written by Todd DePastino
Our attention turned once again to the American War when we toured Hue on Day 4 of our trip.
Hue burst into the American consciousness like a flash grenade on January 30, 1968, the first day of the Tet Offensive.
Nha Do Gate to the south of the Old City. Note the pillbox on the right wall, built by the Japanese during WWII when they occupied Hue.
Violating the truce for the Lunar New Year holiday—Tet, in Vietnamese–the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched a massive coordinated attack across all of South Vietnam, hitting every town, city, and military installation in the country. At least 84,000 enemy insurgents and soldiers participated in the uprising. Some US-supported strongholds fell, others almost so. Americans back home watched television with horror as VC “sappers” penetrated the outer courtyard of the US Embassy in Saigon.
But, while the news media and even the US military focused on securing Saigon, the real story was unfolding further north in Hue.
The VC and NVA concentrated one of its largest forces on Hue, a city of learning and worship that had been spared fighting since the beginning of the war. In fact, it was something of an Open City, where both sides respected the spiritual and intellectual independence of the residents and thus avoided drawing them into battle.
That changed on Tet. Thousands of enemy fighters, who had infiltrated days before, rose up and slaughtered anyone who opposed them. They did so on both sides of the Perfume River, which split Hue into the old walled citadel to the north and the new modern university city to the south.
Within hours, Hue was occupied, and the flag of the VC, the National Liberation Front, flew over the citadel’s massive flag tower.
It would take over three weeks, thousands of buildings flattened, and an unknown number killed before Hue was back in South Vietnamese and American hands again. The Battle of Hue City, 1968, was the largest of the Vietnam War.
Todd, unable to resist the urge to give an impromptu mini-lecture on the significance of the site.
We walked the battleground, which is the city itself, and saw some ghostly remains: an old air field control tower, the blasted brick of the citadel walls, and the Truong Tien Bridge, damaged during the battle and not repaired until the 1990s.
The old air field control tower in Hue citadel.
But the most fascinating residuals of the catastrophe of Hue are the improvised shrines, easy to overlook, that perched on stone walls, metal utility boxes, even at the bases of trees everywhere.
Sometime they’re elaborate, with kumquats, cigarettes, and cans of Coca-Cola laid as offerings. Most often, they’re just incense, carefully placed in a cup or vase and lit as an offering to those who died on these streets.
Incense burning is universal and reflexive in Vietnam. People do it any time, any place, but mostly in the morning in front of their homes. “With a sincere heart, I offer this stick of incense,” is the incantation as the long red stick is lit and a prayer is said.
Americans call them ghosts, but the Vietnamese refer to them as spirits, and they’re everywhere. When people die, they slip this veil and live beyond sight or sound, but they’re often felt, and they’re never far away.
Especially present are spirits of people who were ripped from life suddenly, violently, and without preparation for the afterlife. These unquiet dead need to be appeased, and they need to stayed connected with us. And the Vietnamese don’t make distinctions between enemy and friendly dead. The Americans who died in Hue during Tet–they are also honored.
The spirits of Hue are the product of February 1968, when US Marines and ARVN troops fought house-to-house, block-by-block, in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Radical NLF or VC elements rounded up suspected collaborators—anyone who worked for the South Vietnamese government or the American military—and executed them. Some were killed on the streets. Others dragged away to the jungle and buried in mass graves. The exact count of Hue civilians who fell remains a matter of debate. But few doubt that less than 5,000 non-combatants died. More than that, perhaps, on the VC-NVA side.
The heaviness of Hue stays with you, but Hue is also a joyful and colorful city, and we gathered after our tour at the well-known DMZ Bar, just a block from our hotel. Opened in 1994, the year the US and Vietnam normalized relations, the DMZ attracts foreigners but also some locals who enjoy the DMV relief map on the ceiling and colorful cocktails and the ever-present Huda Beer. Huda is the favorite beverage here in the Hue-Danang corridor, and its name reflects the connection to both cities.
After Happy Hour, we enjoyed an unusually elegant dinner, supposedly inspired by the royal heritage of Hue as the seat of the Nguyen dynasty. The food presented as whimsical works of art. Some judged it the best food we’ve eaten so far.
Next stop, the former DMZ at the 17th Parallel, where North Vietnam stopped and South Vietnam began from 1954-1975.