Monday, April 19, 2010

Talkin' about a revolution

I’m still in Hue. Mainly for the internet, if I’m honest. The hotel I’m staying in doesn’t have wifi but does have a mildly antiquated computer in each room, enabling me to plug a broadband connection directly into my laptop. Oh, it’s glorious. I’m also enjoying the weather, which since I arrived has been refreshingly dreary and sometimes even cold and drizzly.

What I don’t like about this city are the strangely selective power cuts, which happen most days and tend to last a specified number of hours. They don’t affect my room’s main light and overhead fan but they do shut down less essential stuff like the bathroom light and the sockets. So from breakfast time till 2pm today I couldn’t use my laptop (the horror!) or watch TV (which I hardly ever do anyway, except occasionally for the news). Goddamn it, I had to sit down and read a book about teaching!

That aside, I've been on two separate day trips since my wonderfully flattering encounter with the college girls in central Hue last week. The first took me down the Perfume River on a dragon boat

to see various temples and emperor’s mausoleums, a couple of which are accessible only by water. (Not this one, I should add.)

Quite early on I suspected I’d picked the cheap and nasty tour with the young, half-intelligible guide and the spurious visits to places of no interest where people try to sell you stuff. But it was diverting enough, and I did enjoy meeting a friendly contingent from the Vietnamese Army at one of the mausoleums. Despite their lack of English, one woman beckoned me over and invited me to take a photo of her with an older lady, presumably her mother. I thought of offering to email it to her but didn’t know if that was wise.

Speaking of armed forces, the other day I took a 12-hour tour, starting at 6am, to the former demilitarised zone or DMZ - a strip of land 5km either side of the North-South border, designated as such in 1954. I call it the DM-Zee as I’ve only ever heard it mentioned in American films. (I now understand what Robin Williams means when he bellows in Good Morning Vietnam: “Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ.”) On the other hand our guide referred to the DM-Zed, which sounds all wrong to me, no matter how much I approve of British English.

Naturally enough, some of the most interesting events of the Vietnam War happened just outside of the DMZ. At Vinh Moc for instance, 8km north of the border, the communists set up a series of underground tunnels where villagers could shelter from US bombers in small burrowed-out alcoves for up to five days at a time.

Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi in the south, which were built by Vietcong guerillas, these ones were constructed by the authorities and were therefore much larger. To my relief, I could walk through them fairly easily just by stooping.

Apart from Vinh Moc, though, there wasn’t much to look at. We tourists mostly sat on the bus, having things pointed out to us. We stretched our legs at a bridge that used to be part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the route used to ship supplies from the north to the Vietcong). We briefly took photos of a statue on the site of the Doc Mieu Firebase, which, like all US bases in the mid-1970s, was plundered for scrap and torn down by the war-weary Vietnamese.

We also visited the US base at Khe Sanh, overrun by the North Vietnamese Army in 1968 after a nine-week battle. It’s a museum now, with a couple of old helicopters and a gutted tank standing outside. I looked in the visitors’ book. A guy from the US had been there a day or two earlier to pay his respects to his best friend from university who had died in the fighting.

Now, much as I love Vietnam - and I really have fallen in love with the country - I have to say that the ubiquitous symbols of communism do take a bit of getting used to. Each to his own and all that, but it seems like every street corner in Hue has a big poster featuring a smattering of the late Ho Chi Minh’s words of wisdom. Here’s a small one I saw last week near Hoi An.

I could go out and photograph some big red ones if I wanted to, but they’d remind me of the British general election and I don’t care to think about that too much. The same goes for the volcanic ash, which hopefully will have dispersed by the time I want to fly back.

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