There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Hue (1): The Citadel, The Battle of Hue 1968 and Some New Things to Eat: Part 9 of Vietnam North to South

The weather in Hanoi, and the north generally, had often been cool and always been cloudy. Flying more than an hour south should have solved that problem but the weather gods had it in for us. On our last day in Hanoi CNN informed us that the first tropical storm of the season had arrived six weeks early and was battering its way through Ho Chi Minh City. Hue is 600km north of Ho Chi Minh, just close enough to catch the edge. Drizzle and a temperature of barely 20 degrees greeted our arrival at Hue’s tiny airport.

We were met by Vinh and his driver, Mr Thi, who whisked us off in the direction of the Imperial City. We pointed out that we had not yet had lunch. Vinh consulted his documentation. ‘Lunch is not on your programme,’ he said. We suggested that meant he did not pay for it, not that we did not eat it. ‘You did not eat on the plane?’ Vietnamese Airlines in-flight service, we told him, consisted of one small bottle of water.

Vinh said a few words to Mr Thi and we almost immediately pulled in at the Nha Hang Hoa Long restaurant. Pleasantly situated on the southern edge of the city and surrounded by trailing greenery it looked an attractive prospect.

Banh khoai is a small, yellow, rice-flour pancake folded round prawns (tom), pork (thit) and bean sprouts and then fried until it is crispy. Tom Thit is a common combination in Vietnamese cooking and banh khoai is a traditional Hue way of serving it. Dipped in a peanut and sesame sauce it provided an excellent light lunch and we were soon back on track for the Imperial City.

Hue is correctly written Huế. Vietnamese has six tones so each syllable requires a tone mark and in addition many vowels also sport a diacritic so the written language has a lacy frieze of hooks, hats and slashes. The ê indicates an ‘-ay’ sound, similar to a French é, while the acute above it indicates the ‘high rising tone’ (don’t ask).

Hue, as I shall lazily write it, has lots of wide, tree-lined streets, many fewer motorcycles than Hanoi and many more bicycles, giving it a more relaxed feel.

We drove through the so-called ‘European city’ -  narrow streets packed with busy shops, bars and restaurants - crossed the Perfume River and approached the flag tower of the citadel.
The Flag Tower of the Citadel, Hue

In 1802 Gia Long seized the imperial throne, established the Nguyen Dynasty and moved the national capital to Hue. It remained the capital until 1945 when Bao Dai, the last Nguyen emperor, was deposed. Since 1883 the dynasty had survived by (and despite) acquiescing to French rule, but Bao Dai’s willingness to be a puppet ruler on behalf of the Japanese invader was the last straw.

In 1805 an auspicious site was selected facing the river and Gia Long set about building his citadel, a vast moated enclosure with an 8km perimeter wall. Inside the citadel was the Imperial City. A kilometre square, the city contained administrative offices, parks and dynastic temples. Within the city was the royal palace, the Forbidden Purple City. 

Approaching the Imperial City
If that had been the whole story, then what we would have seen was some interesting, though not very old, buildings constructed by a relatively short lived dynasty using a well-established Chinese template.

Vinh thinks I am looking the wrong way
Imperial City, Hue
But that is not the whole story. On the 30th of January 1968, the first day of Tet, the month of the lunar new year, the North Vietnamese launched a series of attacks on more than a hundred towns and cities throughout the south. The biggest and bloodiest engagement of the Tet offensive was the month long Battle of Hue.

At 2.30 in the morning the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army attacked the American headquarters south of the Perfume River, Tay Loc airfield to the north and the headquarters of the 1st Division of the South Vietnamese Army inside the citadel.

Gardens within the Imperial City, Hue

Hue is situated on Highway 1 where it crosses the Perfume River. Despites its strategic importance – the highway was the main supply route from the American bases at Da Nang to the misnamed Demilitarized Zone 50km to the north - it was surprisingly lightly defended. By 8 o’clock the citadel was in North Vietnamese hands and they went on to take most of the city.

The Nine Dynastic Urns, Imperial City, Hue

The North Vietnamese knew they would eventually be pushed out, but their orders were to hold Hue as long as possible. It took the South Vietnamese and Americans three weeks to fight their way through the city street by street. It took them a further week to fight their way into the citadel, finally hauling down the North Vietnamese flag on the 29th of February.
War damaged urn,
Imperial City, Hue

When it was all over between 2500 and 8000 North Vietnamese were dead, depending on whose figures you believe, along with over 200 Americans and 450 South Vietnamese soldiers. Many thousands more were injured. The asymmetry in the casualties was caused by American artillery and air power. They reduced the Citadel and the Imperial City to piles of body-strewn rubble but still the North Vietnamese defenders put up a stubborn resistance

Inside the Imperial City, Hue

6000 civilians also died, the Americans acknowledged that some 2000 of them were ‘collateral damage’, the North Vietnamese admitted executing over 2000 ‘administrators, policemen and tyrants’ and the South Vietnamese murdered a substantial number of ‘collaborators’ afterwards. 116 000 of the city’s population of 190 000 were left homeless.

‘In order to save the city,’ as US marine Captain Myron Harrington observed, ‘it was necessary to destroy the city.’
Inside the Imperial City, Hue

From a military point of view the battle is regarded as an American victory, though as it restored the status quo ante perhaps it should be declared a draw. In terms of propaganda and morale it was an overwhelming victory for the North Vietnamese. The American causalities, though light by comparison with the other participants, were heavy relative to the number of troops they deployed. This was, arguably, the turning point in American public support for the war.

Restored Gate
Imperial City, Hue

Lynne and I were both 17 in February 1968. Watching it unfold on television news, we were old enough to be appalled, but there was little we could do, and anyway it could hardly affect our everyday lives. There were anti-war demonstrations, though I never participated, partly because I was, and remain, unconvinced that demonstrations achieve anything, and partly because I was too young and naïve to understand how profoundly wrong the American intervention was. Had I been American no doubt the threat of the draft would have concentrated my mind powerfully. Harold Wilson, we learned many years later, came under pressure from Lyndon Johnson to send a token battalion or two, if only for propaganda purposes. Wilson is not highly regarded these days, but he got that one right - shame he was not available to advise Tony Blair.
Rebuilt roof, Forbidden City, Hue

Had I been Vietnamese, on the other hand, I would not have had to wait on the lottery of the draft to find out if I was going to be involved. February 1968 apart, the Americans and South Vietnamese held the cities and controlled the countryside by day but the Viet Cong controlled the countryside by night. Both sides were looking for recruits, not necessarily volunteers. Our guide Vinh’s father avoided conscription but three of his brothers were in the South Vietnamese army while the fourth was in the army of the North. Happily all survived and the family is now reunited.

Vinh himself was born during the Tet offensive. His father was a baker in Hue and, unlike the American High Command, was aware that something was going to happen. He took his young family and heavily pregnant wife to the relative safety of Da Nang, where the family still live.
The Forbidden City, Hue

American/Vietnamese relations are now reasonably good and there is an American presence among the tourist throng. Vinh was not the only one of our guides who had worked with Americans, in particular former soldiers who felt a need to revisit their old haunts. Understandably, many of these men come back to face their personal demons. The Vietnamese are sympathetic to that, but more than one of our guides said that he was saddened by returning soldiers inability or unwillingness to look beyond their own suffering and that of their compatriots. The deaths of 58,000 Americans in a futile attempt to save Vietnam from the Vietnamese* was tragic (in the full sense of the word).  The American involvement prolonged what would otherwise have been a short, albeit brutal, civil war by ten years. That prolongation, and the enormous - and indiscriminately applied - American fire power and chemical weaponry resulted in the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million Vietnamese. That was a tragedy on a far greater scale, but according to the Vietnamese we spoke to, too many Americans still do not get it.

In his autobiography ‘Unreasonable Behaviour’, the British photographer Don McCullin, who produced some of the most memorable images of the conflict, wrote: “Years later I went back to Hue and walked through that battleground, where I had been so close to death, where I felt I was death’s permanent companion. It seemed so inconsequential, the whole thing. Those men who died, and those men who were maimed for life, went through all that, and it was totally futile, as all wars are known to be. Without profit, without horizons, without joy.”
Shell shocked US Marine, Hue
Perhaps Don McCullin's best known Vietnam picture

We had spent more than two hours among beautiful old, or restored, or reconstructed buildings, but, as the photographs above have shown, the damaged and unrestored stood alongside. At the start, as we approached the Ngo Mon gate, Vinh had opened his folder and produced a well-thumbed photograph showing two marines running across the space that in my photograph below is filled by a temporary stage for a forthcoming festival. The marines were moving quickly, expecting to come under fire, the gate’s superstructure was broken and shattered. Afterwards I found it impossible to divorce what we were seeing from the devastation of 1968 and it was almost a relief to finally leave the Citadel and head to the Dong Ba market.

Ngo Mon Gate to The Citadel
The covered market next to the bus station is a typical bustling Southeast Asian market. It is all about life, or an aspect of life anyway, which is an improvement on death.

Dong Ba Market
The fruit stalls spilled outside, as fruit stalls often do. Among the unfamiliar offerings were dark green fruits which looked exactly like oranges, except for the colour. When cut open they turned out to be….well… oranges, the difference, as with human beings, was only skin deep. If oranges had been green in the west, the whole history of Northern Ireland would have been different.

Another fruit we encountered was this one….

Mystery Fruit
It was the shape and size of a pear, coloured like an apple but with a slightly waxy skin, and with a recessed base with four divisions like a quince. There was one in the fruit basket at our hotel, so in the interests or research we peeled it and ate it. We decided, though without much conviction, that it was an apple. What it really was we found out when we reached the Mekong delta. For the moment it remained a mystery - though the impatient may click the link and scroll down for all to be revealed.

The evening was filled with steady drizzle. Rather than travelling the mile or so to the restaurant quarter we decided to eat in our hotel. The last time we did this was in 2010 in Rongjiang in Southern China. It was a mistake then, it was a mistake now.

In a vast, almost empty dining room, we were seated and then ignored. Eventually somebody took an order. Then a tour party arrived. They were finishing their set meal when dinner at last turned up for us. I was presented with a plate of duck meat marinated in ginger and lemon grass. It was excellent, but that was all there was. Something should have been said when I ordered it. That might have been an unreasonable expectation in a local café, but in a four star hotel catering mainly for western tourists…..

At breakfast the room was more crowded and the waiting staff much keener to help, in fact too keen. We placed our tea and fruit juice on our chosen table and set off to explore the extensive buffet. By the time we returned our tea and juice had been cleared. Lynne thought it prudent to stand guard over our breakfasts while I fetched replacements.

They did, however, supply us with two foods we had never eaten before. Sapodilla is a fruit native to Central America and the Caribbean, though it is now grown widely throughout the tropics. Only ripening when picked and outwardly looking vaguely like a potato, its sweet brown-tinged flesh has the texture of a pear and a pleasing, caramel-like flavour. Gracilaria is an algae which is widespread throughout the world and is cultivated as a food in Japan and the Philippines. The dark cubes of gracilaria jelly on the breakfast buffet were slightly sweet but with little other flavour. I am not sure how you eat them or what you should eat them with, but I suspect they are full of something which does you good. There would be no point otherwise.

 Thus fortified we set of with Vinh for a full day’s sightseeing….

Have no fear of escalation
I am trying everyone to please
Though it isn't really war
We're sending fifty thousand more
To help save Vietnam from Vietnamese

(Tom Paxton, 1965)

Back to Part 8:
Hanoi (3): The Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh
On to Part 10;

1 comment:

  1. Whereas I doubt I'll ever visit Vietnam, thank you for an excellent sample. Gustatory and historical elements are appreciated.