The people of Vietnam think of their country as consisting of three regions, north, south, and central. Each region has a principal city—Hanoi in the north, Saigon in the south, and Huế in the center, on the coast just south of what used to be the border between communist North Vietnam and republican South Vietnam. During my time in Vietnam, I visited Huế at every opportunity. I loved the old city, the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital from 1802 to 1945.
Huế is filled with sight-seeing wonders. The Đại Nội Citadel is encircled by a moat and thick stone walls. Within is the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines, and the so-called Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home. Close by is a replica of the Royal Theater.
Huế was the site of the worst atrocities of the Vietnam war. During the 1968 Tết Offensive, the North Vietnamese carried out mass killings there. They seized the city on 31 January. U.S. efforts to retake the city lasted 26 days. In the interim, the North Vietnamese killed as many as 6,000 men, women, children, and infants. After recapture of the city, U.S. forces found bodies of people bound, tortured, buried alive, and clubbed to death.
The source of my knowledge of Huế, other than my personal experience in Vietnam, is Mark Bowden’s book Huế 1968, (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017). Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, devotes over 600 pages to a detailed and scrupulously researched study of the North Vietnamese occupation of Huế.
In these days when the U.S. is becoming more friendly to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, I think it is important for us to remember the butchery that the Vietnamese communists are capable of. Nowhere is that aspect of North Vietnamese character more obvious than in the story of Huế in 1968.