There are two ways to travel north leaving Da Nang. The first is a new road via a 5 km modern tunnel through the mountain. This is reserved for buses, private vehicles and trucks carrying non-explosives. The other is a pass road of the Stelvio variety.
Pass road, Đèo Hải Vân
This road twists and turns back on itself, climbing constantly to a tourist filled pull-off at the top with views of serpentine roads and crescent moon, blue water bays on either side.
After stopping to get our pictures we continue downhill off the mountain toward the historical city of Huê.
Huê was the capital of Vietnam from the early 1800s until 1945 during the time of French involvement in Vietnam. In 1945 a communist government being led by Ho Chi Minh moved the Imperial Palace north to Hanoi. At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh, who’s Viet Minh forces already controlled a large portion of the country, declared Vietnam independent. In 1954, the French efforts to reassert control led to a violent full-scale war. The Geneva accords of 1954 provided a temporary division of Vietnam at the Ben Hai River. When the Catholic leader of the southern zone refuse to hold elections, the Ben Hai River, (DMZ/17th parallel), became the border between North and South Vietnam.
Huê’s central location near the border of North and South Vietnam put it in a very vulnerable position in 1968 and the start of the Vietnam War. During the Têt offensive in 1968 the city suffered considerable damage to physical features as well as as its reputation from the American military bombing of historic features of the North Vietnamese, and the massacre at Huê committed by the communist forces.
A main gate into the Citadel
Our first day there we went to see the Citadel, the former Imperial Palace of the Vietnamese government. The original Imperial City was constructed over a period of 203 years, starting in 1362. In 1804 the emperor ordered construction on this massive Citadel complex involving a moat and Earthen wall 10 km long. The walls had since been converted to stone. Within this complex is an area called the Purple Forbidden City. During the Vietnam war this complex was bombed heavily by the American military and the destruction was severe. Reconstruction has been going on for years but there are still bullet holes in many of the standing interior walls.
Inside the Purple Forbidden City
In the early morning hours of January 31st 1968 the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong Army launched an attack on Huê and in the end controlled most of the city. During the initial phases of the Têt Offense American troops were ordered not to damage the city, because of the historic and cultural significance, but as time went on and casualties mounted during the house to house combat the order was gradually lifted. In the end out of 160 buildings only 10 significant sites remained. The city was named a UNESCO Historic Site in 1993.
We wandered around the city the next day just looking at the different sites and talking with people. Walking through the open market the following morning was quite another experience. The blood of freshly slaughtered animals mixed with the water from the previous days rain and created quite a mess. Our senses could only take so much with the smells of the fresh fish and blood mingling with the sights of the freshly butchered animals everywhere.
Ceiling in the DMZ Bar
400 year old bridge
Essential Oils store
Top end rebuild in the street
On the following day we took a bus to visit the DMZ (the 17th parallel) and several of the major sites during the Vietnam War. The first sight we drove by was the infamous Rockpile, where the Marines had established a communication base on the top of the mountain accessible only by helicopter. A Vietnamese flag now flies high above that spot.
Our next stop was at the Khe Sanh American Special Forces combat base. This was an interesting place with heavy equipment and aircraft. This base, which was never overrun, is the site of the most famous siege of the war and also the bloodiest battle of the war. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died around this remote highland base. It’s eerily peaceful today, but in 1968 the hillside trembled with the impacts of 1000 kg bombs, white phosphorus shells, Napalm, mortars and endless artillery rounds, as American forces sought to repel the NVA. The bunkers have been recreated to add to the effect of the base. There is a museum but it is slanted with a Vietnamese communist platform.
On the way there we passed an impressive bridge, built by the Cubans in 1980, that marks the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
We next stopped at the Trong Son National Cemetery. More than 10,000 Graves. It’s hillsides marked by a simple white Tombstones headed by the inscription liet si ( martyr). Many graves are empty, simply bearing names, representing a fraction of Vietnam’s 300,000 soldiers missing in action.
We headed back to the former DMZ, the 17th parallel, the Hien Luong bridge, which marks the old border between North and South Vietnam.
Old border of North and South Vietnam
We next stop at the Vinh Moc tunnels. This large network of tunnels was used by the North Vietnamese to fight during the Vietnam war and also for the civilians to protect themselves from the American bombing. These tunnels stretched for 28 kilometers from the village of Vinh Mac to the coast on the north side of the Ben Hai river. The villagers had no other place to go. This was the first air assault on North Vietnam which completely destroyed the village. An average of 7 tons of explosives per person were dropped on the village. After the attack, a decision was made to start building the tunnel so everyone could go underground to be safe. The tunnels were built over an 18-month period and everybody in the village help with the construction. It is estimated that 300 people lived in these tunnels from 1966 until 1973 and that they were about 17 children were also born underground in the tunnel community.
While in Huê, we met up with a fellow German traveler, Frank, who is traveling the length of Vietnam on a 125 Honda. We met up with him a couple times while we are in town and had several beers and many good conversations.