The citadel city of Phu Xuan was built in 1687, 5km northeast of present-day Hué. In 1744 Phu Xuan became the capital of the southern part of Vietnam, which was under the rule of the Nguyen lords. The Tay Son Rebels occupied the city from 1786 until 1802, when it fell to Nguyen Anh. He crowned himself Emperor Gia Long, thus founding the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled the country – at least in name – until 1945.
In 1885, when the advisers of 13-year-old Emperor Ham Nghi objected to French activities in Tonkin, French forces encircled the city. Unwisely, the outnumbered Vietnamese forces launched an attack; the French responded mercilessly. According to a contemporary French account, the French forces took three days to burn the imperial library and remove from the palace every single object of value – everything from gold and silver ornaments to mosquito nets and toothpicks. Ham Nghi fled to Laos, but he was eventually captured and exiled to Algeria. The French replaced him with the more pliable Dong Khanh, thus ending any pretence of genuine independence for Vietnam.
Hué was the site of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive and was the only city in South Vietnam to be held by the Communists for more than a few days. While the American command was concentrating its energies on Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and VC troops skirted the American stronghold and walked right into Hué.
Immediately on taking the city, political cadres implemented detailed plans to remove Hué’s ‘uncooperative’ elements. Thousands of people were rounded up in extensive house-to-house searches, conducted according to lists of names meticulously prepared months before.
During the 3½ weeks Hué remained under Northern control, over 2500 people – including wealthy merchants, government workers, monks, priests and intellectuals – were summarily shot, clubbed to death or buried alive. Shallow mass graves were discovered at various spots around the city over the following few years.
When the South Vietnamese army units proved unable to dislodge the occupying North Vietnamese and VC forces, General Westmoreland ordered US troops to recapture the city. Over the next few weeks, whole neighbourhoods were levelled by VC rockets and US bombs.
Over the next month, most of the area inside the Citadel was battered by the South Vietnamese air force, US artillery and brutal house-to-house fighting. Approximately 10,000 people died in Hué, including thousands of VC troops, 400 South Vietnamese soldiers and 150 US marines, but most of those killed were civilians.
Journalist Gavin Young’s 1997 memoir A Wavering Grace is a moving account of his 30-year relationship with a family from Hué, and with the city itself, during and beyond the American War. It makes a good literary companion for a stay in the city.