image:  Fishing boats sit moored in the Danang River.
Fishing boats sit moored in the Danang River.

Photograph © Steve Raymer/CORBIS

Danang To Hue
By William Broyles

Nothing so etches a road into one's memory as to travel it with people shooting at you. Although I have been on Vietnam's Route 1 between Danang and Hue since, I remember it best as it was during the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to our sojourn there. In 1969 I toured the country around Route 1 with a group of American teenagers. We were inoculated, flak jacketed, armed to the teeth. We carried our own food and our own music. We knew less about the country we passed through than the astronauts above us knew about the moon. But still we marveled at how beautiful it was, about the sea shimmering in the heat, the paddies orderly as fields in France, the mountains hidden in mist.

Today, if you drive this stretch of highway between the South China Sea and the Annamite Cordillera, you can lose yourself in a delicately inked Chinese painting of paddies, mountains, and sea. There is a hypnotic timelessness to it, a peasant wisdom rooted in the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of rice. The cycle of life and death in the villages is grounded and connected and properly proportioned, the blending of man and nature seamless.

I returned to Route 1 in 1984. I began in Danang, a commercial harbor city on the southern tip of the long blue crescent that is Danang Bay. The road runs out of the city along a beach that once was lined with American installations. It crosses the Nam O Bridge and then winds up into a spur of mountains that runs east from the great north-south cordillera and juts into the sea, dividing Vietnam in half.

Halfway up into the mountains I got out of the car. Behind me were ferns and waterfalls, the rippling, dripping sounds of the jungle. Below me waves broke gently on beaches sculpted out of the rocks. Continuing on Route 1, I followed the steep road up to Hai Van Pass, the Pass of the Ocean Clouds, which offers sweeping views up and down the coast. Thirty years ago I patrolled that area. We would sometimes camp above the small Shell refinery off the road and stare out at one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Descending from the pass, the road led through a green-blue landscape of mountains and water. Fishermen here still use ancient dip nets suspended from long bamboo poles mounted on bamboo tripods about 12 feet high. Using the tripod as a fulcrum, a fisherman lowers the net into the lagoon, then lifts it by pulling down the weighted end of the pole. The nets move slowly up and down like giant praying mantises.

Approaching Hue I passed through small villages, where schoolchildren in uniforms giggled their way to school. At Hue, the old Imperial capital and site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, I toured the Imperial Museum, where the Emperor had drunk tea made with the dew from lotus blossoms.

In a small café in this city on the banks of the Perfume River—at a table with three former Viet Cong I had once fought against—I ate fresh crabs and shrimp, the best Vietnamese food I'd ever had in my life. It was during this meal that I realized that although millions of Americans and French passed through here in wartime, of their fears, joys, and sufferings nothing remains. What does endure is the beauty.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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