There was a bus going from Phong Nha to Hue that also served as a tour. On our way to Hue we had two stops. One was to some of the tunnels dug during the war and a stop at the 17th parallel/DMZ. The tunnel systems were very impressive with several entrances, multiple layers 12 to 80 feet deep all surrounded by once camouflaged trenches that were 8 feet deep. This was only one of several thousand tunnel systems. I’m assuming they chose this one as an attraction because it was one of the best constructed and most ‘luxurious’ of the systems. That being said, this place was cramped. Their rooms were about 8 ft long X 4 ft wide X 4 ft tall and that space was for a family of 4. Throughout the war it held 600 people! For 4 years, 600 people squished down there with one toilet whenever there was a bomb raid. They came out at night when they couldn’t be seen but I could only imaginee what a tunnel filled with 600 people would smell like. They had vents but no amount of ventilation could clear that. We were in there for 20 minutes tops and the 3 Russians with us on our tour were enough to give us an idea of how bad it could get. Neither of us is claustrophobic but 20 minutes of crouching through those tunnels was enough. A true feat of engineering for humans doing what they needed to in order to survive.
Usually when you think of a demilitarized zone, you think of an area where no fighting takes place. However, it seems that the DMZ was one of the most heavily bombarded areas; craters don’t lie. This stop was to the bridge that connected North and South Vietnam across the Ben Hai River. The bridge was half blue (north) and half yellow (south) and had memorials on either side. We had stopped on the north side which also had a small museum displaying war remenants and photos from the war. At both sides we were lucky to have two fact based, neutral guides. We’d heard stories of guides going off with pride about which types of traps killed and maimed the most Americans. I’m glad we weren’t put in that position because I’m not sure what my reaction would have been but thankfully we didn’t have to deal with that.
It was raining when we got to Hue but we were determined to get a walk in. The river market was in full swing, rain or shine. As far as markets go, this one was extra crowded and extra smelly. After unsuccessfully bartering for pistachios, we crossed a canal and went searching for a couple wats that were marked on our hotel map (one of several nice features of the Jade Hotel in Hue). For whatever reason, this area of town had their sidewalks laid in smooth red tile. These little red bastards were the slickest surface imaginable. Most had an algae-like film on them and once wet, it was like watching a Three Stooges show – whooop, whooooop, whooooop. Anyhow, we found the wats. One was set in the back of a big courtyard and had some warrior statues. The other was closed off but described how they’ve been training gold smiths for a thousand years; the dragons curling on top of the roof were laiden with gold and purple in their fierce pose.
On our second day in Hue we went to visit what we thought was an ancient citadel. Turns out it was only built in the 1800’s but still had some interesting religious buildings and some nice architecture. It was set in a huge compound (maybe a mile by a mile) and surrounded by a ten foot wall and a moat. We spent a few hours cruising the grounds. They had ponds, gardens and even had a royal tennis court. This was the capitol until the 1950’s so there were a few modern additions to the “ancient” purple forbidden city.