The motorbikes swarmed round us — angry hornets piercing Hue’s late night.
Each rider carried a passenger: a young girl in heavy make-up and tiny skirt. Portable hookers.
In broken English they started yelling; all desperate to have their offer heard.
I looked at Jason and we both started laughing. It was the only thing to do. We were drunk, lost, and now being accosted by pimps on motorbikes.
It was a strange welcome to Hue, the former Imperial Capital, and the site of the Vietnam War’s most ferocious battle.
In any other country this might’ve been bizarre. By now I’d come to realise that this was just another night in crazy Vietnam.
The Hai Van Pass
We reached Hue by taking the train over the legendary Hai Van Pass.
Our locomotive had crept up the jungle-covered mountain while we admired the turquoise water lapping the beaches far below us.
The carriage’s salt smeared windows ruined any photo-taking, but the memories stuck. It was one of those rare moments where the journey meant just as much as the destination.
I was starving when we eventually arrived in Hue. By the roadside an old woman spooned us rice-soup from an old iron pot. Hue’s food is famous and this introduction did not disappoint. In fact, it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had.
That evening we watched the sunset over the Perfume River. Beside us, a noodle-vendor washed his pots in the river’s murky water. I ignored this transgression. Ignorance is bliss.
I’d been interested in Hue for a long time due to its importance in Vietnam’s recent history.
On 30 January 1968 Vietnam erupted in an inferno. Communist forces swept the country, attacking more than 100 towns and cities in a surprise strike called the Tet Offensive.
Hue was captured by the Communists, and the battle to retake it was the bloodiest of the Vietnam War.
But this might have been avoided. Hue’s role as Vietnam’s cultural and intellectual centre had spared it from destruction prior to the Tet Offensive. It had also been the capital of Vietnam’s imperial family, the Nguyễn dynasty, until their abdication in 1945.
But this good-fortune ended in February 1968. The Battle of Hue devolved into brutal close-quarter combat, the sort which sees men fighting house-to-house with grenades and daggers. The Americans grew desperate as the Communist defence held. Bombing and artillery strikes were intensified to drive the Communists out.
This violence destroyed much of Hue’s ancient city, pulverizing the heritage and leaving many families homeless. After the battle one American soldier remarked, “did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?”
But there was more tragedy. In an incident shrouded in controversy, between 2,800 and 6,000 civilians were murdered by Communist troops. Some victims were even buried alive. These mass executions were viewed as the cleansing of society, another terrible episode in this bitter war.
Ultimately, the Battle of Hue became a turning point. Although the Communists were defeated, the American public’s resolve was crushed. The Tet Offensive had shown that contrary to the Government’s claims, the United States was not winning the war. As 1968 became the war’s bloodiest year, the American public made it clear that they they wanted out of Vietnam.
All the while, Hue lay in ruins.
Remnants of an Imperial city
Knowing Hue’s tortured history, I was anxious to see it with my own eyes. We headed to the Imperial City, which makes up a large part of Hue.
Like Beijing, Hue also has a Forbidden City, but the comparisons end there. Out of 160 original buildings, only ten survived the fighting in 1968. Empty green fields lie where regal buildings once stood.
Surrounding the Imperial City are the walls and moat called the Citadel; archaic military technology which offered no protection in the modern-era.
Bullet-holes litter these walls, deep scars that time cannot erase. Some are the size of a fist, the brutal marks of a .50 cal. These walls now stand as a memorial to the men and women who needlessly lost their lives here.
I left the Imperial City with a sense of melancholy, wondering how it might’ve looked had history taken a different course in 1968.
The pimps sensed that the drunk foreigners were not new clients. They flew off into the night like the vultures they were.
We ambled back to our hostel, conscious of the looming train-ride to Hanoi the next day.
I knew that my stop in Hue had been far too short; that I’d missed out on seeing so much. I was dissatisfied, with many questions unanswered.
Like Vietnam itself, Hue was a place I’d have to return.
Would you like to visit Hue? Does Vietnam’s history interest you? Leave a comment below