Chasing ghosts in Hue

“Seven people died in that house.” “Right there on that field – many Viet Cong dead.” “This wall – look at all the bullet holes.”

IMG_0144“This wall” is part of the Citadel in Hue, which came under vicious attack in a Viet Cong military incursion known as The Tet Offensive in 1968. The battle lasted three-and-a-half weeks until the Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately regained control of the town. During that time  whole neighbourhoods were levelled, much of the Citadel was destroyed and over 10,000 people were killed, most of them civilians.  Our cyclo driver Song was eight years old at the time and he remembers it very well.

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We were at the gates of the Citadel when Song accosted us with the usual “where you from?” I was preparing to walk by but for some reason Stephen stopped to listen and we both decided it would be fun to have a one-hour tour of the neighbourhood inside the Citadel walls. I had watched so many tourists go by in these things and never thought that we would be talked into it but before we knew it, a bench seat was pulled down, Steve hopped on, I wedged in front of him and we were away. We paid Song’s full asking price, which was about twice the going rate, as we found out later.  Anyway, as they say here in Vietnam, “never try, never know!”

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We had a fantastic tour of an area we would have been unlikely to visit on our own. Song was a chatty guy with plenty of war memories, but also  full of other stories about ordinary life in Hue.

The walls around the Citadel are 23 metres thick and surrounded by a moat. The Imperial Palace is inside the Citadel and enclosed by another high wall. The area inside the outer walls that surrounds the Palace  is an enchanting neighbourhood.

We began our tour by cycling through some lovely leafy streets with quite a mix of house styles.

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Some were very modest –  I think we call this one a tear-down.
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Some were charming and colourful cottages.

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Others were grand. As we rode through the streets, we saw a lot of construction, both new builds and restorations.

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Song pulled in beside a Buddhist temple.  The blue house next door to it was on the site of a house that had been hit with a bomb and all occupants killed. Song hinted at divine intervention, since the temple remained untouched. Since a heavenly presence had not prevented the death and destruction of the war,  salvation of the temple might be considered merely a coincidence.

IMG_0157 We made a few more stops – an old bridge, a Japanese garden, a school Ho Chi Minh attended and a lookout tower. Song pointed out schools, community halls, waved at neighbours and rode merrily along until he came to a series of one-way streets. As we turned,  I called out that there was a DO NOT ENTER sign, to which he replied, “No problem! I am a good driver.”  Perhaps divine intervention saved us in this case.

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Tour over – Song deposited us in front of the Palace gates, and then he pulled a fast one. He put on a sad face and told us our tour had gone over one hour – it was an hour and a half and he wanted more money.

Stephen and I looked at each other, looked at him and just paid him the original amount we had agreed upon. It was such a letdown – we had enjoyed our tour and his company so much and then it was spoiled. We checked our cameras to see when our first photos were taken and in fact our tour had gone over by about 7 or 8 minutes. We spoke to other tourists at lunch and they had an identical experience.   It was really disappointing to be treated like dumb tourists, but the tour we took with BeeBee Travel the day before more than made up for it.

HUE FREE WALKING TOUR is part of what this tour company does ( they offer other tours for a small fee), and tour guides Sam and Vui were excellent ambassadors for their city.  Seven of us met up at a coffee shop and after a debrief, our guides took us on a free walking tour of downtown Hue. We started with Hue’s grande dame, the Hotel Saigon, where many famous people have stayed, including Charlie Chaplin.

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Down the road a bit,  we stopped to examine a bronze monument erected in 2005 to honour the revolt by the poor residents and Ho Chi Minh against the crippling taxes and forced labour inflicted by the French.  I commented to Sam that the gentle Vietnamese had beaten back the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans – they were warriors. She replied that wasn’t necessarily the case – the Vietnamese could just wait it out until everyone else got too tired to keep fighting.

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We crossed over the bridge to the north side – to Dong Ba, Hue’s oldest market. Sam took us through the fish and veggies to a display of the classic conical hats. We learned these iconic hats are little works of art . When you hold them up to the light you will see small images that have been created right in the fabric of the hat.

We moved on to the outskirts of the Citadel, to admire the enormity of the Citadel walls and see how parts of the moat have filled with flowers and water vegetables.

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Inside the gates, we admired  the display of U.S. planes and tanks, left behind from the war.

imageWe ended our time together with a great lunch at a local place, and a group photo.

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We’ve been here for four days, and our weather  has been cool and rainy – par for the course for this city.  Hue is particularly atmospheric in grey drizzle – we didn’t mind the break from heat at all. It did mean we took a pass on a boat ride on the Perfume River, but we admired the river from shore – starting with a view of the bridge.

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A beautiful promenade runs along the river, and we had a number of interesting experiences there. We met up with a few Vietnamese students wanting to practice their English. They were led by a young man who speaks English about as well as I speak Spanish, and his crew of young students who barely speak at all. They were charming and fun, but it was a bit awkward. One young man wore a hat with the logo FUCK LIFE. When Stephen asked him if he knew what his hat said, he looked genuinely puzzled. Many Vietnamese buy clothes at the market and have no idea what the English words mean.

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Shortly after we left these students, we ran into this pair, who wanted a photo with me. The little girl knew how to say, “Hello – pleased to meet you”, so we went back and forth with that phrase for quite a while.

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You just never know what you might find on the promenade. Two men were preparing their birds for a cock fight. I asked for a photo, but didn’t want to stay around to watch the main event.

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The promenade is far better suited to more peaceful activities, like enjoying the gardens.

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And of course, a trip to Hue is not complete without a visit to the Imperial City. We strolled the grounds in pouring rain, but it only added to the moody setting.

IMG_0240Much of the Imperial enclosure is in ruins. Just 20 of the 148 buildings survived the American War and there is very little information in English but it was a pleasure to walk around, even in the rain.

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A small bridge survived, but the main structure did not; vegetation has grown over.

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A corner of one of the buildings that has been restored. Intricate carvings and mosaics adorn the exterior and the trees grow at a jaunty angle.

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An ornate entrance gate.

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Le Ba Dang was an esteemed painter who lived most of his life in Paris, but was a patriotic Vietnamese who never stopped loving his country. He was a contemporary of Picasso, and had his works in galleries all over the world. The LeBa Dang Art Foundation is his gift to Hue.

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The exhibit covers a broad range of his work, many of them expressions of war:

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More war images, these fashioned from the wreckage of a B-52:

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To expressions of his love for cats:

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I couldn’t stop admiring this couple who sat across from us at dinner. Their clothes matched the decor.  After dinner, they pulled out cigarettes and very elegantly smoked them. When you’ve been travelling for months with no makeup and the same stretchy yoga pants, you notice these things.

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Not all linen and designer frames though. We love the insouciance of a woman who can belly up to the bar wearing jeans and a black bra.

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To top it off, we walked a few steps past this startling sight and a squirrelly-looking man on a motorbike sidled by, hissing, “marijuana” at us. We don’t partake (not that there’s anything wrong with it, dear friends who do) but it’s been a long time since we’ve been mistaken for potential customers, so it gave us a good laugh.

Hue – still struggling with its past and not quite up and running as a saturated tourist destination. Perhaps that is part of its charm – for once, we got here before the crowds.

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