Just past the train station on your way south toward the imperial tombs, little Bao Quoc temple is a Buddhist temple dating back to the 17th century. At the top of the steps leading to the main temple square, you’ll see the grand arched entry of a classic Chinese school.
These significant mountain outposts were American strongholds throughout the war that came under constant barrage from North Vietnamese regulars. This is the highest ground in the region along a high ridge so it was valuable turf for artillery units and snipers. The area is now green with foliage (apart from the most heavily bombed mountaintops), but it’s a far cry from what was once dense jungle. Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. defoliation campaign, was relentless in this area.
Doc Mieu was the closest American base to the DMZ, only a few short clicks above the town of Dong Hoa. Now it’s little more than a clearing with the rusting hulk of a Sherman Tank, but once it was a beehive of activity. Some tours stop here briefly.
Towering Hai Van Pass has been an inspiration to Vietnamese artists and poets for centuries. Straddling the highest point on the steep terrain between Danang and Hue, it was a natural defense post during Vietnam’s lengthy conflicts, and the large “pill box” fortifications are still in evidence at the peak just above the road. Tour buses, and even local buses, take a quick pit stop here and the local vendors descend like their own invading army, but a cloudless day means stunning views north and south. Before crossing the pass from the north, you pass the entrance to Bach Ma National Park and trace the thin strip of land along Lang Co Beach (see listings below) before zigzagging up the slope.
Many know the name from the Clint Eastwood film depicting the events of May 10 to May 21, 1969, when U.S. Airborne Troops stood toe-to-toe with heavily dug-in Vietnamese forces in order to stop North Vietnamese movement through the A Shau valley and south. You would only really go to Hamburger Hill if you had some connection with the battle that took place here. The denuded slope is some 100km (62 miles) to the interior from the main DMZ area.
Every city’s got one, an homage point for Vietnam’s national hero, and this one is actually kind of interesting. In a large rotunda on the road heading from the new town toward the train station, the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hue is the usual collection of photos and memorabilia telling the story of Ho’s early life of poverty in Vinh, here with a stress on the years he spent in Hue during his father’s tenure in the university (see Ho Chi Minh’s Home in Hue, below). There are images and a reproduction of the boat he sailed on as a galley hand, as well as a unique picture of Ho working in the kitchen of the Castleton Hotel in London in 1914, a time when his ideas about Marxism and revolution began to flower. The museum tells the history of Hue, from capital to revolution and the aftermath, in photos. Also find some interesting political cartoons parodying French rule, as well as extensive copies and basic translations of Ho’s writings — the likes of the 8 Requirements of Society, which Ho presented at the Versailles Conference in Paris in 1919.
On the way to Thuan An Beach, a narrow lane leads over a small bridge off of the main road at a curve some 6km (3 3/4 miles) north of Hue. An immediate right after the bridge brings you along the small river area where Ho bathed during his time here, and just about 100m (328 ft.) farther brings you to the humble home, a reconstruction, and new temple that mark the site where the leader spent formative years during his father’s study for examinations to become a mandarin (government official).
Set in an old picturesque Chinese temple (you’re asked to wear shoe covers at the entry in order to preserve the wood), the Hue Monuments Conservation Center is the Imperial Museum of the old capital, displaying all the treasures (or what’s left over) from the Nguyen kings. Precious coins, stone carvings, and Ming dynasty pottery from China are just a few of the gifts in this repository of courtly finery presented to Vietnam’s 19th-century leaders by visiting dignitaries. Unique is the lacquer-framed gong made of stone from China. At the back you’ll find lacquered palanquins and furnishings for the royal court and procession, and farther back look for the very embroidered finery donned by Nguyen kings on parade.
Next door is the Exhibition of the Resistance Against the American Invader, which doesn’t mince words. The courtyard out front displays some captured war machines. Inside is a rhetorical parade of faded photos and artifacts that tell the story of American aggression from the July 1954 Geneva Agreement to the North Vietnamese Army’s jubilant liberation of Saigon, with images of the hard fighting in Hue city in 1968. The exhibition is propagandistic, with captions telling of the “lackey” government of “puppet” rulers in the south, and selections of photos depicting Americans as torturers who disemboweled their North Vietnamese captors, but that very rhetoric is what’s so interesting. History is told by the victors, and the Vietnamese are proud of their victory and of what they had to endure to survive as a sovereign nation. Elsewhere, as with the War Museum in Saigon, which changed its name from “Museum of the American War Crimes,” Vietnamese rhetoric about their own recent history is softening, or disappearing altogether. In Vietnam’s hell-bent pursuit of success in the global economy and forgetting the past, this reminder is thought-provoking. Note that credit cards are not accepted.
Completed in 1931, the tomb is one of the world’s wonders. The emperor himself wasn’t particularly revered, being overly extravagant and flamboyant (reportedly he wore a belt studded with lights that he flicked on at opportune public moments). His tomb, a gaudy mix of Gothic, baroque, Hindu, and Chinese Qing dynasty architecture at the top of 127 steep steps, is a reflection of the man. Inside, the two main rooms are completely covered with fabulous, intricate glass and ceramic mosaics in designs reminiscent of Tiffany and Art Deco. The workmanship is astounding. The outer room’s ceiling was done by a fellow who used both his feet and his hands to paint, in what some say was a sly mark of disrespect for the emperor. Also noteworthy: In most tombs the location of the emperor’s actual remains are a secret, but Khai Minh boldly placed his under his de facto tomb itself.
If most of the former battle sites in the area require more imagination than many visitors can muster, the base at Khe Sanh is worth the trip for its informative museum and some tangible evidence of American presence and the years of strife in the region. Khe Sanh is where, in January 1968, Viet Cong forces launched a massive attack. It was a diversion to keep U.S. General William Westmoreland comfortable in his illusion that the war was being fought on a single front, and only a few months later the real might of the Tet offensive landed in the south after skirting the heavily guarded DMZ, but nobody told the two divisions of North Vietnamese troops that it was a diversion. The January 21 attack at Khe Sanh left big numbers of casualties on both sides. The Tet Offensive nearly broke the back of Vietnam’s fighting capability (they lost more than 10-to-1 in casualties), but it also broke the back of world and U.S. opinion about the conflict, and it was the beginning of the end for support of the war. After the offensive, U.S. forces pulled back to Camp Carol near Dong Ha town.
The large museum compound at Khe Sanh is home to a collection of war detritus: an abandoned Huey helicopter, the remains of crashed recon planes, the hulking shell of an M41 tank, a massive CH47 helicopter, and disarmed bombs and shells arranged like a piece of modern art. Inside the museum, a concrete building on stilts, find a good collection of photos and effects that chronicle the events of U.S. buildup, conflict, and withdrawal from this Khe Sanh base. Exhibits have good English descriptions, but captions are as didactic as they are informative. Under one photo of wounded U.S. troops struggling for cover, the caption reads “What was Johnson thinking?” Exhibits make much of the cooperation of local ethnic hilltribe people, a general fabrication really, as most hilltribe groups supported U.S. efforts to oust ethnic Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh and later Vietnamese administrators worked hard to bring hilltribe minorities into line, but to this day there is general suspicion in Hanoi about these offshoot groups, many of whom know no borders and move freely from Laos and even as far as Burma or China. An entry ticket is included with most tours, but if not, entrance into the museum costs 25,000 VND ($1.65).
Otherwise known as the Palace of Supreme Harmony, it was built in 1833 and is the first structure you’ll approach at the entrance. It was used as the throne room, a ceremonial hall where the emperor celebrated festivals and received courtiers; the original throne still stands. The mandarins sat outside. In front are two mythical ky lin animals, which walk without their claws ever touching ground and which have piercing eyesight for watching the emperor, tracking all good and evil he does. Note the statues of the heron and turtle inside the palace’s ornate lacquered interior: The heron represents nobility and the turtle represents the working person. Folklore has it that the two took turns saving each other’s lives during a fire, symbolizing that the power of the emperor rests with his people and vice versa.
The Citadel is often used as a catchall term for Hue’s Imperial City, built by Emperor Gia Long beginning in 1804 for the exclusive use of the emperor and his household, much like Beijing’s Forbidden City. The city actually encompasses three walled enclosures: the Exterior Enclosure or Citadel; the Yellow Enclosure, or Imperial City, within that; and, in the very center, the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor actually lived.The Citadel is a square 2km (1 1/2-mile) wall, 7m (23 ft.) high and 20m (66 ft.) thick, with 10 gates. Although the complex was constructed by a French military architect, it was actually the French who destroyed it many years later. Get a ticket and enter the main entrance to the Imperial City through the southwest gate, the Ngo Mon, more often called the Noon Gate.
See the Imperial City with a good English-speaking guide. The site is not spectacular in itself, but the history and traditions are rich, and a good guide can give you a breakdown of what things once looked like, what life was like at the Imperial court, and connect you with a dance show of the Imperial Dance Troupe.
The current incarnation of the Dakrong Bridge was built in 1975 after reunification. Just west of the main DMZ zone, the bridge was considered the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail network and during the years of conflict with the United States, this access point was hotly contested. The Dakrong Bridge fell many times. Now it’s a grand suspension bridge, a proud thumbed nose as if to say “You can’t knock down my bridge anymore.” The road to the bridge leads to the border with Laos, and even the overnight buses that take intrepid travelers over this route will stop for a good look at the bridge, which heads south (buses continue on the main road west to Laos). Across the bridge is a small village that’s a popular stop for tour groups and where most buses turn around and head back to the main highway. The stunning scenery all along Highway 9 is worth the ride.Note: The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a concept, not a road. The trail was a vast network, spread across hundreds of miles of terrain extending far into the interior of Laos, a broad avenue of hundreds of kilometers of trails that brought supplies to North Vietnamese troops, by hook or by crook, usually on the backs of porters or with giant loads precariously perched on overlaid bicycles. You might call it “the path of least resistance” or the “road less bombed or occupied” really. The trail starts in Quang Tri Province, basically anything from the Dakrong Bridge south, and the Americans were constantly trying to foil the Viet Cong and General Vo Nguyen Giap’s relentless end-run around the front line so as to stage attacks in the south.
The focal point of the Imperial City, a large rampart to the south of the Noon Gate, this tower was built in 1807 during Gia Long’s reign. The yellow flag of royalty was the first to fly here and was exchanged and replaced by many others in Vietnam’s turbulent history. It’s a national symbol.
Once the actual home of the emperor and his concubines, this second sanctum within the Citadel is a large open area dotted with what’s left of the king’s court. Almost completely razed in a fire in 1947, a few buildings are left among the rubble. The new Royal Theater behind the square, a look-alike of the razed original, is under construction. The partially restored Thai Binh Reading Pavilion, to the left of it as you head north, is notable mostly for its beautifully landscaped surroundings, including a small lake with stone sculpture, and the ceramic and glass mosaic detailing on the roof and pillars, favored by flamboyant emperor Khai Dinh.Catch a performance of the Royal Traditional Theater at the Hue Monuments Conservation Center. Eight performances daily, from 9am to 4pm, highlight the ancient art of nha nhac, courtly dance, at a cost of 20,000 VND ($1.25).
One of 10 entrances to the city, this southern entrance is the most dynamic. It was the royal entrance, in fact, and was built by Emperor Gia Long in 1823. It was used for important proclamations, such as announcements of the names of successful doctoral candidates (a list still hangs on the wall on the upper floor) and, most memorably, the announcement of the abdication of the last emperor, Bao Dai, on August 13, 1945, to Ho Chi Minh. The structure, like most here, was damaged by war but is now nicely restored, with classic Chinese roofs covering the ritual space, complete with large drums and an altar. Be sure to climb to the top and have a look at the view.
Constructed from 1921 to 1922 by Emperor Minh Mang, this temple has funeral altars paying tribute to 10 of the last Nguyen dynasty emperors, omitting two who reigned for only days, with photos of each emperor and his empress(es) and various small offerings and knickknacks. The two empty glass containers to the side of each photo should contain bars of gold, probably an impractical idea today.Across from Thien Mieu you’ll see Hien Lam, or the Glorious Pavilion, to the far right, with the Nine Dynastic Urns in front. Cast from 1835 to 1837, each urn represents a Nguyen emperor and is richly embellished with all the flora, fauna, and material goods that Vietnam has to offer, mythical or otherwise.
Often called the symbol of Hue, Thien Mu is one of the oldest and loveliest religious structures in Vietnam. It was constructed beginning in 1601. The Phuoc Dien Tower in front was added in 1864 by Emperor Thieu Tri. Each of its seven tiers is dedicated to either one of the human forms taken by Buddha or the seven steps to enlightenment, depending upon whom you ask. There are also two buildings housing a bell reportedly weighing 2 tons, and a stele inscribed with a biography of Lord Nguyen Hoang, founder of the temple.
Once past the front gate, observe the 12 huge wooden sculptures of fearsome temple “guardians” — note the real facial hair. A complex of monastic buildings lies in the center, offering glimpses of the monks’ daily routines: cooking, stacking wood, and whacking weeds. Stroll all the way to the rear of the complex to look at the large graveyard at the base of the Truong Son mountains, and wander through the well-kept garden of pine trees. Try not to go between the hours of 11:30am and 2pm, when the monks are at lunch, because the rear half of the complex will be closed.
One of the most popular Nguyen emperors and the father of last emperor Bao Dai built a restrained, serene, classical temple, much like Hue’s Imperial City, located at the confluence of two Perfume River tributaries. Stone sculptures surround a long walkway, lined with flowers, leading up to the main buildings.
With the longest reign of any Nguyen dynasty emperor, from 1848 to 1883, Tu Duc was a philosopher and scholar of history and literature. His reign was unfortunate: His kingdom unsuccessfully struggled against French colonialism, he fought a coup d’état by members of his own family, and although he had 104 wives, he left no heir. The “tomb” was constructed from 1864 to 1867 and also served as recreation grounds for the king, having been completed 16 years before his death. He actually engraved his own stele, in fact. The largest in Vietnam, at 20 tons, it has its own pavilion in the tomb. The highlight of the grounds is the lotus-filled lake ringed by frangipani trees, with a large pavilion in the center. The main cluster of buildings includes Hoa Khiem (Harmony Modesty) Pavilion, where the king worked, which still contains items of furniture and ornaments. Minh Khiem Duong, constructed in 1866, is said to be the country’s oldest surviving theater. It’s great fun to poke around in the wings. There are also pieces of original furniture lying here and there, as well as a cabinet with household objects: the queen’s slippers, ornate chests, and bronze and silver books. The raised box on the wall is for the actors who played emperors; the real emperor was at the platform to the left.
This is a real working Buddhist temple, and the many monks and novices clad in brown robes are always busily padding about from class to class and to meditation and worship. Wooden gongs clock the activities of the day. Monks are friendly, and if you time it right (between class time or before or after lunch), you are sure to meet up with these cherubic lads who are all eager to practice their English. I even got some Vietnamese singing lessons. The surrounding ponds and gardens are immaculate, real-deal Zen living, and the temple was just recently graced with a visit by Vietnam’s most well-known expatriate teacher — whose writings are so popular in the West — Thich Nhat Hahn. Next door is a nunnery, busier than the monastery and with a small Bannar house adjoining. The approach road to the temple continues on to hilly farmland.
The tunnels at Vinh Moc are a testament to human tenacity. Like the tunnels in the south at Cu Chi (see chapter 11), soldiers and civilians took to the underground, literally, digging over a mile of tunnels from 1965 to 1966 to support Viet Cong troops and confound U.S. battalions at this strategic position near the line of north-south demarcation. People lived here from 1966 until 1972. An estimated 7 tons of bombs was dropped per person living in the Vinh Moc Tunnels. The initial complex took 18 months to excavate some 6,000 sq. m (64,583 sq. ft.) of red soil that had to be carefully dispersed, usually at night to avoid surveillance, and buried in the nearby sand of the beach. Up to 20m (about 70 ft.) below the surface, multilevel tunnels formed a real community haven, with “living rooms” for families, a conference and performance room, a small cinema, a field hospital, clean facilities, and kitchens complete with elaborate systems to dissipate the smoke of cooking fires. All tunnels also have ingenious exit points inland and along the coast providing some cross-ventilation. Visitors walk through about 300m (984 ft.) of the tunnels in a main artery that is 1.6m high by 1.2m wide (5 1/3 ft. high by 4 ft. wide), going down three stages. Wear your play clothes because it’s dirty, clammy, and a bit claustrophobic. There’s a museum at the entrance with survivors’ photos and testimonies. The museum houses photos of life among the tunnel families, as well as maps of their labyrinth (including a map that shows where the day’s tour will lead) and tools from excavation of the site. Admission is 25,000 VND ($1.75), but the price is usually included in DMZ tour prices.