Hue & the DMZ

Bright and shiny (that is, smelly and dishevelled) off the train at 7am in Hue, we decided to walk to our hotel. Our bags were pretty heavy and it was fairly hot already but we stopped for a rest in a park by the river and decided to ignore the fact that we needed a break for a walk that should only have taken 15 minutes. Scaler of mountains we are not. I spent the rest of the day working while Leigh went and made friends with strangers (there are warnings online about little old men that will take you for a beer or two and a chat before talking you into buying them an expensive bottle of wine. Leigh enjoyed the chat and asked for ID to prove that it was the man’s birthday before he bought the wine so he maintains it wasn’t a scam); the next day we got our tourist back on with a visit to Hue Imperial City.

The Imperial City in Hue is a considerably large space with lots of overgrown grass and structures with names like the “Hall of Supreme Harmony” and the “Temple of Generations”. Dating back to 1804 the city was mostly destroyed during the Battle of Hue in 1968 so it’s not an outstanding example if you’re interested in Vietnamese architecture. Only five of 40 original buildings in the Forbidden Purple City section survived.


That being said, the visit was worth it for the exhibit in Mandarin Hall, which had some displays of artefacts (mostly pottery) from when the Imperial City was the seat of Vietnamese rule under the Nguyen Dynasty and lots of very well translated English-language information banners, with fun facts like “Eunuchs transport the dishes over considerable distances” and “Chopsticks are used only once. They are made of a special wood, Kim Giao, which changes colour instantly upon contact with poison”.

It’s difficult to walk far in afternoon Vietnamese heat, so we stopped for a bowl of pho and a papaya salad on the walk home. I can’t say Hue is a particularly interesting city for walking in… with the exception of the park along the river that we walked between the train station and our hotel, the rest is pretty busy four-lane-plus roads lined with stores selling mass-produced jewellery, clothes, bags, white-goods, motorbike parts, etc (what they’re selling depends on where you’re walking).

Bright and shiny (dishevelled and slightly better smelling than fresh off the train) out of bed the next morning, we were collected for our day tour of the Demilitarized Zone. For $20 each they threw an egg baguette in front of us, poured a cup of tea down our throats and squashed us into the back of a 16-seater minivan with 18 strangers with whom we would proceed to share body odour with for the rest of the day.  Our first stop was around two hours later for three minutes on the side of the road, where our guide pointed to a mountain where an American flag had once flown. It was slightly more impressive than the Beatles Museum in Liverpool that has a bass guitar on display with the tag “This instrument was found in the attic of John Lennon’s childhood home and may once have been played by a member of the band”.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is more or less the area either side of the old border between North and South Vietnam. The second and third stops on our tour were on par with the first: three minutes on the side of the road to admire a local village (four wooden houses viewed at a distance) and a monument near a bridge that our guide said marked part of the DMZ trail. The tour stepped it up a notch when we stopped at an old US Army base. They left a fair bit of equipment behind when they left (a plane, some tanks, a helicopter) and there was an information centre with a few interesting facts. I passed on the local men selling honest-to-god authentic dog tags (I’m sure they had no reason to lie).

Back to the tour office for lunch and then back on the bus for an hour and a half to see the main point of interest: Vinh Moc Tunnels, where a whole village lived underground for two and a half years to escape bombings from the Americans (they believed the Vinh Moc villagers were supplying food and weapons to the North Vietnamese).

Over a few years the tunnels were dug to three levels going 30 metres deep with family rooms, kitchens, wells and maternity rooms. The tunnels are dark, just tall enough for me to stand in and smell damp. I can’t imagine living or being born down there for so many months but it worked: apparently none of the villagers died from American bombing during the war. More quickly than I would have liked we were herded back onto the minivan (although it was much easier for me to navigate, I didn’t have to stoop like Leigh) with a stop at a war cemetery on the way where we were given no information about those interred or why the cemetery was established on the side of a highway. My overwhelming memory of the DMZ tour is that it’s interesting to see a place with so much history and incredibly frustrating to have a guide not at all interested in relaying any of that history to you.



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