How did old Vietnam come to water?

Vietnam after war and peace

Vietnam is considered to be one of the most diverse travel destinations in Southeast Asia with many undiscovered spots. A visit to the Hue region shows the deep scars the war has left.

"I'm rich," says Phong with a laugh. "I have six hundred ducks, two hundred chickens, five dogs and thirteen water buffalo." The buffalo are like insurance for him: If someone in the family gets sick, marries a child or something else drastic happens, one or more of them are sold to cover the costs. The plump forty-year-old with the red baseball cap and stubble on his chin gallantly hands me a bouquet of flowers to welcome me, but it is visibly easier for him to talk to my male companion.

Before Phong shows us Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, we drive through the rice fields to Thanh Toan. The village is known for its wooden bridge topped by a dragon, unicorn, turtle and phoenix. While we are admiring the Vietnamese "Bridge of Sighs", Phong is already negotiating with the market women who have spread their wares in the shade of tarpaulins. He buys water spinach from a toothless 92-year-old and herbs from an 84-year-old. Phong not only knows how old the women are, but also how many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren they have. The scent of their dried spices mixes with the putrid fumes of the canal. Three-day-old ducks scurry in a basket. We try not to see the gasping fish waiting for their buyers in shallow pools of water and the toads with their hind legs tied together.

Bullet holes in the brick walls

The city of Hue is located on the river of fragrances, the perfume river. It is said to be so called because frangipani flowers float on the water in spring. Today, however, a light breeze brushes the broad river, and it smells at most of machine oil. At the beginning of the 19th century, the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty settled here, in the middle of the 1650 kilometer long country. He built a citadel based on the Beijing model, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1968, Hue was destroyed during the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Part of the citadel, which consists of residences, temples, pavilions, gardens, ponds and a harem, has been rebuilt. Bullet holes can still be seen in the brick walls near the river.

Phong was born in 1978, ten years after Hue's destruction. He also knows the women who sell drinks, souvenirs and tots as sun protection in front of the citadel. While we drink the lemonade they gave him in the shade of a flame tree, at our urging he begins to tell: His grandfather was a Catholic farmer under French colonial rule. In the Tet Offensive, he was kidnapped, shot and buried in a mass grave together with 6,000 other alleged collaborators from the Viet Cong. "My father looked for the grave for months," says Phong. Anyone who sees the ornate graves in the fields and the elaborately designed cemeteries will have an inkling of what it means for a Vietnamese to not know the place where his ancestors are buried.

Phong's father worked as an engineer for the Americans. After their withdrawal, he spent two years in a North Vietnamese prison. Then, like countless others, he was sent to the mountains to be re-educated as a farm laborer. Phong was born there, the seventh of ten children. He is the only one in the family who receives an education. He finished his history studies as the best of his year, but he couldn't find a job: He's Catholic, doesn't belong to the Communist Party, and his father worked for the United States. By chance he meets one of his former professors on the street, and he helps Phong get a scholarship. He can continue his studies in Germany, after which he works in a Vietnamese restaurant. "But then I had to go home," he explains and falls silent. We later learn that his son's death brought him back to Vietnam.

Spy and nepotism

Today Phong teaches a small amount at the tourism school in Hue, runs his father's farm and accompanies foreign visitors. When he realizes that we understand German, he immediately switches to that language, and it takes a while before we understand that he is not doing this for us, but for his own protection. Some of the leaders of the numerous tourist groups we encounter in Hue are Communist Party members, informers.

In front of Phong's house is an altar with flowers, incense sticks, longan fruits and a bowl of sticky rice. He invited us to dinner and set a table in the living room open to the street. Two years ago he was able to acquire the 100 square meter property on which the house stands. “In the hand”, Phong smiles, because officially there is no private property in Vietnam. His twelve-year-old daughter serves soup, spring rolls, fish and meat dishes along with the water spinach and herbs Phong bought that morning. He translates our questions to the girl, but the girl looks down in embarrassment and quickly disappears back into the kitchen. While we are eating, a gecko scurries across the wall.

More than corruption, nepotism is a problem in Vietnam, says Phong. Offices and jobs remained in the families. The media would be censored, the children indoctrinated: "Dear Uncle Ho." His daughter really wanted to go to Hanoi to see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. "I was glad it was closed when we came." Finally, Phong offers us a rice schnapps. He burns forty liters every weekend on his father's farm. As he said goodbye that evening, the altar in front of the house was for his son, who died of cancer exactly six years ago to the day. Now his second wife is pregnant. Phong smiles: "I believe in God."

On this day, a light breeze brushes the wide flow of perfume, and it only smells like machine oil.

The next day we drive north past countless military cemeteries. Our goal is the 17th parallel along which the country was divided in the 1954 Geneva Agreement. Here, in the so-called demilitarized zone, near the Laotian border, is the US base Khe Sanh. She was besieged by the North Vietnamese unsuccessfully for over two and a half months. When we arrive, the midday cicadas buzz in the trees. Phong sits down next to the overseer in the shade and lets us alone visit the scene of the battle in which thousands of his compatriots died.

The runway over which the base was supplied from the air can just be made out between the coffee plantations. In addition to replicated bunkers, the remains of American fighter bombers are rusting away. In the small museum you can see the same photos over and over again: Vietnamese soldiers with serious faces behind Russian machine guns, young women in uniforms or dancing in traditional costumes, the Americans mostly from behind, fleeing into their helicopters or with raised hands. American names with rank and troop affiliation are in the guest book. Last week, Phong says, he accompanied two US veterans here. They then visited a Vietnamese woman who shot thirty-five American soldiers in the war. "It was a good conversation," he says, smiling as always. We dare not ask what he means by that.

Under the earth

The Vinh Moc Tunnels, east of Khe Sanh on the South China Sea, are in the zone of Vietnam that has been bombed the most: around seven tons of bombs per head of the population are said to have been dropped. Today rubber and pepper grow on the land that Agent Orange, the US Air Force's highly toxic defoliant, turned into a desert. Unlike the Cu Chi Tunnels northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the Vinh Moc Tunnels were built by civilians after their village was destroyed. The 2.8 kilometer long facility, in which 300 people survived the war, is oppressive and humid. For the first time, beads of sweat also form on Phong's forehead. But he insists on showing us the underground meeting room, the sick bay and, above all, the maternity ward, where 17 children were born during the war.

It is evening when we reach Hien Luong Bridge and the guards are already locking it up. For Phong, however, they make an exception. The 165-meter-long bridge over the Ben Hai River, which is now bypassed by a motorway bridge, connects North and South Vietnam. Her iron railing is painted blue up to the middle, then yellow. “A symbol of peace,” Phong replied when asked what the bridge meant to him, and even more: a reminder of all those who fell here and couldn't find a grave. He holds out his arm to us: "I get chicken skin when I think of her."

43 years have passed since reunification. "But compared to Germany," says Phong, "the marks are still deep here." Forgotten mines claim an average of three deaths every day. On the south side of the bridge, children are playing football in front of a pagoda, and an old woman is driving her water buffalo home.

Phong actually has a different name. His real name is not given for his protection.