Ghosts of Hue

by aengelson | November 5th, 2010

The Vietnam War slouched into my consciousness again.

It happens every once in a while for me. This time it came during a visit to Hue and Quang Tri province.

(Click on this link or any picture in this post to see more photos.)

A gate at the Citadel, the old imperial capital of Vietnam.

My in-laws are visiting, and I agreed to accompany them to Hue, in central Vietnam. The main reason for our visit was to see the offices of Project RENEW, a nonprofit organization working to clear unexploded ordinance and help the people of Quang Tri deal with the deadly legacy of the Vietnam War. We also worked in a day in Hue to see the sights.

I’ve blogged in more detail about our visit to Project RENEW in a later post here.

We arrived on a very early flight from Hanoi. The staff at the Orchid Hotel welcomed us around 7:30 a.m. with coffee and breakfast. As we ate with bleary eyes, the staff teased us and joked with us–I think their teacher in hospitality training was a  stand-up comedian. They were actually quite fun, and the rooms were fantastic–I’d highly recommend the place if you’re planning a visit.

Eating banh khoai at Lac Thien restaurant, Hue.

Most of our first day consisted of walking in the pouring rain and fending off the predatory cyclo drivers following our every step in their pedicabs. We took refuge from them in a cafe and I introduced the In-Laws to the industrial-strength wonders of Vietnamese coffee. Then after more soggy wandering, we eventually found the Citadel and poked around for an hour or so.

The vast Citadel is where the emperor of Vietnam ruled from from 1802 until 1945. Clearly, it was once a grand and opulent place. There are glimmers of its former glory–intricate porcelain roof mosaics, gilded throne rooms and a few elegantly rotting French-era villas. But it was mostly gone, in disrepair, or under reconstruction.

And that’s thanks to the American War. I spent my evenings in the hotel room reading online about the Battle of Hue and the Tet Offensive. It was a grim and grueling battle. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, the North Vietnamese army seized the historic city from a mostly South Vietnamese defense force. Then the U.S. Marines arrived to try to recapture the town. The fierce battle inspired the famous question from a Marine captain “Did we have to destroy the city to save it?”

Watching old CBS footage on YouTube, I could spot some of the landmarks I’d seen during the day in the imperial city: the bricks of the Citadel–and Le Loi street, which the three of us had strolled down in the pouring rain walking past banh my sellers and tourist art shops. Strange to think that forty-two years ago this was the site of bloody urban house-to-house combat.

The Marines eventually retook the city, but at a high cost, both in lives, injuries and–most importantly–the American public’s waning confidence that this was a war worth fighting. There are no memorials here to the fallen Americans. And the city has been rebuilt. The Citadel is slowly being reconstructed. But there’s something haunting about the city. If not because of the soldiers on each side who perished, then perhaps from the thousands of civilians rounded up by the North Vietnamese and executed for cooperating with the Americans. There may be an impressive imperial history here, but the darker, more recent history is what lingers for me.

Entering the wartime tunnels at Vinh Moc, Quang Tri province.

Still, Hue is a pleasant place and quieter than the bustle of Hanoi. There are restaurants and hotels and bars and a vibrant market bursting with fruits and vegetables and raw chickens and chili and garlic. We noshed on sweet breadfruit and I was talked into replacing my tattered wallet by a cheery, persistent saleswoman. Elsewhere we ate the specialties of Hue, including bun bo Hue, and banh khoai, a kind of pancake/taco filled with pork, shrimp, and fresh herbs, covered in peanut sauce. We sampled other dishes, some good and some more challenging (those whole little fish baked in a spicy, salty caramel sauce were too much for the folks from Denver).

Throughout our brief stay, the war was definitely on our minds. I was traveling with two people who were young adults during the war. And they had friends who died in the war. On the second day of our trip, we traveled to the town of Dong Ha to meet with the staff from Project RENEW, who are clearing the millions of pounds of unexploded munitions that still kill people every year. After that visit, we took a trip to the tunnels at Vin Moc, where troops and civilians lived on the edges of the Demilitarized Zone (which was anything but demilitarized). The tunnels here were bigger and more extensive than those at Cu Chi, and served as living space for those taking shelter from the storm of artillery shells and bombs.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe that knowledge and memories can haunt a place. And Hue, by that definition, is most certainly haunted.

5 Responses to “Ghosts of Hue”

  1. Great description of Hue, and with the cloud cover the place gets it isn’t hard to imagine the lingering ghosts.

    I would make one comment, the “we had to destroy the city to save it” is most commonly referred to a military officer discussing Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta (though there is some speculation that it was never said at all) which also was heavily infiltrated but not nearly as long as Hue, and also without the strong symbolism that the capture of Hue brought to the Vietnamese of the day.

    Really enjoyed reading!

  2. Hi Andy,

    Pity that we missed to go to Khe Sanh and other former bases along Route No9 which surely brought you and your in-laws more understanding about the Vietnam war and its aftermath since our time was so limited. Hoping another time when you are here, and i am willing to take you and other your interested friends there. Tet was the special time for us and to some Nam vets as well. Wishing you and your parents in-law are doing alright and i long to see the book you are writing soon.
    Contact me if you and your friends are interested the sites around DMZ.

    Email: phurenew@gmail.com
    Cell phone: 0935211281

    Keep in touch,
    Phu

  3. aengelson says:

    @Phu:
    Thank you SO much for generously showing us around Quang Tri and helping us learn more about Project RENEW. I will be writing another post specifically about your organization’s work, I admire all that you’re doing.

  4. We were educated when we visited Vietnam in 2008…it is the “Vietnam War” here but to the Vietnamese, it is the “American War”.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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“I suppose I am dull about many things,” said Dorthea, simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”
“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will, impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.”
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