Hue Trip

June 30, 2010 - Hue, Vietnam


Today David had his photo taken in front of a gas station. So what, you might say. Well, the gas station is on the old Ho Chi Minh trail!!! More on that later.

We met interpreter Tho and driver Vu at the hotel at 8 a.m. for our trip to the ancient, imperial city of Hue (pronounced way), the nation’s former capital and home of its emperors. Bo Dai, a playboy, was the last in a long, long line of emperors. He abdicated in 1945, after having made off with a considerable amount of money given him by Ho Chi Minh to buy weapons to fight the French. He died in 1999 or thereabouts. He is buried in Paris. The Vietnamese people didn’t want him back, and that includes communists and non-communists. He was reviled, to put it mildly.

David was still upset as we headed off Wednesday because of the anti-Marine harangue he received Tuesday by the woman in the village at the base of Hill 55. What he didn’t know until debriefing Tho a little further today is that the woman’s father, a Viet Cong soldier, was killed near Hill 55 by an American mortar round fired from Hill 55.

Units from David’s company patrolled around Hill 55, and he could very well have, during a firefight, called in the mortar support that cost the woman’s father his life. Today, she collects a veterans’ pension from the Vietnam government. David now understands the woman’s anger.

Tho had told her: “Viet Cong not bad. Americans not bad. Only history is bad.” I think he meant: “Get over it.” But it’s hard when you’ve lost a loved one. She’s 50 now, and was around 8 when her father was killed –- if we understood her correctly. But it’s definitely in that range.

Danang is bordered on its north by Danang Bay, where David’s platoon guarded the Esso plant for a week in the fall of 1967. The big gas tanks are still there – a little rusted – along with the hilltop the overlooks them and where the platoon was billeted. The hilltop overlooking the gas tanks now has a little, official looking building on it, flying the red and gold star flag. The area is now some sort of military installation. Because of that, we could not stop our van and get out, but we took photos as best we could from the van as we travelled along.

The Esso plant was as far north as David served in Vietnam. The beautiful, spectacular Hi Van Pass begins just around the bend from the Esso plant. The pass follows a winding road -- built by American Navy Seabees in 1966 -- up the mountains, through the mountains, and down the mountains. It’s the first any of us had seen the Hi Van Pass and we were duly impressed.

Equally impressive was how the drivers managed to get around slow-moving trucks, as we maneuvered over the twisting, mountainous road. Car drivers stuck behind the trucks just pulled out and passed, even on curves. The double-white lines on the two-lane blacktop meant nothing. It’s a road version of the survival of the fittest – the larger your vehicle, the more right you have to the road. Funny and scary at the same time. One thing, though: Everyone obeys the speed limit. You lose your license if you get caught speeding three times. To get it back, you have to go to a safe-driving school and pay a fine equal to $1,200 in U.S. dollars, which can be a year’s salary.

Once through the Hai Van, we passed the old Marine air base in Phu Bai, about 10 miles from Hue. The base provided air support for Marines that fought near Hue and at Marine firebases along the DMZ – the old demilitarized zone between what was then North and South Vietnam. Today the base is a large industrial park, and the old airfield is now Hue’s airport.

Our first stop in Hue was the ancient Citadel, which contains the Imperial City -- the palaces, sleeping quarters, royal offices, administrative offices, and mandarin quarters of the emperors. The Citadel also contains structures built in the 1800s and early 1900s when Hue served as the capital.

To visit we went along the beautiful, tree-lined boulevard Le Loi in Hue proper and, across a bridge on the Perfume River, a natural obstacle in the old days. Then, you cross moats and go through a gate in the Citadel’s 30-foot thick, 10-foot high walls, across more moats and another, thinner wall to reach the Imperial City – sometimes called the Forbidden City --within the Citadel. These fortifications not only protected the ancient emperors from invaders, but also more modern invaders.

The Citadel saw the worst fighting of the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army invaded Hue on January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. It took the Marines 25 days to dislodge the NVA from the Citadel and sections of Hue proper across the river. Many historic structures within the Citadel were damaged or destroyed as the Marines and NVA fought building-to-building and wall-to-wall.

Today, with help from UNESCO, the Vietnam government is restoring the Citadel, and it is now listed as a World Heritage Site.

The Citadel is vast – 520 hectares surrounded by the 10-kilometer outer wall.

The Citadel’s most dominant feature is the Cot Co, a flag tower, on its southern wall, facing Hue proper. It was from the Cot Co during the Tet Offensive that the NVA registered a propaganda coup by raising the NVA flag over Hue. It’s also why the Marines, at the urging of the South Vietnamese government, fought so hard to fight through the Citadel and reach the Cot Co.

Today, David had his photo taken at the Cot Co, where the communist flag flies high, as it did during the Tet Offensive.

From the Citadel we visited a beautiful, ancient Buddhist monastery, still in use today. To our surprise was a modern relic of note -- the Austin car used by Thich Quang Duc as he travelled the countryside rallying Buddhists against the Catholic, anti-Buddhist government in Saigon. His protests in 1963 brought international coverage when, in Saigon, he got out of the Austin and set himself on fire, leading a few months later to the ouster of the corrupt Diem regime.

On our way from Hue (no pun intended) we stopped at the Mausoleum of Khia Dinh, the second to last emperor and father of Boa Dia, the last emperor. It was constructed over 11 years – 1920 to 1931, and reflects both Vietnamese and French influences. Khia Dinh was a puppet of the French and liked all things French. His tomb is spectacular, up 130 steep steps and “guarded” by sculptures of military and civilian mandarins.

The heat was oppressive today, and we decided to head home rather than visit additional temples and tombs.

Vu took a shortcut to the west of Hue, which turned out to be a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the infamous – or famous, depending on your political view – route that brought military supplies from the North to communist forces in the South during the Vietnam War.

The trail is actually 10 trails – a main north-south trail along the borders of Laos and Cambodia, and nine spurs that reached inland into various sections of South Vietnam. The spur to Hue ran west to east from the main trail, and later twisted south to a couple of kilometers west of the Phu Bai Marine base.

The Vietnam government paved this spur in 1996, and today it is known as Ho Chi Minh Avenue.

Tired and hot, we called it a day after some “trail” photo ops. The tunnel saved us a half hour, making for a return trip of two hours.

Unfortunately David was attacked by a painful heat rash on the return late in afternoon on the way back from Hue. The sun and heat here are very intense and it got the best of him.

Mark and Wendy enjoyed their last meal here. Mark has been the adventurous eater and tonight was no exception. A couple of days ago he discovered that he could order from the Vietnamese menu (vs. the tourist menu that they give most diners). He has tried fish bladder soup, seafood hot pot (quite a spread), beef pho (pho is a soup typically served for breakfast and Mark has eaten every morning at the buffet), and lotus flower salad. Tonight he had squid salad and frog legs! He said the frog legs tasted like……….CHICKEN of course.



Alternating Communist and Vietnam Flags Waving
Thien Mu Pagoda
At Thien Mu Pagoda
At Thien Mu Pagoda

1 Comment

Uncle Jim:
July 2, 2010
This a very exciting read. Probably the most interesting thing I've done on the internet since I discovered it.
Thank You So Much!
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