Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Hue, the night train and DMZ

Teddy likes our room in Hue!

Sorry, this is a long entry, please try and stay awake while reading!

The night train was OK! Our man at the hotel dropped us off at the train station at 9:00pm, the gates onto the platform were locked, but there were quite a few people we recognised and had chatted to waiting outside, also going on to Hue, so we felt safe in numbers. It seems most people tread the same routes and most of these people we had seen on Cat Ba island, in Ninh Binh and again in Hue on various trips.

One of many dentists on a street in Hue. Filling madam?
At 9:49pm the train pulled in exactly on time, we were positioned on the dark platform by station staff, just where our carriage number 7 should stop, so as it went past count 1, 2, 3, 6 (!) and here’s 7. On we got, man checking tickets, big step up, past the toilet, a couple of steel wash basins and into a corridor. Ours was the second compartment containing 6 bunks, three each side and we had picked numbers 9 & 10, which were the middle bunks on either side, so we could see out of the window we thought. ‘Hard sleepers’ they were called at 531,000vnd (£15.50) each. 
Jackie chats with Trang, a motorcycle guide outside the Citadel in Hue
The mattress was about 40mm thick foam, fairly hard, but OK. Our bunks were the only ones free and we could see sleeping people on the top and below, fully clothed. The train was now moving so we slid the door shut, put my rucksack on the floor, man on the lower bunk moved his shoes to give me more room, Jackie’s rucksack went up on a shelf over the corridor and we clambered up and lay down. It was quite warm despite it supposedly being air conditioned and there were no curtains, so no privacy. Deciding not to get undressed we read for a while (there were bedlights) and then tried to sleep, which took a while. 

Inside the Citadel. This was a Dr. Who type box with a dragon inside it
Bomb scarred walls inside the Citadel (inside the Citadel)
There were 8 stops on the way and as we approached each station a speaker in the compartment came on with announcements all in Vietnamese, so we understood nothing, but it did wake us up! I heard about two announcements as I grappled to get to sleep, but the rocking of the train and the constant noise eventually was enough to doze off to and I woke about 05:30am to an announcement. 
An Oriental musician strums on his instrument
Still dark I peered outside to see heavy rain and a station that I took to be Dong Hoi, not because I recognised anything, but as I knew we should be there at about that time. Two more stations to go, Dong Ha, the first in South Vietnam and then our station at Hue. Within 15 minutes it was light, the rain stopped and sleep was passed, so I tried reading a bit and watching scenery go past the window, maybe I’d had 5 hours sleep, better than I expected. Next station ‘Ga dong Ha’, now I could see that written, so that’s good! 
One of the entrance gates to the Citadel
A quick shave at the wash basin with mirror, a venture into the squat toilet, watching the railway lines through the hole in the bottom and I’m ready! Jackie’s up, everyone’s hovering around in the corridor, the train pulls in and were out at about 09:00am. We’d arranged a pick up by our hotel so we pushed through the hoards of taxi drivers and people thrusting hotel cards at us asking if we want to go there and saw a man holding up a card with ‘Jackie Cross’ on, how nice! Bundled the bags into the boot, got in and enjoyed the 3km drive through hectic morning traffic, alongside the river and to our hotel. It’s quite warm here and fairly humid!

An army museum with some US army relics in Hue
Plus a MIG jet used by the 'Victorious Air Force', plus another US plane
We had a lovely greeting there, the ‘Holiday Diamond Hotel’ that came up at 4.5 out of 5 and rated ‘Superb’ on Trip Advisor, but still only costing US$20 (£13). We were sat down, given breakfast and showed to our beautiful room before 10:00am, what fabulous service! Freshened up and went out for a walk round town and into the Citadel, which is what Hue (pronounced Hway) is known for. 
The electrician up a ladder in the middle of the road
It’s a walled fortified town with a moat all round just back from the main river (Perfume River) and must be 2.5km x 2.5km. Inside there’s houses and shops, but also within it is another Citadel, with its own walls and moat and this one you have to pay for, 105,000vnd (just over £3) each, so we paid our money and took a walk inside (after finding the correct entrance!).

The Tomb of Khai Dinh
The Citadel complex is not as old as it first appears, construction only started in 1802, after the Emperor Gia Long moved the capital here from Hanoi, but it’s partly in ruins and looks much older as it was heavily bombed by the Americans in 1968 after the North Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh came over the border into South Vietnam and took the city and surrounding area, killing many South Vietnamese working for the southern US supported government. 
Not quite the Terracotta Army, but they are guarding Khai Dinh's tomb
The bombing levelled whole neighbourhoods and about 10,000 people died in Hue, mainly civilians, but also thousands of ‘VietCong’ North Vietnamese troops and about 150 US Marines. There has been much restoring within the Citadel, but much remains as rubble, including the ‘Forbidden Purple City’, which is now just an open area of grass and rubble. However it’s still an interesting visit and we enjoyed a couple of hours stroll round.

Inside the Tomb of Minh Mang
Hey, those arms are really life-like!
Next day we hired a motor scooter and took off to visit the outlying tombs of the emperors and other interesting relics. After negotiating the busy city traffic, we got out onto the outskirts and stopped to take a photo of an electrical worker on top of a ladder, being held by someone else in the middle of a busy street. The ladder rested on the wires and he worked away as the traffic eased round him. At this point we met ‘Lee’ a guy on a moped who stopped to ask where we were going. ‘I’ll show you’ he said. ‘I’ll do it for free if I can practise my English with you’ OK we said and went off behind him. 

Over the metal pontoon bridge to Gia Longs tomb
Just hold on darlin, it'll be fine!
First stop, Tomb of Khai Dinh, he was the ‘puppet’ emperor of the French and ruled from 1916 to 1925 and, other than 12 year old Emperor Bao Dai, who ruled for just a few years after, he was the last Emperor before the rise of Communism and Ho Chi Minh in the North. Next stop, the Tomb of Minh Mang (1820 to 1840). Similar to the other one, these are grand tombs, temples and courtyards with lakes, bridges and grand staircases, all in need of a good clean and a bit of TLC, but interesting nonetheless. 

The entrance to Gia Longs Tomb
There are butterflies everywhere in Vietnam
There were many more to see, all 80,000vnd per person entrance, difficult to find on these narrow back lanes through little villages, paddy fields, banana and rubber trees, so we decided that was probably enough. I asked Lee if he knew where Gia Longs tomb was, I knew it was nearby and was free entrance as it is overgrown and little visited. Yes he did and took us off down narrow lanes, past little villages and over a narrow, long metal pontoon bridge over a river. 
The guard unlocks the doors to the tombs of Gia Long and his wife
The way after that was not really roads, but tracks, some quite muddy and slippery on our motor scooter ‘hold on Jackie, this will be fine!’, but we did eventually get there and, as we expected, no-one else was in sight (we took the gps, so we would at least be able to retrace our steps!). We had a look round while Lee chatted with the security guard and then asked if we’d like to see the actual tombs of Gia Long and his wife. ‘Why not’, so handing 100,000vnd (£3) to the guard, he led us round to a locked courtyard when he let us in. It was nothing spectacular inside, but we felt we were probably one of only a handful of westerners who had been here as, if you can’t speak the language you’d never get in and we would never have got here without Lee!

The Tombs. Not very exciting, but a rare opportunity
With Lee in his house having tea
Lee invited us back to his house for tea and we drove to a wooden shack near the river. ‘This is my house’ he told us and poured some tea. There was a double bed with mosquito net, a table with 5 plastic chairs, a kitchen area and another small area with a curtain across. We could see light through the wooden wall slats and there was no glass in the windows. He told us he couldn’t read or write and had left school at 10 years old and was now 50. He has a 17 year old son and a 15 year old daughter both at school. He lost his house in the big flood of 1999 and, 4 years later he broke his arm in a forestry accident, at which point his wife left him with the two children, he has not seen her since. He rebuilt his house with friends help and now works as a farm hand earning a pittance, but sends his children to school for which he has to pay 2,000,000vnd per month (£60). His son sleeps with him in the bed and his daughter at a neighbours house. 

Thien Mu Pagoda
His father was in the South Vietnamese army, as was a legal requirement and after the North Vietnamese overran (or liberated) the South, deposing the South Vietnam government after the Americans left, his father was imprisoned and died there. He asked if we could help him with some money, so we gave him 300,000vnd (£9), for which he was very grateful and said it would allow him to buy a dictionary for his son. 
The Thanh Toan Japanese covered bridge (did that take some finding!)
We’d like to think we weren’t ‘conned’ by him, he seemed very genuine and we believe what he told us, however we will never know, but it brought home to us the plight of the South Vietnamese and how very poor some of them are. We wished him well and went off to see other relics on our way back, stopping for a late lunch at a tiny roadside cafĂ©, where no English was spoken but a fellow Vietnamese diner motioned and said enough English words to get us some food which was delicious and cost 15,000vnd (£0.50).

A flowering Bonsai Tree in the Thien Mu Pagoda complex
The flag that flew defiantly on the north bank of the Ben Hai river
Yesterday (Tuesday) we went on an organised group trip to the DMZ (De-Militarised Zone), which is the original border between North and South Vietnam, on the Ben Hai River that runs across the 17th parallel. This was the border agreed on at the Geneva Convention in 1954 after the French defeat by North Vietnamese Communists. It gave Ho Chi Minh’s Communists the North and the South to the pro-French government, with plans to hold open and fair elections in the North and South to decide on the future of the country.

One of the entrances to the Vinh Moc tunnels
The USA opposed this, fearing a Communist takeover of the whole of Vietnam, so propped up the pro-Western southern government, which escalated into the Vietnam or American War. Today it’s easy to question why the USA were so worried whether Vietnam would become a communist country, but it must be looked at with world events at the time in mind: the Russian revolution of 1917 had ushered Communism in as a world order and its stated aim to convert the whole world to its system if it were to work properly. Shortly after the end of WWII China went the same way, the USSR had engulfed the Eastern European nations, Greece, Italy and France looked like going the same way, the USSR was heavily influencing Egypt and the Middle East and in the Far East Korea and Indochina were looking likely to go communist. 
Steps leading deep down into the clay tunnels
Only bankrupt Great Britain was holding on to India and Malaya by its fingernails and what might happen there if they failed? It seemed to America that the whole world was rapidly going to Communism and they had to resist what they saw as a creeping cancer throughout the world if they themselves were to survive, hence the Korean War, followed by the Vietnam War.

Showing the area occupied by a family
The DMZ extended 5km north and south of the river and American forces looked Viet Cong forces in the eye across the river. Ho Chi Minh’s stated aim was always to reunite North and South into one Communist country and his troops, expert in jungle warfare stopped at nothing, opening the Ho Chi Minh trail through parts of Laos and Cambodia to get munitions and supplies through to his troops in the South and heckling and attacking the Americans and South Vietnamese Government as much as they could. US forces responded with ‘carpet bombing’, flattening whole areas in the North, right up to Hanoi and its port at Haiphong and using chemicals weapons to kill forests so they could not be used as cover.

The North Vietnamese soldiers cenetery
Our guide on the coach was a lady who was born and brought up in Dong Ha, a South Vietnamese town close to the border, so her family were in the South Vietnamese Army and on the ‘wrong side’ after unification. She told us that Dong Ha was completely destroyed by American bombing, as were many towns and villages either side of the border, hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs were dropped of which it is estimated 20-25% didn’t explode, many of which still remain hidden today (don’t wander off marked trails they told us!). 
The impregnable 'Rockpile' mountain used as a US Marine base (seen in pouring rain!)
The Dakrong Bridge over the Ho Chi Minh supply trail
We drove firstly over the Ben Hai River bridge into North Vietnam and past a huge flagpole flying the red flag with five pointed orange star of Vietnam that was used as propaganda by the North Vietnamese and onto the village of Vinh Moc. During the war, this village was so heavily and regularly bombed by the US that it went underground. In 20 months a huge network of tunnels were carved into the clay on three levels down to a depth of over 20m, with 13 entrances and 90 families lived and worked here for 6 years. It is now a museum and some of the tunnels are open for guided tours and our trip included this. We were only able to stand upright occasionally, but shorter Vietnamese people could just stand upright, we saw living quarters, not much bigger than a two man tent for a family of three or four, plus a hospital and meeting rooms, all seemingly tiny. The ground on the surface still showed evidence of bomb craters everywhere and there were displays of empty bomb cases, a fascinating visit.

Helicopter wreckage at Khe Sanh Combat Base
Back in the coach we drove through the rain, back over the bridge into South Vietnam and along the road towards the Laos border to see a cemetery dedicated to 3000 dead North Vietnamese soldiers. I asked our guide if there are any American cemeteries, ‘No’ she said, not even for South Vietnamese soldiers, of which her family were, ‘only North Vietnamese’. I didn’t ask her how she felt about this, it seemed unfair and not ‘politically correct’! Further along the road was ‘The Rockpile’, which is an impregnable mountain named by the US, who had a Marine lookout and base on the top, followed by the Dakrong Bridge, built only in 1976 over what was part of the Ho Chi Minh supply trail through the jungle. Our final destination was the Khe Sanh Combat Base, which was the site of the most famous siege of the war. 

Rebuilt trenches and a B52 bomber at Khe Sanh Combat Base
The 75 day siege on this very remote air base began on 21st January 1968 and although it was never overrun, it saw the bloodiest battle of the war. About 500 Americans, 10,000 North Vietnamese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders were killed and it was only stopped when the Marines managed to reopen Highway 9 and get troop reinforcements through to the base. 
Photo showing N Vietnamese delivering munitions on the HCM supply trail
It’s now a small museum with a few tanks, helicopters and a B52 bomber there, with rebuilt trenches flanked by sandbags. The museum has a number of very good old photographs of the battle, but the captions are a bit ‘one sided’. On our trip was one American from California and his dad had fought in the war, so the trip was an emotional one for him. He was very chatty early on, but the mood was fairly sombre when everyone got back on the coach for the 2.5 hour drive back to Hue. Maybe we were tired and many people dozed off, but maybe there was a lot to think about. I didn’t manage to ask our American friend what he thought about the very provocative captions on the photos, but probably I didn’t need to!

Jackie finds a little puppy! Sadly we have confirmed why there are no old dogs in Vietnam, they eat them! we saw a truck carrying a load like cattle, presumably to a slaughter house and our Lonely Planet guide confirms that dog is eaten as a delicacy on the second half of a lunar month (only)
Today we went on a boat trip on the Perfume River in Hue
Anyway, we’re back in Hue for our last day and night. Tomorrow morning we’re going to Hoi An, another place that reads very well in our Lonely Planet guide. We’ve booked a great looking hotel there with swimming pool so we’re really looking forward to that. 

The flag flying over the Citadel
To get there we’re going by private car and driver with another couple of young English girls to help share the cost. We’re going up over the very picturesque Hai Van Pass, made famous by BBC Top Gear’s ‘Vietnam Road Tour’ a while back, through Danang, which itself is an interesting place, a beach somewhere and then via Marble Mountains, comprising five craggy marble outcrops topped with pagodas. It’s going to take about 6 hours in all, so we’re not planning an early start. About 10:00am was agreed on by us and the two girls (who are not that much older than my eldest grand-daughter – do I feel old!!). On southwards, before going back north again!
Spices for sale in the market
Does that ship look like its sinking (or sunk) to you? It's cargo is sand and it was still chugging along, though if a big wave came along I wouldn't fancy it's chances! Probably not likely on the Perfume River though

1 comment:

  1. phew! took two breakfasts to read this lot! Teddy is looking very well isn't he? Bit worried that there aren't any older dog.... its like Logan's Run for dogs. Lets hope you don't see anyone doing the deed.
    Glad you are enjoying it all. It almost exhausts me to see how much you do. Lots of love from us 3 to you. xxxxx