25th February 2011
The Citadel at Hue
A towering ancient gated wall conceals the haunting contradictory innards from view of the cylco-swarming street. Walking through the thick high vaulted corridor my eyes scan the walls, ceiling and floors pitted with bullet holes like small pox scars. I feel like I can hear the distant echo of fatalistic screams. Once inside, overgrown scrubby grass gives way to the occasional pagoda-esque building, stairway or wobbly paving slabs, the grey stone aged and dreary. The occasional crisp packet flits epileptically across across our path and dips into a once stunning tranquil pool, now a sludge pit lined by steps that look like melted dolly mix squares. Tourists mingle around, a look of bewilderment on their faces that express a mix of ‘is this it?’ and feigned concern over the events that once took place here.
Paint pots permeate the site, claret dripping down the aluminium. Lumps of ruined stone, freshly hacked, lay tumbled on the ground and rusty metal supports languidly lean against remnants of walls. The odd pristine roofed corridor stands out like an over-made up transvestite, ‘I am the genuine article, I am!’ it seems to scream. ‘Restoration’ work has begun here, although all too sporadic and a little half-hearted. Areas clearly planned for rebuild in various stages of dismantle or complete overhaul have been abandoned. This ‘restoring to former glory’ attempt is all to common across Asia and sits badly with me.
The Citadel at Hue had historically been the Dynastic home for South Vietnam’s Emperor. In 1968 it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war, the Tet Offensive. At least 2,800 – 6,000 civilians were massacred by the North Vietnam and Viet Cong in just four weeks. Their bodies lay in mass graves. After the war, the victorious regime left the Citadel to ruin, viewing it as a relic of a feudal regime. However, the promise of tourist dollars was too much to bear and the ‘restoration’ programme began. With every thickly applied lick of paint layering over fire-ravaged walls and poly-filler clogging the bullet holes, a little bit of the memory is wiped. In the distance, the ‘DMZ’ bar with it’s graffitied walls, oozes 90s music, stale beer and fag ash whilst echoing teens do shots between adulterated ‘Apocalypse Now’ quotes.
Whilst I don’t suggest everyone should be moping around burdened with the melancholy weight of what transpired here little more than 40 years prior, not for the first time in Vietnam I have found my prematurely ageing self muttering ‘a little respect, a little decorum, please’.
The cobbled streets of Vietnam’s old port are, in spite of their age (not as old as you’d think thanks to the ‘widening’ restoration programme to accommodate tourist cattle) are alive, vibrant and welcoming. One may be forgiven for feeling that here is a place that has been frozen in time – if you squint a little so you don’t see the tourist shops and chic cafes crammed into every tiny wooden doored building. It is all to easy to linger here too long. The ambiance is reminiscent of an old European town, visitors lounging in cafes as they laugh in relaxed glee with companions or diligently plough through a tattered book, contemplate their navels or do the one finger prod at some miniature technological wizardry. Cakes flow as abundantly as noodles. Young girls on their gap year clutch handfuls of bursting shopping bags and boys exchange notes on tailors. For this is tailor heaven and if you didn’t know it before you got here, it is rammed down your throat at every availability. Anything you want can be made for ‘cheap price’. The sheer overwhelming quantity of tailor shops in Hoi An does not necessarily indicate quality.
The rickety buildings are beautiful and are considerately preserved to highlight the very best of their ageing features. At night the streets come alive in mass of twinkling lanterns and flickering candles casting ethereal silhouettes on the stained, cracked walls of the historic buildings. We sat by the river watching floating candles in coloured paper boats float like satellite stars down the dark river and sighed with content, cake-filled tummies. The Disney-esque town seems like a million miles away from Vietnam.