On March 10, 2017, we arrived in the ancient city of Hue (pronounced “way”), Vietnam, located in central Vietnam. Hue is called the ancient city because it was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. The city is located on the banks of the Perfume River (Huang River, Huang means beauty and romance like perfume is considered romantic, but the river does not have a particularly pleasant odor).
We checked into the five-star, elegant Indochine Palace Hotel, a luxurious, upscale hotel that rivals any Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons anywhere in the world. We arrived late, listened to some live violinists playing classical, beautiful music in the bar area of the hotel and then went to our room to get some rest.
 
The Tomb of King Ming Mang
The next morning, our private guide picked us up and we began our city tour. We started with a visit to the Royal Tomb of King Ming Mang, the second emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, who governed southern and central Vietnam from 1820 until 1840. The King began the process of planning and building his exquisite burial complex, but died before it was finished. Located on the Perfume River, the complex is located approximately 12 km from Hue and originally consisted of 40 structures (including a building for the Kings clothing, pavilions for mourners and his tomb) small lakes, stunning landscaping and a bridge over a Lake of Lotus flowers. The buildings exhibit Chinese architectural concepts with bright colors, gorgeous lacquer finishes and elegant walkways and landscaping. Unfortunately, the King died before it was finished and his son, Thieu Tri completed the project. Unfortunately, as in the case with many artifacts in Hue and other parts of Vietnam, the complex was severely damaged during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War Tet Offensive in 1968, and the bombing by the Americans, resulted in only 20 of the original 40 buildings within the complex that remain standing.
 
Thien Mu Pagoda
Next, we drove to the seven-level Thien Mu Pagoda, built in 1601 by the Nguyen Dynasty, between the Perfume River and a pine forest, the Pagoda is the tallest and one of the oldest religious buildings in the country. The Thein Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady) is one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Vietnam. The Pagoda sits on top of Ha Khe Hill, with each of its seven stories representing a human form taken by Buddha or the steps to enlightenment, depending on the person you ask.
 
Dragon Boat Ride to Dong Ba Market
We then went down to the dock below the Pagoda to board a private Dragon Boat to take a cruise down the Perfume River to walk through the vibrant, energetic Dong Ba Market, the street market. Entire families live on these Dragon Boats. Our boat was no exception, as an 18-month old beautiful little boy was napping at our feet for the entire boat ride, dad was driving the boat and, mom was serving us tea. While we have been to markets in Thailand, Laos and other cities in Vietnam, each has it’s own character, smells, and energy that make it unique. Hue’s Dong Ba Market was no different. The narrow lanes with colorful fruits and vegetables and the barbecue skewers that are uniquely Hue, were eschew with motorcyclists filling their bags with produce and food for the day.
 
We went to a fortune teller located in the market. The Vietnamese are very superstitious, and they rarely make any important decisions without consulting a fortune teller. For example, we met a young Vietnamese couple who were waiting to get married until next year because a fortune teller told them their numbers were not good for this year. While the fortune teller did not provide us with any specific insight, it was great fun to sit down and take part in this Vietnamese tradition.
 
The Imperial Citadel and The Forbidden Purple City
The walled fortress, complete with a mote and the imperial city that lies within, served as the capital city and home of the Nguyen Dynasty for 140 years, from 1805 until 1945. The Hue Imperial City is one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam. The walled Imperial City is enormous, with ten main majestic gates leading into the city. The city is divided into two main areas, the Citadel (the military complex which served to protect the royal family and the Kingdom) and the Purple Forbidden City (where the Emperor and his family lived). The complex reminds me of the Chinese Forbidden City in Beijing, and it should because it was modeled after it. The complex was severely damaged during the Vietnam War, with only 10 of the original 160 structures in the complex that remain standing.
 
Vietnam War and It’s Impact On the Area
The impact of the Vietnam War on the people and the historical and religious sites in Hue was devastating. The morning of January 31, 1968, as part of the Tet (meaning the lunar new year, the largest Vietnamese holiday) Offensive, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Kong soldiers launched a surprise attack on Hue seizing most of the city. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Kong were able to infiltrate the city days before the attack as they blended in with pilgrims from around the country that were there for the lunar new year. Hue, located approximately 100 kms from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and in the central part of the country, was in a very strategic location to capture control of during the war.
 
In the beginning, Allied forces held off on bombing Hue because of its significant religious and historic buildings and monuments. As the fighting continued, and the Viet Kong began hiding in homes and in the historic sites, like the Hue Imperial City, the bombing restrictions were lifted and in the end, even though the Allies were able to take Hue back from the North Vietnamese, Hue’s historical and religious sites were virtually destroyed. The Battle of Hue was one of the bloodiest in the Vietnam War, as Hue lost over 5,000 civilians during the battle (with over 50% allegedly executed by the Viet Kong and the North Vietnamese Army).
 
One cannot help but notice the impact of Agent Orange, a blend of tactical herbicides that the United States sprayed on foliage to kill the dense foliage that provided cover for the Viet Kong and North Vietnamese soldiers, on the people of Hue and the surrounding areas. More than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were sprayed by plane over 30,000 square miles of countryside closest to the demarcation zone, the borders of Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam to allow the allies to be able to better view the enemy in the deep jungle. Today, Agent Orange is regarded as one of the most toxic chemicals known to man. The chemical infiltrated the Vietnam ecosystem, the water, the soil, and it’s food supply. Almost five million Vietnamese people (and an unknown number of war veterans from around the world) were exposed to this horrific chemical, which causes birth defects for up to four generations post exposure, various forms of cancer, liver disorders, neurological defects, auto-immune diseases and other major issues. We noticed handfuls of children with noticeable birth defects, including deformed limbs, blindness and the inability to speak caused by Agent Orange in and around Hue as we visited. The government has indicated to the people that the Agent Orange has been eliminated from their eco system, but we couldn’t help but be ashamed to be an American as we visited the impacted areas.
 
Walking the City and The Banks of the Perfume River
It was Saturday night when we visited Hue, so we were able to experience the city when it was the most active and vibrant. We walked along the banks of the Perfume River and the Tiang Tien Bridge, one of the most romantic bridges in Vietnam. The bridge has six curves, going up and down over the road beneath, representing the ups and downs of life during the wars with the French and the Vietnam War. Today, the bridge lights up one step at a time, changing colors, from red, blue, yellow to white, representing peace and the vibrant colors, sites and sounds of modern Hue. The banks of the Perfume River has parks lined with street food, vendors selling their wares and university students sitting in circles and singing songs together. The song they were singing was written by a Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War to his love at home. Couples were taking a leisurely stroll along the river with eyes only for each other. There are lights strung from the trees in various colors and shapes, making the spot even more romantic and special. There are many universities here, so as we walked away from the river to some of the side streets, they were lined with Western–style bars with names like, “Are You Tipsy Yet?.” We strolled back to our hotel and had a cocktail in the lobby bar (again, with live music playing) before retiring to bed.
 
Da Nang, Hai Van Pass
The next morning, we headed for the city of Hoi An. Along the three hour drive, we enjoyed a view of the Vietnam coastline and stopped at Da Nang City for a view from the top of the Hai Van Pass (meaning, “mountain in the clouds”).
 
Hei Van Bunkers
We stopped at the Hei Van Bunkers, built high on a mountain by the French during their occupation of Vietnam to control the North. The bunkers were also used by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Today, it is a tourist spot and a destination for Vietnamese couples to have breathtaking wedding photos taken amidst the clouds. There is a pedestal high above the bunkers that wedding couples climb up to using a ladder and some help from the people below, to get on top of the pedestal for pictures. The bride we saw today appeared scared to death up there, as she never smiled, and she was hanging onto her husband for dear life. Brides rent their wedding dresses and they often wear more than one dress on their wedding day. Renting a dress sounds like a great idea to us given we only wear them once and then box them away in the attic!
 
Da Nang and the Famous My Khe Beach (formerly called China Beach)
Next, we entered the city of Da Nang, a coastal city known for it’s beautiful beaches and it’s history as a French port. The Dragon Bridge (Cau Rong) which crosses the Han River, is a magical site in the city of Da Nang. The golden dragon scales the length of the bridge, and each evening at 9 pm, the fire and water pours out of the dragon’s mouth. The bridge is 666 meters long and was finished on 6/6/2006, the sign of the devil. The thought is that the dragon is stronger than the devil.
 
We had our picture taken at China Beach (The American troop’s nickname for the beach), considered to be one of Vietnam’s most picturesque beaches. It was a very popular place for American troops to go for a little rest and relaxation during the Vietnam War. This beach was also the first place ground troops arrived in Vietnam as 3,500 US Marines entered the country in March 1965. They were greeted, believe it or not, with welcome signs and women in traditional Vietnamese dresses. Their mission was to protect the city’s air base, which was perceived to be a straight forward, short mission. No one anticipated how long and how difficult the conflict with the North Vietnamese and the Viet Kong would be. By the end of 1965, the US had sent over 185,000 troops, and, by the end of the war, when Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese, more than 2.7 million Americans had served in the Vietnam War, with 58,000 US service men losing their lives.
 
The Cham Museum
The Cham Museum is dedicated to sculptures of the Cham people, Vietnam indigenous people, with roots dating back to 192 AD. The museum holds the largest collection of Cham sculpture in the world, with over 300 terracotta and stone works of art dating back to the 7th to 15th centuries. The Cham people lived the Indian culture, and focused on Hinduism. The detail and the beauty of these sculptures was remarkable.
 
The Marble Mountains
We visited the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located outside Da Nang. The five mountains are named after the five elements: wood, water, fire, metal and earth. The mountains have cave entrances and tunnels and the Viet Kong used them as hiding places and it served as a makeshift hospital. The mountains were also very near an American air facility as well. You can still see places where Allied bombing damaged the caves. Today, there are Buddha sanctuaries in the caves as a place to worship and ask for continued peace. Local artists make sculptures out of the limestone and marble from the mountains that are available for sale at the base of the mountains.
 
Hoi An City
We arrived in Hoi An City, located on Vietnamese central coast late in the day. We checked into the five- star Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort and prepared for the evening ahead. More on Hoi An tomorrow.