Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hue and the Reunification Express to Hanoi (July 12-14, 2011)

Tracks in Hue, south of the Perfume River
I thought the earth would never stop shaking.  I ran over the unsettled ground and grabbed my daughter from the porch of a strange house..  The house was shaken to splinters with the vibration, the siding and the sheetrock falling away from the splitting studs.  When I saw there was no insulation, it donned on me why the house had always been either hot or cold (a funny thing to recall in the midst of an earthquake).  Caroline and I held each other until finally the ground stopped shaking.  I never imaged that an earthquake could last so long, but once it stopped shaking, we ventured out see if everyone was okay.  Donna was in another unfamiliar house, across the street and was helping someone put back dishes that had fallen out of the cabinets.  Then the earth started shaking again and the plates kept falling, this time breaking as they fell.  I said something about it being an after-shock and woke up, realizing it had all been a dream.  The train was jerking on some rough track (perhaps going through a yard with a lot of switches which tend to be rough).  It was 2 AM and we were a two hours south of Hanoi.
I’d come into Hue with Toan at noon on Tuesday (July 12).  One of my earliest memories of the evening news coverage of the war in Vietnam was the fighting around Hue during the Tet Offensive.  The North Vietnamese were quick to take most of the city, raising their flag over the Citadel and isolating two small units (one an American and the other a South Vietnamese unit).  Reinforcements were quickly sent up from Da Nang and for the next two weeks, a bloody battle ensued.  The fighting was intense and close range as they fought house to house and block by block.  Once the city was retaken, it was learned that the northern soldiers had come into the city with a list of names of people believed to be supportive of the South.  In all, over 3,000 Hue residents were rounded up and executed (a story not shared in any of the museums I visited, but then the victor gets to write history). 
From the back moat looking forward
After lunch on the edge of Hue, we crossed the Perfume River.  Unlike most jungle rivers that tend to be brown or red with silt, the waters of the Perfume looked pristine.  We rode on into the city and found my hotel where we dropped off my bags.  Then we headed to the Citadel, a massive fortress on the other side of the Perfume River in which the Imperial City sits.  The old fort is impressive.  The outer walls are 10 kilometers in length.  The fortress was built in the early 19th Century, some of it with the help of the French who were trying to weasel their way into Vietnam by appeasing the emperor.  There is a huge battery in front of the fortress upon which waves the largest Vietnamese flag in country.  I have no way of verifying if it is the largest (that’s what Toan said) but it’s huge, about as large as those flags that used to fly over our gas stations as oil companies showed their faux-patriotism while creating a traffic distractions.   This large flag can be seen from most places within the old imperial city and serves as a visual reminder that the emperor is no more!  Further supporting this idea is the missing “Forbidden City,” the inner city where the emperor lived and ruled.  These palaces were made mostly of wood and burned in 1947.  The area saw further destruction in the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the flag of the north flew over the Citadel for a few days. 
Restoration work
Today, some of the buildings as well as the impressive gateways have been restored and more work is ongoing.  The various walls with their graceful arched gates and numerous lily-filled moats create a special feel about the place and I enjoyed my time wandering around.  I spent two hours there, but could have spent the whole day as the city is massive!

After visiting the Imperial City, I had Toan drop me off by the train station.  I paid him and we said our goodbyes.  I was sad to see him go as we’d had a great time together; however, my butt offered a dissenting opinion as it happily saw the bike take off without us.   Knowing that I needed to be in Beijing by a particular date and afraid that the trains are filling up, I’d hoped I could buy a ticket from Hanoi to Beijing, but was disappointed to learn that I could only buy that ticket in Hanoi (and would have to show my passport with a valid Chinese visa when purchasing it).  Even if I could have brought the ticket, the hotel had my passport (a requirement that many hotels enforce in Vietnam, as they have to be report to the police nightly all foreigners—and maybe even nationals—who are lodging there).  So, empty handed, I walked back to the hotel, staying close to the river and trying to avoid the pestering xe om’s who wanted to give me a ride or set me up with a girl.   Instead, by the river, I had a string of women boat operators trying to sell me a tour on the Perfume River.  I really wasn’t interested and was wanting to get back for dinner, but one of the women who’d started out offering an hour river trip for 300,000 dong (about $15), dropped the price all the way to 80,000 dong (about $4).  It would have been a deal, as it would have been a “private tour.”  Seeing the boat, which was about 50 feet long and could carry at least 30 people, I had to shake my head as I can’t believe she and her husband would have made anything on such a trip. 
For dinner on Tuesday night, I ate spring rolls and a bowl of noodles with pork.  Later that evening, I had a long discussion over a beer with a retired professor.  We discussed our favorite authors.  He likes Hemingway and we talked about the Nick Adam stories and my fishing on the Two-Hearted and Fox Rivers.  Both of us agreed that The Old Man and the Sea was his classic, a book that was translated in the Viet language before 1975.  We also briefly touched on For Whom the Bells Toll and the American experiences in foreign civil wars.
I was glad to talk with this professor (I am purposely omitting his name).  As one who had devoted his life to academics, he understood where my questions were coming.  I told him about the “Lost Cause Movement” in the American South around the end of the 19th Century.  Noting it had been about the same amount of time in Vietnam since the fall of the South, I wondered if a similar movement had developed.  He didn’t think so (although other books I’ve read have suggested that there is disillusionment among many of the Southern Viet Cong who feel betrayed by the North).  First of all, he inserted, Vietnam is a socialist country in name only.  Then he presented an interesting idea.  “America,” he said, “won in 1973.  You got what you wanted, a way out.”  “The North,” he suggested, “won in 1975.”   They got a unified country.  And in the 1990s, with the movement away from socialism to a capitalistic economy, the South won.  He then shared with me an article by James Kurth, “The U. S. Victory in Vietnam: Lost and Found,” that he felt confirmed his ideas about the aftermath of the war. 
I think he may be right as the South is doing much better economically now and this makes Vietnam different from the American experience.  After the Civil War in America, the South, which was economically inferior before the war, was destroyed.  In Vietnam, the South had better infrastructure before the end of the war and because the fall of the South was so quick, there wasn’t as much of the massive Sherman-like destruction that laid waste to wide swaths of land.  However, because of the Christmas bombings of 1972, the North was in worst shape and needed more rebuilding.  In the 1990s, as economic restrictions were liberalized, the South was in a better position to capitalize.  Interestingly, on the train from Hue to Hanoi, I met several guys who were from the north, but had gone south to find employment and were going to home to visit.
The professor then said that his country had to put the past behind them and raised a concern that was beginning to sound like a broken record: China’s dominance of the South China Seas off of Vietnam’s shores.  Vietnam is trying build its navy (someone had told me they’ve recently purchased six submarines from Russia), but it doesn’t have the money to build a sufficient fleet to challenge China and to protect its long coastline.   Vietnam has a long history of struggling with China (they last fought in the late 70s, when China sought to punish Vietnam for ending the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia).  The Vietnamese have always been suspicious of the Chinese even though the Viet people were probably originally Chinese (but that was more than a few years ago).

Reading (a guidebook) at the Temple of Literature

On June 13th, with a little over half a day free, I hired a xe om driver for the morning to take me to a few sites around Hue.  We stopped at the Temple of Literature, where I was the only tourist.  Such an experience doesn’t speak well for the written word!  The temple was a place where students of Confucianism would take exams to determine if they were ready for civil service.

Thiem Mu Pogada

Next, we stopped at the Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist site that was known for its opposition to Colonial powers and to South Vietnam’s anti-Buddhist policies in the early 60s.  In 1963, a monk from this monastery drove to Saigon, drenched himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in opposition to these policies.  The photo of his burning was seen all over the world and provided a foretaste of what was to come from Vietnam.   The car he drove to Saigon is now kept at the site as well as photographs of the monk.  According to my guide book, the pagoda is still a thorn in the side of the government as it still protests against policies deemed unfair.  There were lots of monks milling around, but they were mostly boys (many didn’t even look to be in their teens).  I couldn’t see them being much of a threat to the government.  The pagoda, however, is beautiful.  It sits on a bluff overlooking the Perfume River. 
After the pagoda, we headed to some bunkers the xe om knew that had been built by the American soldiers during the war.  There were three bunkers that overlooked the Perfume River, west of the city, and a road that led into town.  They had been closed off, but you could walk around them.  Although interesting, the view of the river from the cliff was stunning.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped for lunch and had fresh spring rolls (they are steamed, not deep fried) and a vegetable pancake with peanut sauce along with a glass of carrot/ginger juice.  Once back at the guesthouse, I spent my remaining two hours completing my blog post on Phnom Penh.  At 2 PM, the proprietor’s daughter gave me a lift to the train station on the back of her motor scooter.  I was ready to head north (the train was scheduled for 2:45 PM).
While waiting for the train, I was talking to some kids when a Vietnamese man approached and asked where I was from.  It’s one of the questions I get asked a lot, but generally by those whose English isn’t very good as this guy’s.  His English was flawless. 
“America,” I said. 
“But where?” He asked. 
“Michigan,” I said. 
“You don’t sound like you’re from Michigan,” he said.
It turns out this man has lived in Raleigh, North Carolina for the past 20 years and knew a Carolina accent when he heard one!  We talked for a while.  Although he’d left Vietnam decades ago (he started out in New York State before going to North Carolina, he now comes back and spends a few months in the country each year (He says he can pay for his airfare by the cheap cost of living here).  He has a daughter who lives in Hue and she and his grandchildren, along with his wife, were at the station to pick up his other daughter.  She also lives in Raleigh and had flown into Saigon and was taking the train north to visit.  Sometimes the world seems to be a small place.
On the train, I talked some to the family in the bunk below me.  They were both from the north, but working in the South and were going home for vacation, taking with them their two children (ages 2 and 4).  Unlike my previous Vietnam train, these kids (one with his dad and the other with his mom) fit in their parent’s bunk.  The other guy in the compartment never said a word (not even when we woke him to tell him we were in Hanoi and the train was emptying).  Instead, he spent his waking hours grading some math test papers!  I spent some time writing. 
As I had no desire to return to the dining car, when the train stopped for servicing at Quang Tri, I got off in search of food.  I purchased a large bowl of instant noodles (bun pho or beef noodles) and a can of beer for 40,000 dong or about $2).  Each car has a boiling water dispenser and I filled my bowl with water and, since I was on the top bunk, sat on a plastic chair in the walkway and ate my dinner.  As I was eating, a man in the compartment behind me struck up a conversation.  He was coming back from a holiday in Saigon (even though he worked for the government, he always referred to the city by its French name and not Ho Chi Minh City).  His name is Soon (it’s spelled that way but has a funny curly-cue over the second vowel).   He is a year younger than me and works in foreign affairs in Hanoi.  He has taken the train to Beijing many times, as well as into North Korea.  His area of expertise is China and Korea and he said he’s fluent in Korean and knows some Chinese.  We shared family photos and talked about many things, including the threat of China in the South China Seas, and the fact that we’re both blessed by being born late enough to miss out on the Vietnam War.  He has a daughter that is currently a university student and his wife runs a small store.
At 9 PM, everyone in my compartment had gone to bed and I decided I’d better do the same as the train was due into Hanoi at 4 AM.
The train on left is a "hard seat"(3rd Class) non-air conditioned train
The one of the right is my train


  1. I remember the news reports and film of the Marines hoisting the flag above the citadel after the battle. Another great post and more great photos. Thanks for all of it.


  2. How interesting that you met someone from Raleigh! Can you tell me what he does/did for a living?

  3. As always, a very informative report. It makes that part of the world seem more real hearing your personal reports. Frightening dream at the beginning.

  4. Awesome information Jeff! Very interesting to read. We miss you!

  5. That's so neat that you made a Carolina connection. And you had me going with that dream.

  6. Fantastic! It's great that you met folks and they were willing to talk openly to you. Great in-the-field reporting...