if they turned away because they knew we were going the right direction again. But even if it was a racket, it was a charmingly harmless one.
That said, the thought of a 60 minute tour of the city in the front basket of a tricycle with a squirming baby on my lap wasn’t particularly appealing.
After just another few minutes’ walk, we reached the main entrance to the Citadel.
The outer wall reveals the military function of the complex, but the inner walls are much more decorative.
But if you look closely, you can see bullet holes from what we know as the Viet Nam War and what they know as the American War.
Hue was one of the hardest hit cities during the war. Not only did its location in central Viet Nam cause it to get caught in a lot of the crossfire, but it was also one of the primary locations of the Tet offensive.
The Tet offensive in 1968 was a major surge by the North Vietnamese army against South Vietnamese and American battalions throughout the country. Most insurgencies (including the one in Hue) were eventually fought back, but at a major cost.
War historians universally point to the Tet offensive as the turning point in the war that eventually led to the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. Cinema fans might also remember the Battle of Hue as a major plot point in Full Metal Jacket.
Military historians and journalists have compared the Battle of Hue to the more recent Battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Both involved high-intensity urban battles, often requiring US forces to go door-to-door in search of enemy combatants.
Likely in the case of both, but certainly in the case of Hue, the drawn out battle was widely publicized and caused popular opinion in America to shift. Many people at home began to conclude that regardless of which side was more justified in its actions, this was going to be a long, messy war, and a lot of people were going to die.
The Toll of Battle
And that’s exactly what happened in Hue. Intense fighting lasted for over four weeks, and about 5,000 civilians died, as did a similar number of North Vietnamese fighters. About 700 U.S. troops died, and many more were injured. It was nothing short of a tragedy all around.
One report said that U.S. bombers were initially instructed to avoid bombing the Citadel during the battle because of its historical value. But as fighting intensified, those restrictions were gradually lifted. The resulting attacks leveled 80 out of 100 buildings in the imperial city, and caused an incalculable loss to our shared world heritage.
But the area is currently undergoing internationally-supported restoration (below), which I see as a sign of humanity’s resilience and general tendency to do what is right. Sometimes it just takes us a little longer to get there.
The rest of the walking tour was both beautiful and bittersweet. It’s impossible to separate the ancient from the modern history at the Citadel, and it was like walking back in time during two different eras simultaneously.
American tanks recovered from the area serve as a striking reminder of the more recent history of Hue.
Our next stop, the Thien Mu Pagoda, is a 200+ year old working Buddhist monastery on a hill overlooking the city.
But equally important to the smaller members of our travel party, the monastery had a lovely grass field. We’ve spent most of this trip in busy cities, so a little bit of countryside crawling went over very well.
Dinner was at a neighborhood restaurant serving a Hue delicacy, Banh Beo. Banh Beo are small rice pancakes topped with a variety of delicate toppings, usually shrimp or fish.
The legend goes that one of the Hue emperors was a very picky eater, and demanded dozens of different courses at each meal. So Hue specialties tend to be small, flavorful bites.
We ordered 4 or 5 different types to try, and then couldn’t help but reorder every one of them again. They were amazing. And of course, the meal included free babysitting.
Hue was a delight. Enigmatic, historic, and extremely tasty. We headed back to the hotel to rest up. One way or another, we had to get two toddlers back to Hoi An the next day.