The narrowest bit of the country holds an astonishingly dense collection of sights. From the south, you’ll come first to the town of Hoi An, highly traditional and hugely popular on account of its wonderful architecture, laidback air and superb culinary scene. Further north is Da Nang, whose bars, restaurants and sleek new buildings make it enjoyable in a more contemporary sense; however, it too boasts a wealth of nearby sights. Then there’s Hué, erstwhile capital of the Nguyen dynasty. A visit to the old Imperial City, with its splendid palace buildings and manicured gardens is like taking a step into the past. Lastly are the sights pertaining to the American War in the famed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The area marked the divide between North and South Vietnam, which, some would argue, still exists today.
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Division of Vietnam
You’ll notice great differences in weather, cuisine, language and even local character to the north and south of the Ben Hai River, which runs through the DMZ. However, Vietnam was not always divided along this point – it was previously the Hoanh Son Mountains, north of Dong Hoi that formed the cultural and political line between the Chinese-dominated sphere to the north, and the Indianized Champa kingdom to the south. As independent Vietnam grew in power in the eleventh century, so its armies pushed southwards to the next natural frontier, the Hai Van Pass near Hué. Here again, the Cham resisted further invasion until the fifteenth century, when their great temple complex at My Son was seized and their kingdom shattered.
Since then, other contenders have battled back and forth over this same ground, among them the Nguyen and Trinh lords, whose simmering rivalry ended in victory for the southern Nguyen and the emergence of Hué as the nation’s capital in the nineteenth century. The Nguyen dynasty transformed Hué into a stately Imperial City, whose palaces, temples and grand mausoleums now constitute one of the highlights of a visit to Vietnam, despite the ravages they suffered during successive wars. In 1954, Vietnam was divided at the Seventeenth Parallel, only 100km north of Hué, where the Ben Hai River and the DMZ marked the border between North and South Vietnam until reunification in 1975. Though there’s little to see on the ground these days, the desolate battlefields of the DMZ are a poignant memorial to those who fought here on both sides, and to the civilians who lost their lives in the bitter conflict.
Where to go in Central Coast Vietnam
Da Nang and nearby China Beach are other evocative names from the American War, but the region has more to offer. The compact riverside town of Hoi An, with its core of traditional, wood-built merchants’ houses and jaunty Chinese Assembly Halls, is a particularly captivating place. Inland from Hoi An, the Cham spiritual core, My Son, survives as a haunting array of overgrown ruins in a hidden valley, while heading the other way you’ll find a succession of pristine beaches that are now the subject of mass development.
Best time to visit Central Coast Vietnam
This region has a particularly complicated climate as it forms a transitional zone between the north and south of Vietnam. In general, around Da Nang and Hué the rainy season lasts from September to February, with most rain falling between late September and December; during this season it’s not unusual for road and rail links to be cut. Hué suffers particularly badly and, even during the “dry season” from March to August, it’s possible to have several days of torrential rain, giving the city an annual average of three metres. Overall, the best time to visit this southern region is in spring, from February to late May, before both temperatures and humidity reach their summer maximum (averaging around 30°C), or just at the end of the summer before the rains break.
The north-south divide
Although Vietnam was reunified in 1976, there still exists a palpable north-south divide, one that many tourists end up picking up on as they head across the DMZ. Of course, many of the differences stem from the ideological division that followed World War II, and the protracted, bloody war between the two sides; however, there have long been other factors at work.
One of these is the relative fertility of the soil – parts of the south get three rice harvests per year, while in the north it’s usually one. This is said to feed into a great difference in character between north and south – northerners are said to be more frugal and southerners more laidback, partly because the latter have historically had less work to do for the same reward.
There are also notable differences in tradition. Ho Chi Minh City flaunts its Westernisation, while Hanoians are just as proud of their city’s colonial- and dynastic-era structures.
Then there are dialectical differences – ask a traditionally-clad Hanoian girl what she’s wearing, and she’ll say it’s “ao zai”. Ask a lady from Ho Chi Minh City the same thing, and it would be an “ao yai”. Trained ears will also hear that there’s another dialect at work in the centre of Vietnam.
However, for visitors, the most enjoyable aspect of the north-south divide is likely to be the food. The quintessential northern food is pho bo – this beef noodle soup is found throughout Vietnam, but originated in Hanoi, where it’s still at its best. Other northern dishes include hotpots, rice gruels and sweet and sout soups. Southern flavours include curries and spicy dipping sauces, often married with a touch of sugar and coconut milk to balance the heat. However, most renowned nationwide is central cuisine – both Hoi An and Hué boast dishes of astonishing variety.
For the most part the Nguyen emperors lived their lives within Hué’s citadel walls, but on certain occasions they emerged to participate in important rituals at symbolic locations around the city. Today these places are of interest more for their history than anything much to see on the ground, though the mouldering Royal Arena still hints at past spectacles. A visit to at least a couple of the Royal Mausoleums, however, is not to be missed – it’s in these eclectic architectural confections in the hills to the south of Hué that the spirit of the Nguyen emperors lives on. Taking a boat along the Perfume River to get to the best mausoleums also offers the chance to stop off at the Thien Mu Pagoda and Hon Chen Temple on the way.
Thuan An Beach is a bike-ride away, if you have the time and energy, making for an attractive journey across the estuary with views of fish farms to either side, though the beach itself is nothing spectacular. Further afield, one of the most popular excursions from Hué is a whirlwind day-trip round the DMZ. Bach Ma National Park is also within striking distance.
Boat trips on the Perfume River
A sizeable number of people still live in boats on the Perfume River and the waterways of Hué, such as the Dong Ba and Phu Cam canals, despite government efforts to settle them elsewhere. It’s possible to join them, if only temporarily, by taking a boat trip, puttering about in front of the citadel on a misty Hué morning, watching the slow bustle of river life. A day’s boating on the Perfume River is a good way to soak up some of the atmosphere of Hué and do a little gentle sightseeing off the roads. The standard boat trip takes you to Thien Mu Pagoda, Hon Chen Temple and the most rewarding mausoleums, usually those of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang. However, if you want to visit some of the others or spend more time exploring, it’s usually possible to take a bicycle on the boat and cycle back to Hué, though double-check this when you book the trip. Most tour agents and hotels offer river tours starting at $2 per person, including a very meagre lunch but no guide. However, all entrance fees are extra, which can work out costly at 55,000đ per mausoleum. If you’d rather do it independently, the same agents can arrange charter boats from $30 for the day, or hone your bargaining skills at the boat wharf beside the Trang Tien Bridge.
It often took years to find a site with the right aesthetic requirements that would also satisfy the court cosmologists charged with interpreting the underlying supernatural forces. Artificial lakes, waterfalls and hills were added to improve the geomantic qualities of the location, at the same time creating picturesque, almost romantic, garden settings for the mausoleums, of which the finest examples are those of Tu Duc and Minh Mang.
Though details vary, all the mausoleums consist of three elements: a temple dedicated to the worship of the deceased emperor and his queen; a large, stone stele recording his biographical details and a history of his reign, usually written by his successor; and the royal tomb itself. The main temple houses the funerary tablets and possessions of the royal couple, many of which have been stolen, while nearby stand ancillary buildings where the emperor’s concubines lived out their years. In front of each stele-house is a paved courtyard, echoing the Imperial City’s Esplanade of Great Salutations, where officials and soldiers lined up to honour their emperor, but in this case the mandarins, horses and elephants are fashioned in stone; military mandarins are easily distinguished by their swords, whereas the civil variety clutch sceptres. Obelisks nearby symbolize the power of the monarch, and lastly, at the highest spot, there’s the royal tomb enclosed within a wall and a heavy, securely fastened door. Traditionally the burial place was kept secret as a measure against grave-robbers and enemies of the state, and in extreme cases all those who had been involved in the burial were killed immediately afterwards.
The Hon Chen Temple Festivals
Festivals at Hon Chen were banned between Independence and 1986 but have now resumed, taking place twice yearly in the middle of the third and seventh lunar month. The celebrations, harking back to ancient rituals, include trance-dances performed by mediums, usually females dressed in brightly coloured costumes, who are transported by a pulsating musical accompaniment. These events have proven popular with the few foreign tourists lucky enough to be here at the right time, and to hear that they’re actually happening.
The largest city in Central Vietnam, Da Nang is primarily used by travellers as a jumping-off point for Hoi An, a city that has no airport or train station of its own. However, stick around a while and you’ll find an unexpectedly amiable place, whose burgeoning middle class are seeing their cosmopolitan desires sated with a slew of trendy bars and cafés. The old French presence is also apparent in the leafy boulevards and colonial edifices along the riverfront promenade.
The elongated oval of Da Nang occupies a small headland protruding into the southern curve of Da Nang Bay. The city faces east, fronting onto Bach Dang and the Han River, across which the narrow Son Tra Peninsula shelters it from the South China Sea. The city itself harbours few specific sights of its own, beyond the wonderful Cham Museum with its unparallelled collection of sculpture from the period. However, there are a number of interesting sights in the area – just across the Son Tra Peninsula is China Beach, an increasingly developed stretch of sand from which you can see Monkey Mountain to the north and the Marble Mountains to the south.
Brief history of Da Nang
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trading vessels waiting to unload at Fai Fo (Hoi An) often sheltered in nearby Da Nang Bay, until Hoi An’s harbour began silting up and Da Nang developed into a major port in its own right. After 1802, when Hué became capital of Vietnam, Da Nang naturally served as the principal point of arrival for foreign delegations to the royal court. However, the real spur to the city’s growth came in the American War when the neighbouring air base spawned the greatest concentration of US military personnel in South Vietnam.
The seaward side of the Son Tra Peninsula provides Da Nang with its nearest unpolluted beach – My Khe, the original China Beach, though its rival to the south, Non Nuoc Beach, also claims the same sobriquet. My Khe is a long, if not exactly glorious, stretch of sand less than 3km southeast of central Da Nang. This was where US servicemen were helicoptered in for R&R during the American War, though these days it’s far more popular with seafood-craving locals. A xe om ride here should cost 30,000đ (slightly more at night) for the ride from Da Nang.
Da Nang during the war
The city of Da Nang mushroomed after the arrival of the first American combat troops on March 8, 1965. An advance guard of two battalions of Marines waded ashore at Red Beach in Da Nang Bay, providing the press with a photo opportunity that included amphibious landing craft, helicopters and young Vietnamese women handing out garlands – not quite as the generals had envisaged. The Marines had come to defend Da Nang’s massive US Air Force base; as the troops flew in so the base sprawled. Eventually Da Nang became "a small American city", as journalist John Pilger remembers it, "with its own generators, water purification plants, hospitals, cinemas, bowling alleys, ball parks, tennis courts, jogging tracks, supermarkets and bars, lots of bars". For most US troops the approach to Da Nang airfield formed their first impression of Vietnam, and it was here they came to take a break from the war at the famous China Beach.
At the same time the city swelled with thousands of refugees, mostly villagers cleared from "free-fire zones" but also people in search of work – labourers, cooks, laundry staff, pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers, all inhabiting a shantytown called Dogpatch on the base perimeter. Da Nang’s population rose inexorably: twenty thousand in the 1940s, fifty thousand in 1955 and, some estimate, a peak of one million during the American years. North Vietnamese mortar shells periodically fell in and around the base, but the city’s most violent scenes occurred when two South Vietnamese generals engaged in a little power struggle. In March 1966 Vice Air Marshal Ky, then prime minister of South Vietnam, ousted a popular Hué overlord, General Thi, following his open support of Buddhist dissidents. Demonstrations spread from Hué to Da Nang where troops loyal to Thi seized the airfield in what amounted to a mini civil war. After much posturing Ky crushed the revolt two months later, killing hundreds of rebel troops and many civilians. In the preceding chaos, the beleaguered rebels held forty Western journalists hostage for a brief period in Da Nang’s largest pagoda, Chua Tinh Hoi, while streets around filled with Buddhist protesters.
When the North Vietnamese Army finally arrived to liberate Da Nang on March 29, 1975, they had less of a struggle. Communist units had already cut the road south, and panic-stricken South Vietnamese soldiers battled for space on any plane or boat leaving the city, firing on unarmed civilians. Many drowned in the struggle to reach fishing boats, while planes and tanks were abandoned to the enemy. Da Nang had been all but deserted by South Vietnamese forces, leaving the mighty base to, according to Pilger, be "taken by a dozen NLF cadres waving white handkerchiefs from the back of a truck".
Da Nang to Hue
Up the coast from Da Nang, Highway 1 zigzags over the Hai Van Pass, a wonderfully scenic ride by road or (especially) rail. These days, most buses cut out the pass via the Hai Van Tunnel, leaving a more peaceful journey for those that choose to take on the pass. From the top of the pass there are superb views, weather permitting, over the sweeping curve of Da Nang Bay, with glimpses of the rail lines looping and tunnelling along the cliff. The two routes converge again where the tunnel emerges, at the small beach town of Lang Co, whose beach boasts brilliant white sands – and is still, as yet, markedly undeveloped. To the west is Bach Ma National Park, a gorgeous place where the remains of another French-era hill station are swamped by some of the lushest vegetation in Vietnam.
Pass of the Ocean Clouds
Thirty kilometres north of Da Nang, the first and most dramatic of three mountain spurs off the Truong Son range cuts across Vietnam’s pinched central waist, all the way to the sea. This thousand-metre-high barrier forms a climatic frontier blocking the southward penetration of cold, damp winter airstreams, which often bury the tops under thick cloud banks and earn it the title Hai Van, or "Pass of the Ocean Clouds". These mountains once formed a national frontier between Dai Viet and Champa, and Hai Van’s continuing strategic importance is marked by a succession of forts, pillboxes and ridge-line defensive walls erected by Nguyen-dynasty Vietnamese, French, Japanese and American forces.
Still packed with the accoutrements of its dynastic past, Hué is one of Vietnam’s most engaging cities. It boasts an unparalleled opportunity for historic and culinary exploration, thanks in no small part to its status as national capital from 1802–1945. Though the Nguyen dynasty is no more, Hué still exudes something of a regal, dignified air – its populace, indeed, are considered somewhat highbrow by the rest of the country. It’s still a breeding ground for poets, artists, scholars and intellectuals, and you’ll notice far more youngsters here than in other cities – largely because, unlike elsewhere in Vietnam, female students still wear the traditional ao dai.
Hué repays exploration at a leisurely pace, and contains enough in the way of historical interest to swallow up a few days with no trouble at all. The city divides into three clearly defined urban areas, each with its own distinct character. The nineteenth century walled citadel, on the north bank of the Perfume River, contains the once magnificent Imperial City as well as an extensive grid of attractive residential streets and prolific gardens. Across Dong Ba Canal to the east lies Phu Cat, the original merchants’ quarter of Hué where ships once pulled in, now a crowded district of shophouses, Chinese Assembly Halls and pagodas. What used to be called the European city, a triangle of land caught between the Perfume River’s south bank and the Phu Cam Canal, is now Hué’s modern administrative centre, where you’ll also find most hotels and tourist services.
Pine-covered hills form the city’s southern bounds; this is where the Nguyen emperors built their palatial Royal Mausoleums. And through it all meanders the Perfume River, named somewhat fancifully from the tree resin and blossoms it carries, passing on its way the celebrated, seven-storey tower of Thien Mu Pagoda. If you can afford the time, cycling out to Thuan An Beach makes an enjoyable excursion. Hué is also the main jumping-off point for day-tours of the DMZ.
With all this to offer, Hué is inevitably one of Vietnam’s pre-eminent tourist destinations. The choice and standard of accommodation are generally above average, as are its restaurants serving the city’s justly famous speciality foods. Nevertheless, the majority of people pass through Hué fairly quickly, partly because high entrance fees make visiting more than a couple of the major sights beyond many budgets, and partly because of its troublesome weather. Hué suffers from the highest rainfall in the country, mostly falling over just three months from October to December when the city regularly floods for a few days, causing damage to the historic architecture, though heavy downpours are possible at any time of year.
Brief history of Hue
The land on which Hué now stands belonged to the Kingdom of Champa until 1306, when territory north of Da Nang was exchanged for the hand of a Vietnamese princess under the terms of a peace treaty. The first Vietnamese to settle in the region established their administrative centre near present-day Hué at a place called Hoa Chan, and then in 1558 Lord Nguyen Hoang arrived from Hanoi as governor of the district, at the same time establishing the rule of the Nguyen lords over southern Vietnam which was to last for the next two hundred years. In the late seventeenth century the lords moved the citadel to its present location where it developed into a major town and cultural centre – Phu Xuan, which briefly became the capital under the Tay Son emperor Quang Trung (1788–1801).
The Nguyen dynasty
However, it was the next ruler of Vietnam who literally put Hué on the map – Emperor Gia Long, founder of the Nguyen Dynasty. From 1802, he sought to unify the country by moving the capital, lock, stock and dynastic altars, from Thang Long (Hanoi) to the renamed city of Hué. Gia Long owed his throne to French military support but his Imperial City was very much a Chinese concept, centred on a Forbidden City reserved for the sovereign, with separate administrative and civilian quarters.
The Nguyen emperors were Confucian, conservative rulers, generally suspicious of all Westerners yet unable to withstand the power of France. In 1884 the French were granted land northwest of Hué citadel, and they then seized the city entirely in 1885, leaving the emperors as nominal rulers. Under the Nguyen, Hué became a famous centre of the arts, scholarship and Buddhist learning, but their extravagant building projects and luxurious lifestyle demanded crippling taxes.
Hué ceased to be the capital of Vietnam when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945; two years later a huge fire destroyed many of the city’s wooden temples and palaces. From the early twentieth century the city had been engulfed in social and political unrest led by an anti-colonial educated elite, which simmered away until the 1960s. Tensions finally boiled over in May 1963 when troops fired on thousands of Buddhist nationalists demonstrating against the strongly Catholic regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. The protests escalated into a wave of self-immolations by monks and nuns until government forces moved against the pagodas at the end of the year, rounding up the Buddhist clergy and supposed activists in the face of massive public demonstrations.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive Hué was torn apart again when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) held the city for 25 days. Communist forces entered Hué in the early hours of January 31, hoisted their flag above the citadel and found themselves in control of the whole city bar two small military compounds. Armed with lists of names, they began searching out government personnel, sympathizers of the Southern regime, intellectuals, priests, Americans and foreign aid workers. Nearly three thousand bodies were later discovered in mass graves around the city – the victims were mostly civilians who had been shot, beaten to death or buried alive. But the killing hadn’t finished: during the ensuing counter-assault as many as five thousand North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, 384 Southern troops and 142 American soldiers died, plus at least another thousand civilians. Hué was all but levelled in the massive fire power unleashed on NVA forces holed up in the citadel but it took a further ten days of agonizing, house-to-house combat to drive the Communists out, in what Stanley Karnow described as “the most bitter battle” of the entire war. Seven years later, on March 26, 1975, the NVA were back to liberate Hué in its pivotal position as the first major town south of the Seventeenth Parallel.
The mammoth task of rebuilding Hué has been going on now for more than twenty years but received a boost in 1993 when UNESCO listed the city as a World Heritage Site, which served to mobilize international funding for a whole range of projects, from renovating palaces to the revival of traditional arts and technical skills.
One good argument for staying in Hué an extra couple of days is its many speciality foods, best sampled at local stalls and street kitchens. Here are the main dishes, and the locals’ tips for the best places to eat them:
Banh beo Order this afternoon dish and you get a whole trayful of individual plates, each containing a small amount of steamed rice-flour dough topped with spices, shrimp flakes and a morsel of pork crackling; add a little sweetened nuoc mam sauce to each dish and tuck in with a teaspoon. Banh nam, or banh lam, is a similar idea but spread thinly in an oblong, steamed in a banana leaf and eaten with rich nuoc mam sauce. Manioc flour is used instead of rice for banh loc, making a translucent parcel of whole shrimp, sliced pork and spices steamed in a banana leaf, but this time the nuoc mam is pepped up with a dash of chilli. Finally, ram it consists of two small dollops of sticky rice-flour dough, one fried and one steamed, to dip in a spicy sauce. You’ll find good places in which to sample these dishes all over the city.
Banh khoai Probably the most famous Hué dish, a small, crispy yellow pancake made of egg and rice flour, fried up with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts and eaten with a special peanut and sesame sauce (nuoc leo), plus a vegetable accompaniment of star fruit, green banana, lettuce and mint. Amazingly, it’s even more delicious than it sounds.
Bun bo Spicy rice-noodle beef soup flavoured with citronella, shrimp and basil; also called bun ga with chicken, or bun bo gio heo with beef and pork.
Chè A refreshing drink made from green bean and coconut (chè xanh dua), fruit (chè trai cay) or, if you’re lucky, lotus seed (chè hat sen).
Bun Bo Hué 11b Ly Thuong Kiet. Of all the places serving bun bo, this simple affair has by far the most renown. Any local will confirm this, you should definitely sample it yourself for 15,000đ.
Chè Hém 29/31 Hung Vuong. For a local speciality there aren’t as many places serving chè as you’d expect, but this is centrally located and as tasty as you’ll get.
Hanh 11 Phu Duc Chinh. Here you’ll find banh khoai freshly prepared throughout the day – 15,000đ will be enough for a plateful. It’s another local favourite, and packed at mealtimes – many of the regulars will wonder what on earth you’re doing on their turf.
The Imperial City
A second moat and defensive wall inside the citadel guard the Imperial City, which follows the same symmetrical layout as Beijing’s Forbidden City – though oriented northwest-southeast, rather than north-south. The Vietnamese version, popularly known as Dai Noi ("the Great Enclosure"), has four gates – one in each wall – though by far the most impressive is south-facing Ngo Mon, the Imperial City’s principal entrance. In its heyday the complex must have been truly awe-inspiring, a place of glazed yellow and green roof tiles, pavilions of rich red and gilded lacquer and lotus-filled ponds – all surveyed by the emperor with his entourage of haughty mandarins. However, many of its buildings were badly neglected even before the battle for Hué raged through the Imperial City during Tet 1968, and by 1975 a mere twenty out of the original 148 were left standing among the vegetable plots. Some are in the midst of extensive restorations, and those which have been completed are stunning – notably Thai Hoa Palace, the The Mieu complex and Dien Tho. The rest of the Imperial City, especially its northern sector, is a grassed-over expanse full of birds and butterflies where you can still make out foundations and find bullet pockmarks in the plasterwork of ruined walls.
Ngo Mon Gate
In 1833 Emperor Minh Mang replaced an earlier, much less formidable gate with the present dramatic entrance way to the Imperial City, Ngo Mon, considered a masterpiece of Nguyen architecture. Ngo Mon (the "Noon" or "Southwest" Gate) has five entrances: the emperor alone used the central entrance paved with stone; two smaller doorways on either side were for the civil and military mandarins, who only rated brick paving, while another pair of giant openings in the wings allowed access to the royal elephants.
Five Phoenix Watchtower
The bulk of Ngo Mon is constructed of massive stone slabs, but perched on top is an elegant pavilion called the Five Phoenix Watchtower as its nine roofs are said to resemble five birds in flight when viewed from above. Note that the central roof, under which the emperor passed, is covered with yellow-glazed tiles, a feature of nearly all Hué’s royal roofs. Emperors used the watchtower for two major ceremonies each year: the declaration of the lunar New Year; and the announcement of the civil service exam results, depicted here in a lacquer painting. It was also in this pavilion that the last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945 when he handed over to the new government his symbols of power – a solid gold seal weighing ten kilos and a sheathed sword encrusted with jade.
Thai Hoa Palace
Walking north from Ngo Mon along the city’s symmetrical axis, you pass between two square lakes and a pair of kylin, mythical dew-drinking animals that are harbingers of peace, to reach Thai Hoa Palace ("the Palace of Supreme Harmony"). Not only is this the most spectacular of Hué’s palaces, its interior glowing with sumptuous red and gold lacquers, but it’s also the most important since this was the throne palace, where major ceremonies such as coronations or royal birthdays took place and foreign ambassadors were received (see Ceremonies at the Thai Hoa Palace).
The palace was first constructed in 1805, though the present building dates from 1833 when the French floor tiles and glass door panels were added, and was the only major building in the Imperial City to escape bomb damage. Nevertheless, the throne room’s eighty ironwood pillars, swirling with dragons and clouds, had been eaten away by termites and humidity and were on the point of collapse when rescue work began in 1991. During the restoration every column, weighing two tonnes apiece, had to be replaced manually and then painted with twelve coats of lacquer, each coat taking one month to dry. Behind the throne room a souvenir shop now sells books and tapes of Hué folk songs where once the emperor prepared for his grand entrance. It also contains two large dioramas depicting the Imperial City and flag tower in their heyday.
The Forbidden Purple City
From Thai Hoa Palace the emperor would have walked north through the Great Golden Gate into the third and last enclosure, the Forbidden Purple City. This area, enclosed by a low wall, was reserved for residential palaces, living quarters of the state physician and nine ranks of royal concubines, plus kitchens and pleasure pavilions. Many of these buildings were destroyed in the 1947 fire, leaving most of the Forbidden Purple City as open ground, a "mood piece", haunted by fragments of wall and overgrown terraces.
The Left House and Right House
However, a handful of buildings remain, including the restored Left House and Right House facing each other across a courtyard immediately behind Thai Hoa Palace. Civil and military mandarins would spruce themselves up here before proceeding to an audience with the monarch. Of the two, the Right House (actually to your left – the names refer to the emperor’s viewpoint) is the more complete with its ornate murals and gargantuan mirror in a gilded frame, a gift from the French to Emperor Dong Khanh.
Thai Binh Reading Pavilion
Walking northeast from here you pass behind the Royal Theatre, built in 1826 and now belonging to the University of Fine Arts, to find the Thai Binh Reading Pavilion, an appealing, two-tier structure surrounded by bonsai gardens. The pavilion was built by Thieu Tri and then restored by Khai Dinh, who added the kitsch mosaics. This was where the emperor came to listen to music and commune with nature, but at the time of writing it was in a state of disrepair.
The Ancestral Altars
The other main cluster of sights lies a short walk away in the southwest corner of the Imperial City. Aligned on a south–north axis, the procession kicks off with Hien Lam Cac ("Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity"), a graceful, three-storey structure with some notable woodwork, followed by the Nine Dynastic Urns. Considered the epitome of Hué craftsmanship, the bronze urns were cast during the reign of Minh Mang and are ornamented with scenes of mountains, rivers, rain clouds and wildlife, plus one or two stray bullet marks. Each urn is dedicated to an emperor: the middle urn, which is also the largest at 2600kg, honours Gia Long. They stand across the courtyard from the long, low building of The Mieu, the Nguyens’ dynastic temple erected in 1822 by Minh Mang to worship his father. Since then, altars have been added for each emperor in turn, except Duc Duc and Hiep Hoa, who reigned only briefly, and Bao Dai who died in exile in 1997; the three anti-French sovereigns – Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan – had to wait until after Independence in 1954 for theirs. Take a look inside to see the line of altar tables, most sporting a portrait or photo of the monarch. Behind each is a bed equipped with a sleeping mat, pillows and other accoutrements and, finally, a shrine holding funeral tablets for the emperor and his wife or wives. Anniversaries of the emperors’ deaths are still commemorated at The Mieu, attended by members of the royal family in all their finery.
Exit The Mieu by its west door, beside a 170-year-old pine tree trained in the shape of a flying dragon, and follow the path north into the next compound to find Hung Mieu. This temple is dedicated to the Nguyen ancestors and specifically to the parents of Gia Long, and is distinguished by its fine carving.
North again, Dien Tho, the queen mother’s residence, is worth a look. Built in a mix of Vietnamese and French architectural styles, the palace later served as Bao Dai’s private residence, and the downstairs reception rooms are now set out with period furniture, echoing the photos of the palace in use in the 1930s.
Under the Nguyen emperors, Hué was the cultural and artistic as well as political capital of Vietnam. A rich tradition of dance and music evolved from popular culture, from the complex rituals of the court and from religious ceremonies. Though much of this legacy has been lost, considerable effort has gone into reviving Hué folk songs, Ca Hué, which you can now sample, drifting down the Perfume River on a balmy Hué evening (tickets 60,000đ).
Historically the Perfume River was a place of pleasure where prostitutes cruised in their sampans and artists entertained the gentry with poetry and music. While the former officially no longer exist, today’s folk-song performances are based on the old traditions, eulogizing the city’s beautiful scenery or the ten charms of a Hué woman – including long hair, dreamy eyes, flowing ao dai and a conical hat – while she waits for her lover beside the river. This sounds great, but be warned that the experience can feel somewhat cheap – the fees given to performers are far too low to recruit those with genuine talent, and in 2009 the state of affairs was fiercely lambasted by local authorities.
The city authorities have also instigated a biennial arts festival (held in June) featuring not only folk songs, kite-flying, water-puppetry and other local traditions, but also international groups
Ceremonies at the Thai Hoa Palace
On these occasions the emperor sat on the raised dais, wearing a golden tunic and a crown decorated with nine dragons, under a spectacular gilded canopy. He faced south across the Esplanade of Great Salutations, a stone-paved courtyard where the mandarins stood, civil mandarins to the left and military on the right, lined up in their appointed places beside eighteen stelae denoting the nine subdivided ranks. A French traveller in the 1920s witnessed the colourful spectacle, with "perfume-bearers in royal-blue, fan-bearers in sky-blue waving enormous yellow feather fans, musicians and guardsmen and ranks of mandarins in their curious hats and gorgeous, purple-embroidered dragons, kow-towing down, down on their noses amidst clouds of incense – and all in a setting of blood-red lacquer scrawled with gold.
During the American War, Quang Tri and Quang Binh, the two provinces either side of the DMZ, were the most heavily bombed and saw the highest casualties – civilian and military, American and Vietnamese. Names made infamous in 1960s’ and 1970s’ America have been perpetuated in countless films and memoirs: Con Thien, the Rockpile, Hamburger Hill and Khe Sanh. For some people the DMZ will be what draws them to Vietnam, the end of a long and difficult pilgrimage; for others it will be a bleak, sometimes beautiful, place where there’s nothing particular to see but where it’s hard not to respond to the sense of enormous desolation.
North of the DMZ is one of the region’s main attractions – the tunnels of Vinh Moc, where villages created deep underground during the American War have been preserved. The area’s other points of interest lie south of the Ben Hai River, and while it’s not possible to cover everything in a day, the most interesting of the places described here are included on organized tours from Hué. Alternatively, it’s possible to use Dong Ha as a base or cover a more limited selection of sights on the drive north. If you have limited time then the Vinh Moc tunnels should be high on your list, along with a drive up Highway 9 to Khe Sanh, both for the scenery en route and the sobering battleground itself. Note that, although you can now visit the DMZ without a local guide, this is not recommended as most sites are unmarked and, more importantly, the guides – arranged in Dong Ha – know which paths are safe; local farmers are still occasionally killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in this area.
North of Dong Ha
There are a few sights in and around the DMZ itself. Northwest of Dong Ha on Highway 15 are Con Thien Firebase and the Truong Son Cemetery, both notable wartime locations, while directly north of Dong Ha are another firebase and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, the latter being the most worthwhile sight in the whole area.
Con Thien Firebase
Roughly 12km out of Cam Lo, you pass the site of Con Thien Firebase. Again, there’s precious little left to see, beyond a view north to what were once NVA positions, chillingly close on the opposite bank of the Ben Hai River. The largest American installation along the DMZ, Con Thien FireBase was first established by the Special Forces (Green Berets) and then handed over to the Marines in 1966, whose big guns could reach from here far into North Vietnam. In the lead-up to the 1968 Tet Offensive, as part of the NVA’s diversionary attacks, the base became the target of prolonged shelling, followed by an infantry assault during which it was briefly surrounded. The Americans replied with everything in their arsenal, including long-range strafing from gunships in the South China Sea and carpet-bombing by B-52s. The North Vietnamese were forced to withdraw temporarily, but then completely overran the base in the summer of 1972.
Truong Son Cemetery
Truong Son War Martyr Cemetery is dedicated to the estimated twenty-five thousand men and women who died on the Truong Son Trail, better known in the West as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A total of 10,036 graves lie in the fourteen-hectare cemetery among whispering glades of evergreen trees. Arranged in five geographical regions, the graves are subdivided according to native province, and centred round memorial houses listing every name and grave number in the sector. Each headstone announces liet si ("martyr"), together with as many details as are known: name, date and place of birth, date of enrolment, rank and the date they died.
Doc Mieu Firebase
The American front line comprised a string of firebases set up on a long, low ridge of hills looking north across the DMZ and the featureless plain of the Ben Hai River. Although there’s nothing much to see now, you pass the site of one of these, Doc Mieu Firebase to the east of Highway 1 about 14km north of Dong Ha. Before the NVA overran Doc Mieu in 1972, the base played a pivotal role in the South’s defence. From here American guns shelled seaborne infiltration routes and, for a while, this was the command post for the "McNamara Line", calling in airstrikes from Da Nang to pound targets – both real and faked – along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Hien Luong Bridge
Just beyond Doc Mieu, Highway 1 drops down into the DMZ, running between paddy fields to the Ben Hai River, which lies virtually on the Seventeenth Parallel. You will see two bridges, the newly built one, which is open to traffic, and the unused Hien Luong Bridge that runs parallel to it. Until it was destroyed in 1967, the original Hien Luong Bridge was painted half red and half yellow as a vivid reminder that this was a physical and ideological boundary separating the two Vietnams. The reconstructed iron-girder bridge officially re-opened in 1975 as a symbol of reunification, and for many years represented an important psychological barrier between north and south.
The Vinh Moc tunnels
An amazing complex of tunnels where over a thousand people sheltered, sometimes for weeks on end, during the worst American bombardments. A section of the Vinh Moc tunnels has been restored and opened to visitors as a powerful tribute to the villagers’ courage and tenacity, with a small museum at the entrance providing background information.
The battle of Khe Sanh
The battle of Khe Sanh was important not because of its immediate outcome, but because it attracted worldwide media attention and, along with the simultaneous Tet Offensive, demonstrated the futility of America’s efforts to contain their enemy. In 1962 an American Special Forces team arrived in Khe Sanh Town to train local Bru minority people in counter-insurgency, and then four years later the first batch of Marines was sent in to establish a forward base near Laos, to secure Highway 9 and to harass troops on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Skirmishes around Khe Sanh increased as intelligence reports indicated a massive build-up of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops in late 1967, possibly as many as forty thousand, facing six thousand Marines together with a few hundred South Vietnamese and Bru. Both the Western media and American generals were soon presenting the confrontation as a crucial test of America’s credibility in South Vietnam and drawing parallels with Dien Bien Phu. As US President Johnson famously remarked, he didn’t want "any damn Dinbinfoo".
The NVA attack came in the early hours of January 21, 1968; rockets raining in on the base added to the terror and confusion by striking an ammunition dump, gasoline tanks and stores of tear gas. There followed a seemingly endless, nerve-grinding NVA artillery barrage, when hundreds of shells fell on the base each day, interspersed with costly US infantry assaults into the surrounding hills. In an operation code-named "Niagara" General Westmoreland called in the air battalions to silence the enemy guns and break the siege by unleashing the most intense bombing raids of the war: in nine weeks nearly a hundred thousand tonnes of bombs pounded the area round the clock, averaging one airstrike every five minutes, backed up by napalm and defoliants. Unbelievably the NVA were so well dug in and camouflaged that they not only withstood the onslaught but continued to return fire, despite horrendous casualties, estimated at ten thousand. On the US side around five hundred troops died at Khe Sanh (although official figures record only 248 American deaths, of which 43 occurred in a single helicopter accident), before a relief column broke through in early April, seventy-odd days after the siege had begun. NVA forces gradually pulled back and by the middle of March had all but gone, having successfully diverted American resources away from southern cities prior to the Tet Offensive. Three months later the Americans also quietly withdrew, leaving a plateau that resembled a lunar landscape, contaminated for years to come with chemicals and explosives; even the trees left standing were worthless because so much shrapnel was lodged in the timber.
The history of the DMZ
Under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnam was split in two along the Seventeenth Parallel, pending elections intended to reunite the country. The demarcation line ran along the Ben Hai River and was sealed by a strip of no-man’s-land 5km wide on each side known as the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. All Communist troops and supporters were supposed to regroup north in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, leaving the southern Republic of Vietnam to non-Communists and various shades of opposition. When the elections failed to take place, the river became the de facto border until 1975.
In reality both sides of the DMZ were anything but demilitarized after 1965, and anyway the border was easily circumvented – by the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the west and sea routes to the east – enabling the North Vietnamese to bypass a string of American fire bases overlooking the river. One of the more fantastical efforts to prevent Communist infiltration southwards was US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s proposal for an electronic fence from the Vietnamese coast to the Mekong River, made up of seismic and acoustic sensors that would detect troop movements and pinpoint targets for bombing raids. Though trials in 1967 met with some initial success, the "McNamara Line" was soon abandoned: sensors were confused by animals, especially elephants, and could be triggered deliberately by the tape-recorded sound of vehicle engines or troops on the march.
Nor could massive, conventional bombing by artillery and aircraft contain the North Vietnamese, who finally stormed the DMZ in 1972 and pushed the border 20km further south. Exceptionally bitter fighting in the territory south of the Ben Hai River (I Corps Military Region) claimed more American lives in the five years leading up to 1972 than any other battle zone in Vietnam. Figures for North Vietnamese losses during that period are not known, but it’s estimated that up to thirty percent of ordnance dropped in the DMZ failed to detonate on impact and that these have, since 1975, been responsible for up to ten thousand deaths and injuries. So much fire power was unleashed over this area, including napalm and herbicides, that for years nothing would grow in the impacted, chemical-laden soil, but the region’s low, rolling hills are now almost entirely reforested with a green sea of pine, eucalyptus, coffee and acacia.
The history of the tunnels
When American bombing raids north of the DMZ intensified in 1966 the inhabitants of Vinh Linh District began digging down into the red laterite soils, excavating more than fifty tunnels over the next two years. Although they were also used by North Vietnamese soldiers, the tunnels were primarily built to shelter a largely civilian population who worked the supply route from the Con Co Islands lying 28km offshore. Five tunnels belonged to Vinh Moc, a village located right on the coast where for two years 250 people dug more than 2km of tunnel, which housed all six hundred villagers over varying periods from early 1967 until 1969, when half decamped north to the relative safety of Nghe An Province. The tunnels were constructed on three levels at 10, 15 and 20–23m deep (though nowadays you can’t visit the lowest level) with good ventilation, freshwater wells and, eventually, a generator and lights. The underground village was also equipped with a school, clinics and a maternity room where seventeen children were born. Each family was allocated a tiny cavern, the four-person space being barely larger than a single bed. They were only able to emerge at night and lack of fresh air and sunlight was a major problem, especially for young children who would sit in the tunnel mouths whenever possible. In 1972, the villagers of Vinh Moc were finally able to abandon their underground existence and rebuild their homes, rejoined by relatives from Nghe An a year later.
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