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My Lai travel guide

My Lai Introduction

| 08 Aug 2011
Last updated 08 Aug 2011

Hue's location at Vietnam's geographical heart may have ordained its special role in the most turbulent two centuries of the country’s history. Hue looms large in Vietnam’s stormy modern timeline - its regal past as capital, the French colonial era, the rise of the Communist movement and the American War. Hue is at the centre in every sense.

Vietnam,Citadel,Nguyen Dynasty,Hue
Photo: Mark BowyerHue Citadel
But modern Hue is a city of loss - loss of prestige and sovereignty to colonial France, loss of purpose as a deposed capital and loss of culture, innocence and life in decades of terrible war. If ever a city flew too close to the sun, it was Hue.

Yet for all the gravitas of its history, contemporary Hue carries itself with modesty. From national capital to 5th or 6th ranking city, the drama of Hue's past is well hidden in a quest for a new future. And a good many of Hue’s travellers leave disappointed and unaware of the rich tales they almost collide with as they pass through.

Hue’s complex history - where all sides have had their good and bad days - doesn’t see the light of day. Hue’s sights are offered to travellers devoid of context and detached from major events.

Bao Quoc Pagoda,Hue,Vietnam
Photo: Mark BowyerHue
The cast of characters whose formation occurred here is formidable. Ho Chi Minh, his military mastermind Vo Nguyen Giap and long term prime minister Pham Van Dong all spent time here. And their rivals, the last Emperor Bao Dai, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his infamous family of despots and bishops, all hailed from Hue . And then there are the Buddhist leaders at the centre of the uprising that precipitated the escalation of the United States’  entanglement in Vietnam in the early 1960s.  And not to be overlooked is the cast of celebrated musicians, authors, poets and painters from this city.  

But it requires more than a little effort to uncover any remnants of these figures or their stories in Hue.

And that’s before you start on the pantheon of Nguyen Dynasty kings that reigned here from 1802.

Photo: Mark BowyerThree generations of a Hue family.
The Citadel and tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 - 1945) make up a large part of the city’s “official” travel offerings. Yet these monuments offer few clues to the people and the events that took place here. The theme park styled renovation of the Citadel currently under way further aids the project of removing Hue from any historical context and ensures that Vietnam’s regal history has no characters and no substance.  

Despite all that, Hue is one of our favourite places in all of Vietnam. Armed with a little knowledge of your own, you can bring the place to life yourself. Despite the best efforts to camouflage it, Hue’s atmosphere is irrepressible. Spend a little time here and you’ll start to get it. More than any other Vietnamese city, Hue still moves to a rhythm that is at once uniquely Vietnamese and uniquely Hue.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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