Hue, Vietnam – March 1, 2000
At around 7:30 in the morning, a train employee came by and shoved some mushy snack at me. I glared at him and said something along the lines of “good god, no” and he left me to my grumpiness.
I looked out the window. The trip south had not yet brought the sun and it was still cold, wet and gray. I wandered down to the bathroom, but the smell overpowered my from 10 feet away. I found the resolve to wait until we got to Hue.
At 9:45, we pulled into the station and hopped off onto the gravel and tracks.
“Let’s do it,” said Mark and we piled into a waiting minibus.
Our hotel was the Thanh Noi, on the west bank of the Perfume River. Again, it was a very nice hotel with hot water and security envelopes at the front desk. Mark told us that we could expect a very nice standard of hotel in Vietnam which admittedly is a bit of a relief.
Hue, pronounced Hway, is the former royal capitol of Vietnam and is quite close to the DMZ and front line between the North and South. We only had a day there, so Mark had arranged for us to have optional motorbike tours. We wouldn’t be driving the motorbikes; we were passengers.
“Be aware,” said Mark, “that most travel insurance does not cover riding on the back of motorcycles and there are no helmets. But they do drive slowly. It is your choice.”
Furthermore, it was raining.
We all chose to go and pulled out our plastic raincoats. I told Lochie where my real insurance card was, as opposed to my travel insurance.
A young man in a brown suede coat motioned me onto the back of his bike. Off we zoomed to see the sights of Hue.
The first stop was the Citadel, the former royal residence, mostly destroyed by years of fighting. It had received the most damage in 1947, when the Vietnamese were fighting the Japanese in World War II.
Our guide was around 34-years-old and had witnessed the Vietnam War firsthand. He told us about watching a prison exchange as a kid. Two boats had met in the middle of the river. The lines of prisoners moved towards each other. As they met in the middle, the Northerners yelled “Ho Chi Minh forever!” The Southerners yelled “Down with Communism!”
He also told us of life near the front line.
“In the morning,” he said, “the American soldiers go by. Then the VC go by. Later, the Americans come to my house with wounds and say ‘can you help us.’ We help. Then a little while later, the VC come by with wounds and say ‘can you help us.’ We help them too. And then later, the Americans came by and said that we were going to be bombed and that we should get away quickly. We all went to the university and had to live there for a while.”
He continued to talk about the war cautiously and between the lines, I realized that the South was still smarting from their defeat and that while the Americans were disparaged in the North, they were heroes to some in the South. Of course, this makes sense – over a century after the Civil War, there are still some hard feelings in the US. So of course there would still be some anger in Vietnam.
In spite of this, Vietnam on the whole has a thriving, entrepreneurial spirit and the economic reforms and socialist policies of the government appear as capitalist as any other country. As a tourist, I am not privy to information about censorship and re-education, but the end results seem vibrant and multi-faceted. Perhaps the revolution, like the Iranian revolution, didn’t get quite the results the people expected and so the changes have been made quietly.
We continued our rainy, cold motorbike tour, visiting a monastery, some American bunkers, some French bunkers, and a small conical hat manufacturing business where the woman making the hats only had one hand. If you held the hats up to the light, you could see “Vietnam 2000″ stenciled in between the layers. And then, a ride through scenic rice paddies that left us all shivering and covered in a thin layer of red mud.