Hue and the Rebirth of a Tragic Icon


Most people know the story of Hue and the role that the former imperial city of Viet Nam played during the Tet Offensive of 1968.  For several days, after a surprise attack on the city, the flag of North Viet Nam flew over the Citadel in defiance of the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies.  The iconic photograph taken during this time has served over the years as a prophetic warning about the limits of American imperial power.

1) The Citadel today, much reconstructedThe temple on its top is completely new

Less well-known is that  the North Vietnamese army scoured the city after securing it and executed enemies both real and imagined.  Included in the massacre were all backpackers who were visiting the city at the time.

2) Another view of the principal entry to the Citadel

Bitter fighting between the Americans and the NVA resulted in the nearly complete destruction of the heart of old Hue.  Pockmarks from the shelling are still visible today in sections of the Citadel walls.  Finally the Americans recapturedthe monument.  The battle was recounted in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the making of which included building a full-scale set with planted palm trees in rural England.  The weird synchronicity of Hue’s history continues to astound the unwary traveler.

3) Ruins inside

4) Other portions have been entirely rebuilt

5) Corner of an inner moat

6) An original section of the outer walls and moat

7) More of the fortifications, most of which date from the 19th century

Today, Hue is a vibrant commercial center on the Perfume River, my favorite urban region in Viet Nam.  Prices are cheap and the sights are much worth visiting.

8) The Perfume River

The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of the area’s highlights.  Located just out of town, the pagoda is a short taxi ride or a long walk from the city center.  The heat of summer makes the walk especially interesting; we were there at the end of June.

9) Thien Mu Pagoda

Among its attractions is the original Austin car used by a Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon in 1964.  His suicide, another iconic image of the times, appeared in LIFE Magazine.

10) The Austin at Thien Mu.  Quite the sideshow

The monk is considered by today’s government to be a martyr to the cause of Vietnamese self-determination, another strange example of history’s twists and turns.

After visiting the pagoda, a short walk along the river from Thien Mu  brought us to the ruins of a Temple of Literature, or as we preferred to call these monuments, temples of “Heat and Literature.”  Every time we visited one of the places the temperature hovered well above the hundred degree mark and we sweated our way through the classic structures.

11) Diana braving the mid-day heat at the Temple of Literature outside the city

Before we traveled to Viet Nam I wondered if I would spend a great deal of time apologizing for the war and its aftermath, still an issue in the United States. Fortunately most Vietnamese have long forgiven the Americans and the casual visitor can avoid the subject while enjoying the history of a proud country.

12) The back door to the Citadel; you can always find a place to cool off in Viet Nam

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