In the shadow of the war

Yesterday (Wednesday, Oct 22), Steve and I arrived in Hue on the night train from Hanoi. We got in just after 8:30, so we had plenty of time to explore this pleasant, walkable little city.

Hue's famous citadel

Hue’s principal attraction is the sprawling imperial fortress built by one of the Nguyen emperors at the start of the 1800s. We spent a couple of hours strolling around the grounds. It was at least 90 degrees and humid, but when we could get out of the blazing sun and under some of the huge sheltering trees, it was tolerable. And the buildings that have been reconstructed within the citadel and “forbidden city” have a striking and graceful beauty.

The interior of one of the reconstructed buildings

Much of the grounds consist of open grassy fields, however, because so much of the citadel was destroyed — beginning in 1946 when the Vietnamese were battling the French imperial forces and more thoroughly in early 1968. During the “Tet offensive” that unfolded then, the North Vietnamese army stormed and occupied the fortress, and American forces launched a sustained and bloody effort to get it back. Thousands died during the battle (soldiers on both sides and civilians), and when it was over, the Americans had re-occupied it. But it lay in ruins.

After we left the citadel and were walking around the town, we got the clear impression that some of the Americans who participated in the fighting make a pilgrimage here. Hue is just 31 miles from the former “demilitarized zone” — the no man’s land that was set up between the north and south. All over town we saw ads for tours to the DMZ and to some of the tunnels the North Vietnamese lived in and from which they launched attacks. One of the maps we got from our guesthouse was marked with the sites of other American battles and bases. All this war tourism might have creeped us out more had it not been for what we’ve already heard about Vietnamese attitudes toward that sorry chapter in our shared history.

Typical war-tour offering

We got some insight from Manh, our young guide on Halong Bay. At one point, Steve and I were asking him about the influence of the Chinese language on the Vietnamese tongue, and he launched into a detailed presentation of the history of China’s 1000-plus-year-long occupation of Vietnam, its attempts to exterminate Vietnamese culture, its current aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and the generally unpleasant behavior of contemporary Chinese tourists. “French people and American people sometimes ask me how Vietnamese people feel about them, because of the wars,” he said. “To us that was a few seconds, compared to what the Chinese did.”

Ed, our friend who’s lived in Hanoi, says the Vietnamese government has always portrayed the “American War” as a dirty conflict that the American people rejected, so average folks blame the US government and not the people. Several ordinary folks here have confirmed that. “We like Americans now!”

Steve and I are glad to hear that. We’ve both felt our guts twisting when confronted with some of the war-touristic options. Back home, when planning this trip, we decided to forego visiting any of those famed tunnels. We saw them when, in preparation for our travels, we watched a 20-part PBS series on the war. That was enough. We decided we didn’t need to spend the better part of a day in order to see them in person. Similarly, we passed on a DMZ expedition. When we were in Hanoi, we declined to tour Hoa Lo Prison (the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where we knew we could see John McCain’s flight suit on display.) Here we have no desire to go on the 7- hour excursion to the infamous My Lai massacre site.

Frankly, I’m a little surprised by my squeamishness. I haven’t flinched from death camps and genocide museums in other places ranging from Dachau to Rwanda. But this was feels more personal; somehow, I feel more grief-stricken over the destruction, the waste. If the Vietnamese have managed to move beyond it, I’m happy to try to follow in their footsteps.



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