Not surprisingly, Vietnam is a nation of war memorials. What is surprising though is that Vietnam probably has fewer memorials than many countries that have suffered far less in war. On the banks of the Perfume River in the old imperial capital of Hue stands an unusual war memorial — and one that misses the upkeep and attention of the others.
The National School in Hue is probably the most famous school in Vietnam. Amongst its alumni it counts communist leaders Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. Assassinated South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem also studied there.
If you visit the school during your time in Hue, you’ll notice a large Nguyen Dynasty style monument on the riverbank across the road. I have looked at this structure on many occasions over the years and wondered what it was. Its neglect was apparent but then many of Hue’s historic sites have been neglected.
On my most recent visit, I stopped to take some pictures and I noticed that names were clearly inscribed on the monument’s face although most had been scratched away by vandals and graffiti. It was clearly a memorial of some description. I asked a number of locals that were relaxing around the site what was being commemorated and nobody knew. It was built very much in the style of the royal structures and was across the river from the Citadel so I figured it was something that had regal approval.
Later, I discovered a photo of the inauguration of the memorial in 1920. The photo didn’t say so but I figured that the memorial was commemorating Vietnamese casualties in World War I. Then a friend showed me a National Geographic from August 1931. The story Along the old Mandarin Road contained a photo of the memorial with the caption –
Annam’s memorial tribute to those World War soldiers who left her shores never to return. The names of the Annamese and French colonial soldiers who lost their lives in the war are engraved on this monument of exquisite oriental designs which stands on the bank of the River of Perfumes at Hue
Since seeing the National Geographic piece, I have tried to find out more about Vietnam’s virtually unknown participation in World War I. I haven’t been able to uncover much. There seems to be a debate as to whether the soldiers were volunteers or were coerced by the French. Wikipedia suggests that 30,000 Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives in battles on the Somme, at Picardy and elsewhere. Vietnam also made a huge contribution to the allied war effort in materiel and resources.
It seems a shame that this important memorial lies in such a state of neglect. It’s another of Vietnam’s untold stories. Even most Vietnamese know little of this piece of their history. And 30,000 lives was a big price to pay.
Mark Bowyer is founder and publisher of Rusty Compass, an independent travel guide that offers quality and unbiased travel information. Rusty Compass does not accept payments in exchange for listings. Bowyer and Rusty Compass believe that tourism should to be a positive economic, environmental and cultural force and they believe travelers deserve disclosure from publishers. The website is https://www.rustycompass.com/.