National Geographic : 1967 Feb
Nearly 100 percent Vietnamese despite the foreigners that war draws to South Viet Nam, Hue functions as a provincial capital and trading center only 50 miles from North Viet Nam. Its 105,000 residents dwell both within and outside the Citadel that walls off half of the city's six square miles. The for tress also encloses the Imperial City where mandarins-scholarly bureaucrats of royal times-once governed. The ruling family lived in the innermost Forbidden City. Hoping for a ride to the capital, Vietnamese soldiers and their families await the arrival of a military aircraft that flies daily between Saigon and Phu Bai, Hue's airport. Behind them a U. S. Marine repairs a helicopter. 152 The altar of the Emperor Tu Duc, and a ta ble next to it, held sticks of incense, flowers of the flame tree, and plates of bananas, cinna mon, eggfruit, and sweets; cups of tea and glasses with rice alcohol; and 32 bowls with fish, meat, vegetables, and rice. "The emper or's 32 favorite dishes," said Bao Toai. An old man entered-the Mandarin Duong Yem. He ranked as a baron and wore softblack boots and a floppy hat with blue embroidery. He prostrated himself, his forehead on the mat below the altar. Next to him a young man knelt, and from a tablet framed in red and gold he read of the life of Tu Duc. The young man left. The Mandarin Duong Yem pros trated himself thrice more, and with inaudible steps he backed away. Sounds of War Shatter Temple's Peace I backed away too, into a courtyard where bronze griffins glistened in the rain. Two heli copters of the United States Marines clattered overhead. Across the moats and ramparts of Hue wafted dull sounds of explosions-mor tars and howitzers at work, the accompani ment of strife in some nearby village. I had stepped back into the explosive re ality of everyday life in the Republic of South Viet Nam.* Yet the calm ceremony I had just observed was no less typical of South Viet namese life today than those sounds of vio lence from across the walls. What I had seen in The Mieu temple could in fact be found across the country hundreds of times every day-in settings less grandiose, with fewer offerings, but with the same profound family meaning. My friend Thien had cautioned me to make no mistake about that. "In the traditional Vietnamese house-that is to say, in seven out of ten homes-the most important spot is the altar of the family's an cestors," he had told me. "In many homes the altar is in the middle of what you would call the living room. You see, we believe that our ancestors continue to be present in the midst of the family. This is not simply a figure of speech or a poetic fancy. To us it is a reality. One's future, one's happiness, depends on keeping the spirits of one's ancestors happy." Thien had earned a doctorate in political *For other NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC articles on war torn Viet Nam, see the author's "Saigon: Eye of the Storm," June, 1965, and "South Viet Nam Fights the Red Tide," October, 1961; also, "Water War in Viet Nam," February, 1966, and "Helicopter War in South Viet Nam," November, 1962, both by the late Dickey Chapelle; "American Special Forces in Action in Viet Nam," Jan uary, 1965, and "Slow Train Through Viet Nam's War," September, 1964, both by Howard Sochurek.