Hue, Day One: Music in the Pines

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Sunday, February 12, 2006

Just in time to eat a late lunch with Phan the moto driver, I arrived in Hue. Phan was one of the thousands of boat people, discontented with Vietnam's economic and political situation back in the 1980s. He left for Hong Kong with his family: "many people died," he said about the journey.

"I was teacher during the war--didn't fight," he said. His brother fought for the North Vietnamese, however.

Just south of the DMZ, Hue was the first city the North Vietnamese captured; a strategic location that ultimately led to bitter fighting during and after the Tet Offensive. During these battles, many of Hue's historical structures were shattered with artillery fire; the city burned to ashes.

Phan took me around the outskirts of town. At Tu Hieu Temple, a dozen monks chanted and drummed while I lit incense. At Thien Mu Pagoda, the Perfume River flowed easterly between the hills. At Tu Duc's Mausoleum, I saw a great example of an emperor consumed with himself at the expense of his neglected people. At Bunker Hill, young people celebrated the last day of Tet, the 15th day of the lunar calendar.

First, I met seven guys partying on one of the bunkers (see photos). One guy handed me a beer, so I chugged it in their honor. Next, I met a second group of eight men and women, who invited me to join them for some food and to play guitar--how could I refuse?

The group was part of the new emerging middle class youth in Vietnam, the benefactors of Doi Moi. Doi Moi or "economic renovation," began in 1986, and led to establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, admittance into ASEAN, and an expanding economy. One of the women, for example, was running an export textiles business, with her products heading to U.S. ports. Phan said: "They are very smart. They make much money, maybe two or three million dong ($125 to $200) a month."

An olive-uniformed officer blew his whistle, and the bunkers closed for the night. The group invited me to stay with them--how could I refuse? As the full moon rose through scattered rain clouds, we played music, ate, sang, and drank local Huda beer amidst pine trees.

"Vietnamese like sad songs," one said as he played guitar and sang for the group.

I played and sang some Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and G. Love for the group, taking turns with the other two guitarists. "Hello," was a favorite of the group and they also liked "We are the World," although no one could remember all the hundreds of lines of lyrics. We could muster the chorus:

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
so let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me.

The last verse of the song we forgot but go like this:

When you're down and out
There seems no hope at all
But if you just believe
There's no way we can fall
Well, well, well, let's realize
That one change can only come
When we stand together as one

Somehow this song had escaped my immediate memory, but it was there complete with images of Stevie Wonder shaking his head and singing with the entire U.S.A. for Africa group.

All this makes me wonder: do we still believe in this song today, twenty years later?

We sang, laughed, toasted, and talked until late at night. My spirits were lifted with this group, and I was thankful they had invited me to join their group and to call me their friend. Nights like this are one of the main reasons I enjoy traveling and, I think, the only way we can learn from one another and truly say: "We are the world."
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