Friday, 4 January 2013

Hue - Palaces, Tombs and Agent Orange

Building within Hue's Imperial City
We arrived in Hue at about lunchtime on the overnight train from Hanoi and the first thing that hit us was the relative heat;  it was sunny and very humid.  Our original plan had been to walk to our hotel stopping off on the way for a coffee or two but, after chatting to a very nice taxi driver and sweltering in the unfamiliar heat, we decided that it was probably too far with our backpacks.  So we stumped up the $3 fare and arrived in relative comfort 10 minutes later.  We both agreed it was the best $3 we had spent so far.

Hue was much quieter, relatively speaking, than Hanoi.  The road where we were staying followed the southern bank of Perfume River which splits the town.  Much of the tourist trade lies to the south of the river with the Imperial City lying to the north.  The roads were generally wider, giving the impression that there was less traffic, and the warmer weather made for a more laid back feel.

Entrance to the Purple Forbidden City
At lot of our time spent in Hue was doing our usual wandering around.  We found a few nice restaurants where beer and food was cheap but delicious.
On our first full day we wandered across the river to the Citadel which surrounds the Imperial City, along the way refusing the endless invitations to take an hour long city tour on a cyclo. 

The Citadel is the name for the city walls and moat which enclose the Imperial City built by Emperor Gia Long, and it houses a sprawling royal complex including the Purple Forbidden City, not unlike the Forbidden City in Beijing, but not nearly as restored and nowhere near as busy.  

Part of the Imperial City
Emperor Gia Long was the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.  He made Hue his home starting building on his Imperial City in about 1804, two years after he seized power.  He is also said to be single handedly responsible for the culinary delights to be found in Hue – it is rumoured that demanded 50 dishes prepared by 50 chefs at each meal.  He clearly liked his food!

The Nguyen dynasty ruled Vietnam until the middle of the last century but by then had ceased to be used by the Royal family and the Imperial City had fallen into disrepair by this time, being nibbled by termites and damaged by cyclones, but nevertheless it remained impressive.  However, during the Vietnam War in the Battle of Hue in 1968 when the Viet Cong attacked and seized most of Hue city, the buildings within the Citadel were all but destroyed despite orders to refrain from bombing the area, and only 10 out of 160 buildings survived intact.    

Sympathetic restoration at the
Purple Forbidden Palace
Many buildings were flattened and you are only able to see their footprint along with traces of the ornate floor tiling which once graced the rooms.  Some buildings are ruins and crumbling further as time passes, but some impressive buildings remain.  There is currently a comprehensive restoration programme taking place, but even as it stands it is a beautiful and atmospheric place to visit.

Much of the decoration of the temples and palaces has a Chinese twist (probably due to the fact that China ruled Vietnam for much of the first millennium).  It was only relatively recently that the language was romanised and you still see Chinese characters adorning many buildings.  

The Vietnamese also create ornate mosaics which, on closer inspection, looks like they have smashed Granny’s best China service along with a few random plates and a few wine and beer bottles, and used the fragments to depict various scenes, and for general decoration with real artistic skill.

We spent a few hours wandering around and while there were a handful of other western and lots of Vietnamese tourists, at times it almost felt as if we had the place entirely to ourselves.

Bridge over the moat at the Imperial City
Hue does not seem to be a major stop on the tourist trail which we find strange because it really is a lovely, laid back city, with lots to see in and around the city.  Apart from the Citadel there are of course the usual pagodas, temples, and many tombs dotted in and around the city, some imperial, some not so but equally fascinating.

Hue is also the place from where to take a trip to the De-Militarized Zone (the DMZ).  The DMZ was originally the strip of land about 2km wide stretching over 100km west to east from the border with Laos to the South China Sea following the route of the Ben Hai River, separating the north and south and supposedly a kind of no man’s land.  It was first established during the First Indochina War but during the Vietnam War it was extended to 5 miles either side of the Ben Hai River and soldiers and military activity from both sides were barred from the area. 

Paul contemplating life as Vietnamese emperor
Our hotel offered a standard tour which includes a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Trail used by the north to get supplies to the Viet Cong in the south, and also to the Vinh Moc tunnels which showcase a section of the massive underground tunnel system used by civilians during the Vietnam War.  

We also visited a war cemetery, the Rockpile, and the Khe Sanh Combat Base.  Khe Sanh was systematically targeted by the North Vietnamese beginning in early 1968, and this battle marked the beginning of a series of battles and which in turn led to the Tet Offensive and resulted in the US Army being forced to retreat.  This retreat was as a direct result of the enemy pressure, and a first for the Americans. Obviously there was more to it than that but for a more detailed and accurate account I would direct you to the internet.

The Rockpile
The US Marines stationed at Khe Sanh in the initial stages were so unprepared for this kind of warfare, and in tropical jungle conditions, that it is said that they were the first to voice the opinion that the Americans couldn’t win this war.

Unfortunately the museum was shut due to renovation but there were a few old US tanks, helicopters and a  warplane on the airstrip, together with lots of bunkers and trenches to wander around.  Much of the area surrounding what is left of the base has now been turned into a coffee plantation.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels were amazing.  Most villages in the area had a network of tunnels where the inhabitants lived for 6 years sheltering from the bombings, only emerging rarely in daylight but sometimes being cooped up for days on end.  It’s hard to believe this went on for so many years.

Monument erected at the start
of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
In the Vinh Moc Tunnels themselves, home to about 200 people, according to our guide 17 children were born in the 6 years the tunnels were used (there was even a dedicated maternity room).  Some of babies born grew up and remain living in the surrounding area and would be just a few years younger than us.

The Rockpile is limestone karst mountain towering over the surrounding area just south of the DMZ and accessible only by helicopter.  It was used by the Americans at the beginning of the conflict as an observation post.  At the foot of the mountain lies a traditional minority village, one of many in rural Vietnam, where villagers still live in huts on stilts and work the rice paddies.  The minority villagers played a large part in the war helping the Viet Cong.

As an aside, Vietnam has a similar restrictive child policy as the Chinese but the rules are relaxed for minorities and those who work the land (which is similar to the policy in China).  The minorities are  allocated land to work on a per capita basis and obviously the more children they have the more land a family has.  They are also provided with free healthcare and education, and access to services (although they pay for electricity used).  Listening to our guide, it seems there remains a little underlying hostility towards the minorities although it is clear they played their part in past conflicts.  

Abandoned US tanks on the Khe Sanh airstrip
Our guide, Ly, also pointed out vast areas throughout the landscape which had been stripped of trees and other vegetation as a result of the chemicals used, in particular Agent Orange.  Although reforestation is taking place there is still a way to go and the scars on the land remain clearly visible.

Ly was incredibly informative about the local area and the effect the war had on the people and, indeed, the effect it still has.  She also seemed to harbour a certain amount of resentment although it was difficult to decipher to whom that resentment was directed.

Ly also told us about the continuing affect the war has on the country's people.  Unexploded devices are still found to this day, and around 6,000 people, mainly children, have been killed by these since the war ended, and many many more maimed.  This is one reason you can’t even contemplate the visiting the area without a guide, as these devices still pose a very real threat and they still tour schools to educate youngsters of the dangers of these explosives.

Plan of the Vinh Moc tunnels
And the chemicals not only destroyed the landscape, but affected the many people who lived in the area, and continue to do so with many children being born with birth defects up to this day.  This is one legacy of the war which doesn't seem to be going away.

The trip covered a lot of ground and we travelled from 10km east of the Laos border all the way west to the stunning coastline as well as north and south of the DMZ. 

The war cemetery was a poignant reminder of the real cost of a any war.  We had already passed countless of these cemeteries on the train journey from Hanoi.  However, it was telling that Ly said that only troops serving the North Vietnamese are buried at these official sites.  Soldiers who fought for the south are buried in civilian cemeteries with their families.

Going underground
We also passed lots of burial grounds along the way containing hundreds of ornate family tombs.  They are incredibly colourful and remain well tended despite the fact that people are no longer buried on these sites.  In Vietnam, as in China, respect for their ancestors remains high on their priorities.

As we travelled back on the bus to Hue, we overheard a couple of people talking about their hostel and the fact that it was happy hour every evening from 5pm until midnight when they served, wait for it, free beer!  Yes, free beer.  We assumed that you had to be a guest in the hotel and considered briefly, checking out of our hotel but resisted the temptation.

The tour bus conveniently dropped us off at this, by now, famous hostel and when we got off the bus we were immediately accosted by one of the waiters who asked us whether we wanted to come in to the bar for free beer?
A typical Vietnamese shrine - these are found
everywhere in every shop, house and hotel

We said, "Really? Free beer?".
He said, "Yes really, free beer."
We said, "Are you sure?".
He replied, slowly and carefully like he was speaking to a couple of imbeciles, "Yes I’m sure.  Would you like to come in or not?".
We finally said, "OK, you've convinced us.  We’ll have a free beer.".

We sat down outside, were presented with glasses of free beer that were immediately replenished as soon as the last gulp was taken.  Paul had built up quite a thirst and his glass was refilled at least 4 times before I drained the last of my first glass.

The hostel bar was pleasant enough, the beer was cold (and free), so we did end up ordering food, which is obviously the whole point of the exercise but not compulsory and they don't get stroppy if you don't.  Paul ordered catfish which, going by the length of time it took to arrive, we think the chef popped out to catch it, but he tells me it was delicious.  I ordered pizza which was fair to middling but it was cheap, and clearly our bill was reduced by the fact that we were drinking free beer.  Incidentally for anyone who is interested (who isn't?) this is the Google Hotel in Hue.  Worth checking out as the food's quite good and the staff are great!

The war cemetery
I also had a cocktail (a rare event) and chose a B52 (not entirely appropriate given our excursion that day but no-one seemed to take offence).  I am pretty sure there was Baileys and Kahlua in the glass but I was not persuaded by the aroma of the clear substance, which was clearly the Vietnamese equivalent of rice wine and definitely not Cointreau.  But it was OK and what can you expect for £1.50?

We spent our final day in Hue wandering off the beaten track, checking out the local market and all the lovely fresh fruit and veg, fish, chickens and ducks.  

The one remaining mausoleum of the three Royal tombs
We were invited in to a mechanics shop at about 11.30am to have a glass of beer with a bunch of blokes who couldn’t speak a word of English.  Oh, except when one of their wives handed me a tiny baby to hold, one of them pointed and cried “Souvenir!”.  I laughed nervously and handed the baby back to its rightful owner.

We walked along the canal, away from the tourists and wandered down a side street where we stumbled upon a family burial ground, the gate to which appeared to be padlocked.  As we were about to carry on walking, a young lad came out of one of the nearby houses and pushed open the gate for us and indicated that we should go inside. 

The shrines to the Royal Family buries at the site in Hue City
We walked inside a walled garden of with 3 large burial plots, obviously used for more than one member of each family and wondered at how well tended the graves were and the fact that they must be swept each and every day to keep the falling leaves from accumulating.  One of the graves had a 1999 date on it but one went back to the 1890s. There was a path which wound around the enclosed garden and between the plots the family were growing various vegetables; something which seems to be common in Asia, to put every available outdoor space to good use. 

We also visited a royal tomb which was deserted.  The curator interrupted his noodle break to give us our own private tour and he explained that the people buried there were all members of the Nguyen royal family.  He showed us the shrines which were decked out with photographs of the individuals concerned, together with the usual offerings of fruit and burning incense.

One of the family tombs spotlessly clean and swept of any leaves
Outside in the drizzling rain (he kindly provided me with an umbrella) he showed us the bomb and mortar damage caused to the monuments during the war.  Two of the mausoleums had been completely destroyed in the bombing, and surviving one was being held up rather precariously with makeshift scaffolding.

We really enjoyed Hue and we are so glad that we stopped off to visit. Apart from the history both modern and imperial, the main streets are wide with trees providing greenery and shade, the gardens along the river give it a feeling of space, and there are lots of places to eat and drink.  It had a slower pace than the capital and was just as friendly.  Next stop Hoi An.



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