Blog // Tales from the trail
Similar to many other places located about halfway up (or down) Vietnam, both Hue and its people have suffered at the hands of both the Vietcong and American forces in the intense fighting for control of the region. For Hue the fall was particularly great, both with respect to its previous high as the former capital and ancient city of the Nguyen Lords dynasty (a title lost upon Vietnam's independence in 1945), but also in the lows it bore during the Tet Offensive. This operation saw the communist forces launch a surprising attack and make massive gains in central Vietnam, including the capture of Hue. Worse for the city's residents were that they were seen as Western sympathisers (and therefore a threat) by the north, who undertook a 'cleansing' campaign in what history, outside of Vietnam at least, has recorded as the Hue Massacre. This was followed by a substantial American bombing campaign and a return attack, destroying much of the ancient city in the process of re-capturing it; sadly those in the city that had survived up until this point were then subjected to random revenge attacks by the southern Vietnamese as being northern sympathisers. Ultimately the north won, and other than stifling the past recent history, they allowed what remained of the ancient city (until recently) to fall into neglect, being fundamentally opposed to the feudal system of their ancestors.
Understandably, the people today rather than dwelling on a painful past appear to be looking, if not racing forwards at full speed. Reconstructions of many parts of the lost ancient city and citadel are being undertaken, there's a healthy buzz around the many bars and restaurants in the new town and the family running our guesthouse were hyper-friendly and about the most pro-active hosts one would ever wish to meet.
Unfortunately our time (and visa) was also pressing on, so we were only able to stay a couple of nights in the city, but in Hue style, wasting no time we headed out on foot across the river and into the walled city.
We spent most of the first afternoon wandering the imperial city that surrounds the sizable (approx. 1.5 km²) citadel and also home to a sizable chunk of the local population. Whilst laid out in the rigid grid system, we were pleasantly surprised to find a number of the squares were filled with lakes and other cultivated green spaces; even the area between the inner and outer perimeter walls being filled with allotment type spaces.
Crossing back over the bridge, the old capital's geographical location also started to make sense, the river in front readily protected by a pair of islets located a kilometre up and downstream of the walls and the vast beautiful countryside beyond those. Sadly whilst well suited to resisting a medieval attack it offered little protection against modern warfare and bombing runs, which destroyed most of the ancient buildings.
The following day we explored the citadel itself and with the aid of a trusty moped, some of the surrounding tombs. Despite not many of the buildings remaining, those that did, and just walking around the massive old city, the impression of how beautiful it had once been was not lost. CGI recreations also helped along with the weird and wonderful tales of the ruling hierarchy; with everything from trusted servants and advisors to eunuchs and the head-maid, who selected which lucky ladies got to share the emperor's bed each night, it all sounded a little bit mythical.
The countryside around the city was stunning also, with numerous sites, temples and tombs in honour of previous emperors to find. Was found however, the entrance fees were a little steep for the major sites, and so we opted only to visit Tu Duc's tomb (which looked the most impressive from the tiny pictures in the pamphlet we had). Previously the site had been Tu Duc's retreat, where he escaped the city for some quiet time and contemplative thought-space away from 'politics and troublesome womenfolk' (we assumed these to be his numerous wives, as other ladies were allowed in to the retreat!). Currently undergoing a fair bit of renovation, including the draining of the impressive lake, the charm was still present; also curiously the approach to his tomb was marked with a gigantic stone tablet, commissioned by Tu Duc and inscribed with a critical memoir of his own life, apparently he was a bit of a thinker!
Heading back we got a little lost attempting a shortcut, but thanks to our error stumbled upon one of the many remnants of the war still visible in the area, an old American bunker. These places always seem to fascinate me, but also made me feel a little claustrophobic, and one can only imagine what it would have been like sharing it with numerous others during a war.
Our final day we took a wider spin around the city on some bicycles and the few kilometres up the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda; being the only free attraction it was a little hectic, but we were mostly pleased to be out in the fresh air before our night bus departure later that afternoon. Fortunately only a short trip this time, dropping us off later that evening in Phong Nha, rumored to be some of the most impressive caves in the world!
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