One of the Vietnam’s War’s Bloodiest Battles: Photos of Hue, Then and Now.
Above Photo: The Citadel in Hue comes under attack, as US planes drop Napalm on Viet Cong positions in the Imperial City. (© unknown)
Sometimes in Vietnam it can take a couple of days to reach remote, inaccessible battlefields or Vietnam War sites in the interior of the country, especially in the Central Highlands, and the inaccessible border regions.
But modern-day tourism in Vietnam and visiting battlefields from the Vietnam War come together in the city of Hue like almost no other place in Vietnam, and yet most people wouldn’t think about it as they go around the stupendous buildings in the ancient Citadel and the Imperial Palace today
Travelling over the Perfume River to the Citadel, which was built in the early 1800s for the Vietnamese Emperor and his court, you begin to see glimpses of the war on the shell and bullet-scarred walls and entrances into the Citadel.
In 1968, during the Tet Offensive, one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of the Vietnam War was fought in Hue. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) took the city from US-backed South Vietnamese troops, using some of their best and toughest fighting units.
During the war, the city of Hue had been vital for US supply routes: Highway 1 passed through it and the Perfume River itself was an important US supply line. Also, Hue was only 30 miles away from the Demilitarized Zone, which separated Communist North Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam, so it was strategically important too.
But for some reason, Hue was poorly defended by (mostly) South Vietnamese troops, and when the NVA and the VC attacked, they quickly occupied most of the city, and then proved themselves very difficult to dislodge.
The Citadel was at the centre of the fighting. An NVA sapper squad, dressed in South Vietnamese Army uniforms, quickly killed the guards and opened the gates of the Citadel to their troops, who then poured in to take the Old City from the South Vietnamese Army.
The South Vietnamese forces in the Citadel offered little resistance to the attacking NVA and by 8am the following morning, a North Vietnamese flag hung from the Citadel’s flag pole.
Meanwhile, intense house-to-house fighting was going on all around Hue as US forces were called in to assist the South Vietnamese in retaking the city. The US Marines had little reliable intelligence on the state of the city as they deployed, and they suffered heavy casualties in the streets from NVA snipers.
The cost of the fighting on all sides was heavy, as the NVA and VC were fighting to the death.
The street fighting went on for three weeks, and for US forces it was a particularly difficult battle, as they were untrained in urban combat. Also, because of Hue’s cultural and religious heritage, US planes couldn’t target the ancient Citadel, and the Monsoon season meant that close air support was often impossible due to cloud cover.
During the time the North Vietnamese held the city, thousands of Vietnamese inhabitants were rounded up and executed by the North Vietnamese for collaborating with US forces.
Meanwhile, back at the Citadel, heavy fire from the NVA defenders meant the bridges across the Perfume River, which led to the Citadel, were treacherous to use and US forces lost many men trying to cross the river, until the bridges were finally secured.
Gradually, as Hue’s streets were retaken by US troops, the only place still under NVA control was the Citadel. The order not to bomb or shell the Old City with artillery was rescinded, given the scale of the losses in Hue and the difficulty of dislodging NVA troops without it.
Hue’s cultural heritage was about to become another victim of the Vietnam War, as napalm, bombs and rockets battered the Citadel around the clock.
Although the Old City was quickly retaken, considerable damage had been done to it in the fighting. Out of 160 buildings inside the Citadel, only ten remained standing.
The whole city of Hue was flattened by the bombing, not just the Old City. It was estimated that 80% of Hue was destroyed by air strikes alone, during the battle, as pockets of NVA and VC resistance and snipers were slowly dislodged.
Since the War, considerable rebuilding has gone on inside the Old City, but it is still possible to walk through the ruins and see bullet holes and shell damage on the walls, and scorch marks from napalm dropped during the battle to retake the Citadel.
Yet most visitors to Hue and to the Citadel wouldn’t even notice, nor would they believe they were walking around the scene of some of the most intense fighting and one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
At the end of the fighting, even allowing for some propaganda figures by both sides, perhaps 10,000 people, including fighters on both sides and civilians caught in the middle, died in the month-long battle for Hue, with another 10,000 combined injured – and they’re conservative estimates.
Hue is now a wonderful place to visit. The people are incredibly friendly and the Citadel is one of my favourite places in Vietnam. Knowing what went on in Hue and in the Old City during the Vietnam War made my visit all the more interesting as I walked around.
I’d recommend it to anyone.
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