The couple with whom we shared our four-bunk compartment were prone to startling bursts of snoring that drowned out even the clatter of the rails. I finally gave up trying to sleep and rolled out of bed in search of a morning coffee.
It’s a twelve-hour trip on the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue and we still had several hours to go when I settled down in the dining car with my morning tea (sorry, no coffee). The train skirted tiny villages and sped past fields still flooded by the recent monsoon rains. The first farm workers and their water buffalo were heading for the fields and I was just finishing my bowl of noodles when we rattled across the Ben Hai River bridge.
There is nothing remarkable about the Ben Hai River except that it happens to coincide almost exactly with the 17 th parallel. And in 1954, when Vietnam was partitioned along the 17 th parallel, the Ben Hai River became the de facto boundary between North and South Vietnam.
Although the partitioning of Vietnam, as negotiated at the Geneva Conference, was supposed to be temporary, the country remained divided for the next 21 years. During that time the infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along the Ben Hai River became the most heavily militarized strip of turf in the world. Even now, more than thirty years after the war, it continues to take its toll. Since 1975 an estimated 5,000 people have been killed or injured by forgotten mines and unexploded ordnance in the DMZ.
We rolled into Hue and were introduced to Long, an enthusiastic local guide whose passion for Vietnamese history vastly exceeded his command of the English language. For the next two days he took us on a whirlwind tour of his city but I have only the vaguest idea of what he told us. My first impression was how calm and quiet it was. Compared to the frantic rush and crush of traffic in Hanoi, the streets of Hue seemed practically empty and the pace relaxed. We checked in to the Huong Giang Hotel and went for lunch on its bright dining balcony overlooking the Perfume River. Sampans and dragon boats cruise leisurely along the shore past brightly painted low-rise buildings in a park-like setting of trees and feathery clumps of bamboo. It’s hard to imagine that this serene place was the site of some of the most brutal fighting of the U.S.-Vietnam war and that the city of Hue was virtually annihilated in the process.
At the beginning of the 1968 Tet Offensive Hue was the only city in South Vietnam held by Communist forces and when the South Vietnamese army was unable to dislodge them US firepower was called in. For the next three and a half weeks, while the flag of North Vietnam’s National Liberation Front flew defiantly from the Citadel Tower, whole neighborhoods, along with most of the ancient temples and palaces of the Citadel itself, were leveled by US bombs and Viet Cong rockets. And it was not just the architecture that suffered – an estimated 10,000 people died in the battle for Hue. By the end of the war in 1975 the devastation of Hue was so overwhelming that the remains of its historic sites were simply abandoned. Years later it was tourism that ultimately led to their restoration.