The former imperial capital of Hue sits just below what was once the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam and was, near the end of the war, the site of some its fiercest fighting. You’ve seen it in newsreel footage—and re-created (in England) in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.
It’s one of the few areas of Vietnam I’ve never been.
Hue is in many ways a city of ghosts, of memories and spirits—and we play on that in the episode. It begins with a camera movement inside a “spirit house,” the dollhouse-size shrines that many believers keep outside their homes and businesses. The Vietnamese are largely ancestor worshippers. Helping your deceased relatives into the next life—and making sure they are happy while there—is important. On special days and holidays, families visit temples and pagodas and leave offerings—often food, sometimes replicas of money or appliances or luxuries—for the departed. Things they liked in life that might make the afterlife more comfortable. Spirit houses, as I understand them, are designed to deal with the problem of hungry, dissatisfied spirits who may not be settled, who have, for one reason or another, left behind unfinished business. The structures sit out front, or near the house or store, usually filled with incense and offerings, in the hope of distracting the spirits away from the main destination.
In the weeks following the initial North Vietnamese taking of the city, many hundreds—if not thousands—of citizens, deemed dangerous or counterrevolutionary or otherwise undesirable, were summarily executed and buried in unmarked mass graves by the communist forces. When the United States Marine Corps and army of South Vietnam retook the city, it was only at the end of brutal house-to-house fighting and, finally, air strikes. Much of Hue had been flattened in the process. Many, many people were lost, their bodies never identified or recovered. This—the inability to find the physical remains of a relative—is a particular agony to Vietnamese.
For this reason, this episode is haunted by ghosts. We hadn’t intended it to be so. But that definitely emerged as a theme. You feel it as you drive the streets and early-morning rice paddies on a scooter, walk the parapets of the ancient citadel, look at the flag hanging in the mist across the Perfume River. At one point a young woman I’m having dinner with casually mentions that her mother doesn’t like her to go out after dark. Too many ghosts. Under almost every square of pavement …
We descend into the tunnels beneath a small village where a whole generation of children were born—and raised—in total darkness.
I don’t want you to think that this episode of Parts Unknown is some kind of a bummer, a depressing discussion of a war about which there are still strong feelings and disagreements here. It’s not. One of the crazily awesome, incongruous things about Vietnam, which I’ve found from the first time I visited, is how friendly, welcoming, quick to move beyond the past the Vietnamese are. It is an incredibly beautiful country. One filled with passionate, proud cooks. And opinionated, enthusiastic eaters. You will see me with some old friends—and you will, as always in Vietnam, see me eating some amazing food.
And if you thought pho was the best thing … ever? Wait till you see bun bo Hue.
These field notes are excerpted from Bourdain’s Tumblr, posted on October 18, 2014. They have been edited for length and clarity.