Sunday, 2 September 2012

Historical Hue and tour of the DMZ, Vietnam

Aug 6th, 2012 - Aug 9th, 2012

In Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, 13 hours south by bus of Halong Bay and just below the DMZ, I began to attempt to alter my body clock to suit 'Asian style'.  To my deep dissatisfaction the alarm sounded far to early for my liking at 0600. The sun had been up for well over an hour and the markets were in full swing, the town going about its daily business never sparing a thought for my lost hours of slumber. Julian looked at me expectantly waiting for me to roll over and leave him to his morning as usual but to his undisguised amazement, I sat up, gave him a grumpy face and was out the door moments later. 

To my surprise the morning air was cool, almost chilly and Julian confirmed that indeed this was average temperature for this time of day.   The streets were already busy with life. On the sidewalk ladies sat on low plastic stools with fires burning under hot pots of noodle soup or water for the bitter Vietnamese green tea or black, sludge like coffee sweetened with condensed milk.  We wandered through the streets and admired a garden of large potted bonsai trees, complimenting the owner in passing as he swept the yard with the standard reed brush. We continued, crossing a bridge over the brown waters and working boats of the Perfume River, the brightly coloured tourist 'dragon' boats still yet to make an appearance and headed for the historic citadel; another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Through a stone archway we entered the outermost walls of the fortress city.  At the centre and between two entrance tunnels on the wall stands a flagpole with the largest Vietnamese flag you ever did see. No vehicles are allowed in this part although the hum of motorbikes and the constant sound of horns, our soundtrack to Vietnam, permeated the air. In contrast to my tired, burning eyes, the locals partook in their daily exercises, both in groups or singularly as we crossed a bridge spanning a moat and headed for the entrance to the Imperial Palace.

Passing through the exterior gateway, lanterns hang above a intricately carved bridge. The path leads up to the first of the 150+ buildings making up the palace compound. The building is guarded by ferocious stone lions which unusually face the palace rather than looking out from it. Inside, a throne sits on a dias in front of double doors, awaiting the imperial derriere. The massive, double gabled roof is supported by red pillars and poems written in gold chinese characters adorn the cross beams. There is room inside for perhaps 500 of the most senior military and civil chiefs who would be summoned, twice a month, for audience with the emperor. Here they would assemble according to rank; the military to the emperors right and the civilians to the left in full ceremonial dress, as the business of running the empire was determined and awards for service were rendered. This was as far as most ever got (the great unwashed would be addressed from a balcony on the gateway building) and it was the limit of intrusion allowed to the imperial family's sanctuary for all but the most important diplomats and senior officials. 

Beyond the reception hall many courtyards, segregated by walls and covered walkways divide the palace compound according to a structured design. To the west are the hospital and accommodation quarters for diplomats and more distant relatives who visited. To the east, the emperors mothers' residence; her own personal space defined and separated from the rest of the palace by its own high wall. The emperors mothers' quarters were among the most beautiful and were mostly spared during the bombings.  The faded yellow exterior, beautiful gardens and equally faded stone gateway looks exactly like a place I would have my own mother reside (when she comes of an age where I might lock her away behind 15m outer walls). Some of the walkways are already in the process of an extensive 'ground up' rebuild and craftsmen and the sounds of power tools and hammers periodically break the peace of the palace as they begin the days work. Most however are nothing more than foundations and it takes a fair amount of imagination to picture the palace in its glory.

Hue is situated very near to the north/south divide (on the southern side) and suffered from considerable damage which is still evident today.  The American bombing in 1968 all but flattened the Imperial City which was then left unattended after the war because they were seen as "relics from the feudal regime" by the victorious socialists.  Bullet wounds still pierce the walls of some of sites awaiting restoration; a project which is expected to take many years.  All that remains of the emperors palace in the Forbidden City is the remittence of blue and white ceramic floor tiles.

As the late morning heat accumulated over the city we made our way back through the grounds, easing past the coach loads of Japanese tourists that by this time were beginning to crowd the palace and retreated to our room for siesta. Thankful for the early start which allowed us to have had the grounds pretty much to ourselves; to imagine the eunuchs wandering the same paths as we did. The soundtrack of ball meeting racket whilst the last emperor played tennis in the court he had built to accommodate his passion, as his mother, maybe, sipped her morning tea in the gazebo overlooking her fish pond and diplomats from lands near and far, waited in the wings for their audience at the seat of Vietnamese power. Not accustomed to taking naps I was surprised how easily I slept the afternoon away and rose as the heat of the day began to diminish, feeling refreshed and ready to explore into the evening.  Usually at this time of day I feel drained and overheated; perhaps I could get used to "Asian time". 

Originally intending to forgo the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) tour in Hue over the Cu Chi military tunnels further south, we were encouraged by a Dutch man over a beer that evening to do it the other way around.  Having done both tours we took his advice and once again woke early the following day for our 13 hour bus tour. This narrow band of terrain extending along the 17th parallel from the Laos border to the coast formed the boarder between North and South Vietnam.  I found it difficult to believe that this spectacular mountain scenery and dense, rugged jungles saw some of the heaviest fighting during the war and has a dark, bloody history to tell.  

I was hoping that I would be as enthralled with this tour as I have been visiting other places of historical importance over the years and I would love to tell you the DMZ tour was as fascinating as the history that surrounds that unfortunate strip of land. I would love to tell you about the heroic struggle of the barely trained farmers and tradesmen that made up the majority of Viet Cong forces from the north. Their battle to exile the armies of democracy (read 'American invaders') from their homeland and oust the Christian led regime from the south. Unbeknownst they were just pawns; a side attraction in the Great Game being played out by the worlds two great super powers of the age, hell bent on waging death and destruction across the world in the name of control, money and power whilst attempting to keep such death and destruction from their own back yards. But you know all this and a tour of the DMZ does little to give more than the theoretical knowledge that books provide. Of course, history is written by the victors, and in this case it was interesting to read the words with a socialist spin, but besides that, the only visit of real note during the day was exploring the Vinh Moc Tunnels; three levels of underground civilian refuge.  It was fascinating to see the tiny spaces in which entire families might spend 5 days, complete with communal kitchen, toilets and water wells.  Julian and I managed to loose the rest of our group to explore this cavern in solitude. 

In all honesty I cannot put the day into better or drier tones than the report of the same tour (in 2006) on Travelfish which I came upon during my research. If you would like to read about a mirror of our day, you may find it here: 

Ultimately the tour was about one thing and one thing only in a very long 13 hours. When all the shouting was said and done (from the mighty banks of speakers along the river that hurled propaganda from both sides across the water) we ended at the Viet Cong cemetery. 

When the powers of the world collide and the politicians stop talking there is only one outcome. You end up with lots and lots of dead people.

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