Strolling past the bullet-scarred walls of Hue’s ancient Imperial Citadel, the decorated Viet Cong war hero journeys 30 years into the past.
“The fighting was horrible,” Nguyen Quoc Khanh said. “Bullets, mortars, shells. They filled the air in every direction.”
Khanh led one of the more than 100 attacks that made up the Tet Offensive, the Communist military campaign that forever changed America’s view of the Vietnam War.
Although U.S. and South Vietnamese casualties were but a fraction of the enemy’s, the blitz by North Vietnamese soldiers and their Viet Cong allies across South Vietnam drove a wedge through the United States.
In graphic television footage and newspaper photos, Americans saw images of Viet Cong guerrillas breaching the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon and two Marines dragging a wounded and bloodied buddy from fighting in Hue.
And perhaps most searingly, they saw the street corner execution of a Communist rebel by South Vietnam’s chief of National Police.
“We knew the attack was going to have a psychological effect on the Americans,” said Tong Viet Duong, a former Viet Cong guerrilla commander. “We were told America was growing tired of the war.”
The offensive convinced Americans that the North Vietnamese had widespread support in the south and that the war was unwinnable. Within weeks, President Lyndon B. Johnson - his domestic agenda tattered by opposition to the war - told the nation he would not run for re-election.
This ancient walled city remains haunted by the legacy of Tet. In block after city block, Viet Cong massacred minor government functionaries, Buddhists, missionaries and even foreign doctors.
While the offensive in most cities lasted days, the battle for Hue went on for more than three weeks. By the end, much of the city lay in ruins.
Few South Vietnamese army veterans are willing to discuss the offensive. One who did on condition of anonymity said only that it was unwise to do so.
“The Communists won, we lost. It’s not good to talk about that now,” he said, turning to walk away.
Khanh, the 68-year-old Viet Cong veteran, is proud of what he accomplished in Hue but shyly turns away questions about the bloodshed.
An impish man with boundless energy, he strides from the 200-year-old flag tower to the Citadel’s Dong Ba gate, a key entrance to the heart of the walled city and the majestic Imperial Palace.
Dropping his hands in front, the former Viet Cong commando mimics firing a machine gun across a narrow canal. Thirty years ago, U.S. Marines were holed up inside the houses and shops that line the the channel.
During the fighting in Hue, the sound of Tet holiday firecrackers mixed with the rattle of gunfire and the thud of incoming mortars.
“We knew if we attacked at this time it would be a tremendous shock, so we took advantage of Tet,” said Lt. Gen. Tran Van Quang, the commander of North Vietnam’s forces near Hue and the central provinces.
Using a rumpled pink and yellow tourist map of Vietnam, Tran traces with his finger a line connecting the major battles during the offensive.
Violating their own holiday truce, the Viet Cong attacked more than 100 villages, towns and cities on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968.
Once restricted to countryside hamlets and jungle battlefields, the war came crashing down on South Vietnam’s cities; Danang, Nha Trang, Pleiku, and even Saigon.
The effect was devastating in Saigon. The fortress-like American Embassy came under assault, killing five Americans.
Fighting in Saigon’s Chinese district, Cholon, raged house to house, the city’s national radio station was fired on, and rockets rained down on the presidential palace.
The memories of the attacks are still vivid for Tong, the 71-year-old retired soldier who led the attack on the office of Saigon’s military chief of staff. He recalls a bullet whistling past his ear as he fired a B-40 rocket through the office compound gates.
In all, the offensive left 1,113 Americans and at least 3,470 South Vietnamese dead. About 30,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
Much has happened since the Tet Offensive. The United States and Vietnam have set aside their differences to establish diplomatic relations. A trade pact may benear.
Today in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Communist victory in April 1975, large red and gold banners mark the Tet Offensive. Socialist-styled posters of well-chiseled, stern soldiers adorn street corners and shoppers bustle to buy Tet gifts.
Hue’s Citadel is undergoing extensive restoration to remove bullets from U.S. helicopter gunships, rebuild walls smashed away by mortar fire and erect new roofs collapsed in the fighting.
Still, residents live under the shadow of those troubled times a generation ago.
Squatting in a vegetable garden recently, a woman planted a row of fresh herbs as an abandoned surface-to-air missile towered behind her.