Small Wars Journal

Hue Prepared for a Holiday, Then the War Came

Hue Prepared for a Holiday, Then the War Came by Nguyen Diu-Huong – New York Times Vietnam '67 Series

During the early days of January 1968, the 150,000 residents of Hue, like all Vietnamese, began preparations for their biggest event of the year, the three-day lunar new year festival of Tet. Markets were filled with once-a-year treats. Men decorated gardens with flowers and bonsai. Women gathered ingredients for holiday dishes and styled fresh designs for their ao dai tunic dresses. Vendors packed the streets in the hope of making extra money before the holiday arrived.

Life in the city looked settled and as quiet as could be. Beneath the surface, though, Hue was beginning to boil.

The seat of modern Vietnam’s founding dynasty, the Nguyen, Hue was regarded by all as the national center of culture, religion and education. The imperial Citadel, the elaborate tombs of the emperors and turn-of-the-century French architecture created a tranquil and nostalgic appeal, even as American civilian complexes sprouted in a district across the Perfume River. With all of its persistent and strict norms and customs, imperial tradition and cultural heritage, Hue in the 1960s was the most characteristically Vietnamese city.

But Hue was not stuck in the past. The University of Hue and the intellectual communities that gathered around it within a few years of its founding in 1957 became agents of social change rather than simply institutionalizing loyalty to the national government. The Buddhist mobilization of 1963 against the anti-Buddhist policies of the South Vietnamese government was ignited in Hue. Discontent and urban movements against the government and the perception of American intervention in Vietnamese affairs resulted in increasing turmoil: In January 1965 protesters set the American cultural center on fire. Instability and protests roiled the city again in spring 1966.

By 1967, Hue was a center of urban opposition to successive South Vietnamese administrations, the graceful, tranquil city shaken by demonstrations, self-immolations, hunger strikes and other expressions of struggle against the government…

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