Capital city of VN for almost 150 years from 1802 until the last Nguyen dynasty emperor abdicated to the Communists in 1945, Hue, with lots of beautifully treed streets and parks has a very different, softer, more relaxed feel to the more bustling other major cities. But even with a modest population of about 400,000, at peak times of day the density of motor bike traffic in the city streets becomes frenetic, like everywhere else.
Unlike Hanoi and Saigon, I think I’ve been drawn to visiting Hue ever since it was a focal point of TV and press reportage during the 1968 VC/NVA “Tet Offensive”. The heavily fortified Royal Citadel was occupied for 3 1/2 weeks, by three thousand communists ordered to fight to the death. With assistance of double agents inside the Citadel, the substantial fortress walls were breached by tunnels. In Hue city, over 2 1/2 thousand local officials, merchants, government workers, priests, and intellectuals were assassinated – “being lackeys owing blood debts”. All-up until the Citadel was retaken after being heavily bombed into submission by the US – over 10,000 people were dead – mostly being civilian casualties. The publicity given to the events at Hue and the breaching of the US Embassy in Saigon proved to be the turning point for US public opinion about this war, with active resistance against the war then beginning to escalate.
None of the atrociousness at Hue is evident today. The massive citadel wall structure (including moat) has been much restored, with work continuing. The scale of the various rebuilt enclosures, Royal pavilions and residences is awe inspiring.
Elsewhere close to Hue are impressive pagodas housing tombs of various Nguyen Emperors – some regarded favourably – others less so due to their subservience to the French colonialists.
My 23 year old guide in Hue is betrothed, and saving to afford a modest wedding. Somewhat amusingly, he refers in conversation to his ‘wife’ (not fiancé). He has an excellent command of English – with a clipped accent. Both he and his ‘wife’s’ families are from Hue, and both of them now flat independently in Danang. While seeing each other almost daily, he being a strict Buddhist – she apparently less so (something that concerns him) abstinence prevails in their relationship. Her family were at first very unhappy at the prospect of this match, as his deceased grandfather had very bad standing in the community, being a habitual gambler. He escaped his creditors only by running away to join the NVA. His father was arrested at a Buddhist anti-government protest and severely beaten-up in prison. Consequently he joined the VC and was lucky to survive having been badly wounded. His life was saved by surgery performed in China.
My guide is a very serious young man, claiming no vices, believing in reincarnation. He considers in his immediate past life that he was a mature, and wise old man – explaining the discipline he is able to exert in his life today – and the fact that he has few friends amongst his contemporaries.
His mother ‘got religion’ at age 70 and now visits a pagoda 3 times a week. Both his sisters pray at a prestigious Buddha temple each weekend. They burn incense above plastic water bottles as they offer prayers for health & happiness, then drink the enhanced water when the incense is gone. None of the family make a major decision without first consulting their ‘Fortune Teller’.
As everywhere in VN, the food is good quality, except that today I had a stir-fry dish with the meat described as ‘Aussie Beef” – unfortunately it was quite tough. I also saw “Aussie cherries” advertised at a street stall, but didn’t sample them or check the price.
Must get to Hue next time. You are becoming a compelling travel writer. Traveling alone tends to sharpen observation and curiosity.