No way! Yes Hue!!!

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, April 13, 2007

He Said:

A bus ride north from Hoi An through the mountainous region of central Vietnam brought us to the historic city of Hue (pronounced "Hway"). Hue was the capital of Vietnam (at least in name) from the 1600's on through almost a full century of French colonial occupation until the Viet Minh uprisings in 1945 deposed the last emperor. The town is filled with the remnants of imperial architecture. The modern city has grown around the huge ancient citadel and Forbidden City (similar in design to the one in Beijing), and the neighboring countryside is dotted with the tombs of emperors and their queens.

Hue is the northernmost city in what was once the nation of South Vietnam, and is located less than 50 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (the former border between North and South). This strategic location cursed the city with heavy fighting during the war. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the city was overtaken for three weeks by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) forces who proceeded to massacre 'uncooperative elements" of Hue's population. Two weeks of heavy American bombing and followed by intensive combat finally forced the NVA and VC forces to retreat. Besides the tens of thousands of civilian casualties, the conflict laid waste to most of the city and its historic structures. Many other areas of American control that experienced heavy fighting during the war are located near Hue, including the Khe Sanh Airbase, the Con Thien Firebase, and the infamous "Hamburger Hill". Happily, Hue today is a vibrant and friendly town. Although there are a lot of crumbling foundations of the former palaces in the Forbidden City, there is little else to indicate the extent of the tragedy here a few decades ago.

Although rain put a hold on a bit of our sightseeing, it did dry off enough to allow us to get out intermittently. Yesterday we spent an afternoon renting a motor scooter and putting around the countryside. Scooters are the main form of transport here; allegedly there is one scooter for every two persons in Vietnam! Renting one as a foreigner is a sure way to get smiles from and gain rapport with the locals, curious grins and waves as well as the occasional short chat while waiting at traffic lights followed us wherever we drove. The manic city traffic can get your blood pumping, but once out of the urban center it is blissful. Quiet roads wind through verdant hills dotted with rice paddies and small shops vending incense sticks or fresh tropical fruits. The only thing you have to keep a look out for is the occasional stray water buffalo or palm frond in the road.

On our ride we visited the beautifully serene Thien Mu Pagoda. Although it has a beautiful setting overlooking the Perfume River and is an architectural gem, it is best known as the monastery where Quang Duc lived and studied. You probably have never heard of Quang Duc, but I guarantee you have seen a photo of him taken during the war. The picture, taken in 1963, depicts the monk peacefully meditating in the lotus position in the middle of a Saigon traffic flames. He was the first of a number of monks who publicly committed suicide by self-immolation (burning themselves alive) in order to protest the repressive policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. That photo has become an iconic image and is certainly one of the most powerful images I have ever seen. The car Quang Duc drove to his suicide is preserved at the pagoda as a memorial.

A short ride further into the countryside brought us to the garden tomb of emperor Tu Duc. It would actually be very easy to mistake the place for a park instead of a tomb. The complex was constructed under the direction of the emperor while he was still alive. For over two decades before his death he used the place to take breaks from the demands of court life in Hue. A large lake, meditating pavilions, meandering walking trails, and residential buildings are mixed in with the tombs of the emperor, his wives, and other court officials. All in all, I would say he planned it pretty well, I mean how many people get to relax and have fun in their burial place before passing on? Maybe he was on to something...

She Said:

Once we got close to the city of Hue, the weather turned a bit gloomy, rainy and cold (60 degrees...burr!! It is when you only have flip-flops!). Apparently the city has its own microclimate as the clouds get trapped between some nearby mountains and the ocean, so rain is common there. Because of the rain, we spent the entire first day of our visit in Hue hanging out in the hotel watching pirated DVDs on our luxurious in room DVD player (and our room was only $25/night!). We watched DaVinci Code (not as good as the book), Blood Diamond (really good), and Borat (very crass but funny and not recommended for our parents!). The makers/pirates of these DVDs created them by placing a video camera in the projector room of an actual movie theater. Occasionally, a shadow would walk by the screen as one of the people in the theater went to the bathroom!

The following day we spent riding around on a motorbike seeing all the sites Todd mentioned above. But what he didn't mention was his driving. The scooter had a manual transmission, which apparently Todd had driven once before in High School (like 20 years ago!). We hopped on, stalled a few times, and had several jerky gearshifts... all in the middle of a massive mob of other motorbikes. I was a bit scared for the first hour or so, but he seemed to get the hang of it and in the end acted like he knew what he was doing the whole time. Typical :-)!!
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