Vacationing in Vietnam 3: Hue and Surrounds

Next stop on the itinerary was Huế. Both of us being history lovers, we were quite excited to spend a few days at one of the key sites in Vietnamese history (both ancient and modern). Huế is particularly famous both for its myriad of ancient monuments and its central location in the Vietnam War. It was the capital of Vietnam between 1802 and 1945.

We ended up on a train that left an hour later than the train we had booked as our original carriage appeared not to exist. After finally arriving and settling into our hotel, we headed off down the road with directions to try some of the local cuisine. Settling at what looked like a local, we proceeded to show the waiter what the hotel concierge had written down. Nodding, the waiter disappeared down the street and appeared about ten minutes later with two bowls of soup and a couple of beers. Although we had most likely settled in someones front yard, the food was fantastic and the beer just what we were after. Turns out that what we had eaten was bún bò Huế, a noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil and the most famous dish of Huế.

Now that we were refreshed, we decided to spend our first afternoon in the countryside visiting some of the more well known monomuments.

The Imperial Tombs

The first stops of the afternoon were two of the imperial tombs. There are seven tombs of Emperors from the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the last of Vietnam’s royal families. Although all the tombs are different, they generally contain three basic elements – a temple; tall, stone stele (high stone obelisk or tower)– which record details of the emperors’ reign – and finally the royal tomb itself, usually enclosed within a walled compound. We decided to see two of the more unique tombs, one with a strongly Vietnamese feel and the other with a more European feel.

Khải Định

First stop was Khải Định’s tomb. Khải Định was the 12th emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty but ruled for only nine years (1916 – 1925). His tomb took 11 years to build. Khải Định ruled during French colonisation and was not popular as he was thought to collaborate with the French.

The entrance to the tomb was spectacular, with 36 steps bordered by beautiful statues leading you to the first of two courtyards. A further 26 steps took you to a second courtyard flanked by statues of elephants, horses and mandarins and a beautiful octagonal pavilion. A final set of steps took you to the main building that encloses the tomb. The style of the interior design showed his popularity with the French.

Tomb of a forgotten Mandarin

On the way to the next tomb, a proposed short cut went a bit wrong, but we did manage to see one of the tombs of a forgotten Mandarin. We thought that it was not a bad effort for a tomb given it was ‘only’ a Mandarin and not an Emperor.


Tự Đức

Our third stop for the day was the tomb of Tự Đức, the fourth emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty. Perhaps we stopped at the Mandarin’s tomb so that we could be even more amazed at the tomb of Tự Đức. The tomb consists of nearly fifty buildings spread over an area twelve hectares wide that is covered with luscious pine forests, and so great was the expense of its construction that there was an unsuccessful coup in 1866 aimed at replacing the emperor.

Upon entering the tomb, you come across the Luu Khiem Lake where the emperor and his entourage would sail around after boarding pleasure boats at the Du Khiem Pavilion. Over the water to the left from the Du Khiem Pavilion is the exquisite Xung Khiem Pavilion pictured to the left. This is where the emperor would sit with his wives and concubines and read books, compose and recite poems, and admire the flowers. What a life!

Tự Đức reigned from 1848 to 1883, the longest of any emperor of the Nguyen dynasty and is said to have lived a life of total luxury (if not debauchery) in the palace. During his lifetime, the emperor was quite prodigious in his literary output, producing 4000 verses and 600 prose works; in terms of offspring he was not so productive, failing to produce any children despite having 104 wives and countless numbers of concubines (that’s me to the right pretending to be a concubine outside the the concubine quarters).

Across from the Du Khiem Pavilion is Khiem Cung Gate (two bottom left photos), the entrance to the Hoa Khiem Palace (middle right), which used to be the emperor’s working place and after his death became a temple dedicated to him and his empress. Inside it are funerary tablets and royal thrones for the emperor and empress, the larger of the thrones for the empress because the emperor was very short.

From the Hoa Khiem Palace you make your way across the to the area of the Emperor’s tomb past an honor guard of elephants, horses, and diminutive government and military officials (who were deliberately built to be smaller than the Emperor) to the Stele Pavilion, which houses a massive stone tablet (in fact, the biggest on Vietnam) that weighs 20 about twenty tons and was transported from over 500km away.

The tablet is inscribed with the Khiem Cung narrative, which was a “mea culpa” composed by the Emperor himself,in which he recounts all the main events in his life and freely acknowledges his diseases, misadventures, and mistakes. To atone for them, he chose the name “Khiem”, meaning modest, for his tomb, and all the main buildings in the complex feature this word.

From the Stele Pavilion, you pass through an ornate ceremonial gate (left) to the Emperor’s sepulcher (two bottom left photos), a rather uninspiring construction that is surrounded by a low stone wall. However, I was disappointed to learn from my colleague from my colleague that the emperor’s body wasn’t actually entombed here because of fears that his corpse would be stolen by robbers. In fact, nobody knows where his corpse actually is because once the Emperor died all the people involved in the construction of the tomb were executed in order to keep the location secret. Now there’s gratitude for you!

The final stops of the tomb complex are the tomb of the primary wife of Tu Duc, Empress Le Thien Anh (middle right) and the tomb of the following emperor, Tu Duc’s adopted son Kien Phuc (bottom right; who only ruled for seven months before dying).

Views of the Perfume River

After leaving Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb, we headed up to see a view of the river Hoang. At the top we ran into a huge crowd of motorcyclists aiming to enjoy the same view. Turns out they were all tourists as well.

Thiên Mụ Pagoda

Next stop was the Thiên Mụ Tự (or Thien Mu Pagoda). The temple was built in 1601 at the direction of Nguyen Hoang, the head of the Nguyen Lords. At the time, Hoang was the governor of the province of Thuan Hoa (now known as Hue) and although he nominally swore loyalty to the Le Dynasty in Hanoi, he effectively ruled an independent state in modern day central Vietnam.

According to the royal annals, Hoang was on a sightseeing trip and holiday to see the seas and mountains of the local area when he passed by the hill which is now the site of the Thien Mu Pagoda. He heard of a local legend, in which an old lady, known as Thiên Mụ (literally “fairy woman”) said that a lord would come to the hill and erect a pagoda to pray for the country’s prosperity. According to the local legend, the lady vanished after making her prophecy. When Hoang heard this, he ordered the construction of a temple at the site and it was called Thiên Mụ Tự.


Emperor Thieu Tri, who succeeded Minh Mang, erected the Từ Nhân Tower in 1844, which is now known as the Phước Duyên tower. The brick tower stands 21 m and is of octagonal shape and has seven stories, each of which is dedicated to a different Buddha. The tower has stood there since, overlooking the Perfume River, and has become the unofficial symbol of the city.

My favourite parts of the pagoda were the old car belonging to one of the Nguyen Emperors and the monk trimming the lawn out the front with a whipper schnipper.

Japanese Bridge

The last trip for the day involved the most beautiful ride out into the countryside on a tiny path through nothing but paddy fields. I really wish that I took a photo of it so that you can all understand just how beautiful the view was. At the end was a small yet gorgeous bridge, the Thanh Toan or Japanese bridge. It was reportedly established during the reign of Emperor Le Hien Tong (1740-1786) and has been maintained by the village ever since.

Construction of the bridge was initiated by Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking Mandarin in Le Hien Tong’s court. Tran, who came from this area, had the bridge constructed to better facilitate transportation and communication in the village that lines both sides of the canal. When the Emperor heard of her charitable act, he exempted the village from taxation as a reminder for them to live up to her example. In 1925, Emperor Khai Dinh granted her a posthumous title and ordered the villagers to establish an altar on the bridge in her memory.

On the other side of the bridge was a small museum showcasing the tools developed by the local villagers. While nice, the museum was nothing to write home about but the star of the show was most definitely the elderly villager who took it upon herself to show how some of the tools worked (including the baby’s crib below right).

Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Vietnam War

For our second day in Huế, we thought we’d step forward into modern history and learn some more about the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) (a section of 5km on either side of the Ben Hai river) was established as a dividing line between North and South Vietnam as a result of the First Indochina War. During the Second Indochina War (popularly known as the Vietnam War), it became important as the battleground demarcation separating North Vietnamese territory from South Vietnamese territory. It lies around a hundred kilometers north of Huế.

Perhaps ominously but probably more due to the general climate of the area, Vietnam turned on an appropriately dark and drizzly day for a tour of some of the worst battlefields of the war.

First stop along Highway 9 was the Rock Pile (to the right), the highest point along that section of the countryside and thus an important place to hold. Our guide told us the story of how it was captured but also of the battle of Hill 400 where American soldiers were killed by friendly fire aiming at Hill 484 but accidently missing. The dead included the commander of Company K, Captain James J. Carroll. Camp Carroll, another vital holding point for American troops was named after the captain.

Khe Sanh

Next stop was Khe Sanh (museum left), made famous in my generation of Australians by the Cold Chisel song but actually famous for the atrocities and controversies that occurred during the war. Khe Sanh was an important camp for overseeing travel along the Ho Chi Minh trail, thus vital in controlling the war. In the previous war between the Viet Minh and the French, the Viet Minh had triumphed against the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in an attempt by the French to cut off Viet Minh control of supply lines. The loss of the battle by the French resulted in French withdrawal of Vietnam.

In 1968, Khe Sanh was the site of a long and decisive battle between the North Vietnamese and the American and South Vietnamese occupants. After sightings of an increase in North Vietnamese troops around the area, more American troops were brought in to defend the area. Fighting occurred between 21 January and 8 April 1968 and often misguided media reports argued both that the battle was the key battle of the war and that the American’s were in control. Midway through the battle, several of the North Vietnamese troops were diverted as part of the Tet Offensive leading to the capture of Hue and eventually also the end of the war. Throughout history Westmoreland, the military leader, maintained that the North Vietnamese were interested solely in capturing the base.

Looking back, the “riddle of Khe Sanh” is still unanswered – either the Tet offensive was a diversion intended to facilitate PAVN/NLF preparations for a war-winning battle at Khe Sanh, or Khe Sanh was a diversion to mesmerize Westmoreland in the days before Tet. Was it a genuine attempt to take Khe Sanh and replicate the Viet Minh triumph against the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu or was it part of a wider communist strategy: to divert 30,000 US troops away from the cities that were the main targets of the Tet Offensive?

Those who agree with Westmoreland reason that there is no other explanation as to why Hanoi would have committed so many forces to the area instead of deploying them for the Tet Offensive. The fact that the North Vietnamese only committed about half of their available forces to the offensive (60–70,000), the majority of whom were members of the NLF, is cited in favour of Westmoreland’s argument.

Another interpretation was that the North Vietnamese were planning to work both ends against the middle. This strategy has come to be known as the Option Play. If PAVN could take Khe Sanh, all well and good for them. If they could not, they would occupy the attention of as many American and South Vietnamese forces in I Corps as they could in order to facilitate the Tet Offensive. Another theory is that the action around Khe Sanh (and the other border battles) were simply a feint, a ruse meant to focus American attention (and forces) on the border.

Khe Sanh was a dreary place but one that I am glad to have been to.

Dakrong Bridge and the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Next stop was Dakrong Bridge, considered the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network. The current incarnation of the Dakrong Bridge was built in 1975 after reunification. During the years of conflict with the United States, this access point was hotly contested.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a concept, not a road. The trail was a vast network, spread across hundreds of miles of terrain extending far into the interior of Laos, a broad avenue of hundreds of kilometers of trails that brought supplies to North Vietnamese troops, by hook or by crook, usually on the backs of porters or with giant loads precariously perched on overlaid bicycles. You might call it “the path of least resistance” or the “road less bombed or occupied” really. The trail starts in Quang Tri Province, basically anything from the Dakrong Bridge south, and the Americans were constantly trying to foil the Viet Cong and General Vo Nguyen Giap’s relentless end-run around the front line so as to stage attacks in the south.

Hien Luong Bridge, Ben Hai River and the DMZ

The second to last stop was the DMZ itself. Crossing the border between North and South Vietnam via the Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River, you could see the vastness of the DMZ. Why anyone would attempt to cross this zone beats me as you would be in clear site of any enemy troop on the other side of the river.

Vinh Moc Tunnels

Similar to the Cu Chi tunnels south of Ho Chi Minh, but less visited, the last stop was Vinh Moc, a tunnel complex built to shelter people from intense bombing. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnemese garrison on the island of Con Co which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi. The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go.

The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10 metres underground but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 metres. Eventually against these odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30 metres. It was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972.

The complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels; as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels. The tunnels were a success and no villagers lost their lives. The only direct hit was from a bomb that failed to explode; the resulting hole was utilized as a ventilation shaft. Three levels of tunnels were eventually built.

Three of the more devastating images for me came at this stage of the trip. Two of them were the size of the holes left by bombs on the side of the road and the final one was a picture of a small boy holding a gun almost bigger than him. I leave the story of the DMZ with these images.

Dinner at Hue
To relieve some of the ill feelings of Highway 9 and the DMZ, we popped off to a recommended restaurant for the evening to eat some of the famous Hue cuisine. After taking considerable time reaching the restaurant (the tuk tuk driver tried to drop us off at two other restaurants before finally finding the right one), we tucked into a well presented but rather disappointing meal.

Hue War Museum

Our final morning at Huế saw us visit the war museum. The war museum was evidence of just how much both sides have edited the story of the war, with two depictions of every event detailed in the museum. Perhaps the most striking of images were the tanks out the front. A must for those of you who enjoy their toys.

We also learnt that Huế itself suffered considerable damage during the war, but in particular during what became known as the Massacre at Huế.

In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, a division-sized force of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) soldiers launched a coordinated attack on the city of Hué. Their strategic objective was to “liberate” the entire city to help sweep the Communist insurgents into power. The result was thousands of civilian casualies and the longest period of North Vietnamese control in any city during the war. What makes the attack worse was that it occurred on a day of national holiday and one where both sides had agreed to a period of no action.

In response, the Americans attacked and recaptured the city on 1 February 1968 but destroyed the city in the process. Militarily, Hue was an Allied victory, because the NVA and VC forces were driven from the city paying heavy price for their offensive, but from the opinion of the American public, Hue was the beginning of the end. Marine Captain Myron Harrington who commanded a one-hundred-man company during the battle: “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it”? From this time forward, American support for the war in Vietnam declined, and during the next five years American involvement slowly but steadily decreased until 1973 when the last American troops left Vietnam.

Hue Citadel

The last stop in Hue was the Citadel, the walled centre of the city. The seat of the Nguyễn emperors was in the Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access, the punishment for trespassing being death. Today, due to the destruction in the Battle of Huế, little of the forbidden city remains though reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a tourist attraction as a view of the history of Huế.

A beautiful place, it would be nice to revisit once the restorations have taken place so that I can see what it would have looked like before it was so horribly destroyed.

The entrance to the Citadel is opposite the Flag Tower, which holds the tallest Vietnamese flag in the country. The Imperial Eclosure, a citadel within a citadel is divided into several sections, with the Forbidden Purple City at its centre. It is entered via the Ngo Mon Gate (to the right).

The first section that we visited was the To Mieu Temple Complex.  After going through the beautifully ornate gate, we crossed through the three-tiered Hien Lam Pavillion and found ourselves in a courtyard containing nine cauldrons each standing for Emperors and the To Mieu Temple itself, holding shrines to each of the Emperors.

We then went though the Thai Hoa Palace (left) used for the emperor’s official receptions and ceremonies on our way to the Royal Theatre with its beautful interior (right). Next was the Forbidden Purple City, which was still being restored as it was ruined during the war. Finally we wandered about the rest of the complex. Some of the other gorgeous buildings are shown below.

And that was Hue…time for Ho Chi Minh city!