This morning, as I headed to Thuan An Beach (14 km from Hue) for my usual sunrise swim (the sea is calmest at sunrise here, and the heat of the midday sun makes swimming uncomfortable), I noticed that a shrine by one of the entrances to the beach was laden with offerings and had prayers playing all morning. I was mystified until I remembered that today is the 23rd day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the day when the city of Hue commemorates the failed attack on the French garrison in Hue in 1885 that marked the beginning of French control over the last free part of Vietnam, Trung Kỳ in Vietnamese (also known as Annam). The day is known in Vietnamese as Kinh Đô Thất Thủ (京都失守).
While northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam had already come under the control of the French (the north as the Protectorate of Tonkin and the south as the Colony of Cochin China), central Vietnam was still under the control of the Nguyen emperors. When the Emperor Hàm Nghi (咸宜) was crowned, French forces declared the coronation unsanctioned and marched to Hue from Tonkin and took over a section of the walled city of Hue (known as Mang Cá, which translates to ‘fish gills’). After a defeat of French forces in Lang Son in northern Vietnam, the war faction of the imperial government requested that the French withdraw from the citadel, which prompted the French to plan for an attack of the citadel. In addition, the French demanded that the imperial government order the acquiescence of all subjects to the French forces and planned to capture the leader of the war faction, Tôn Thất Thuyết (尊室説), during negotiations.
Tôn Thất Thuyết, knowing this, had secretly moved weaponry to a strategic location and tried to preempt the French by attacking the French garrison first. However, the attack failed, and afterwards, French forces rampaged through the city and massacred over 1500 of its people. After this failure, Tôn Thất Thuyết fled with the 12-year-old emperor Hàm Nghi and issued the Cần Vương (勤王) edict to call for a general uprising and restore the full power of the monarchy. The French, on their part, installed the emperor Đồng Khánh on the throne, ending any meaningful autonomy of the Vietnamese crown.
The day is remembered as one of the darkest periods in the history of Hue. In 1894, the Ministry of Rites constructed an altar, known as the Âm Hồn (陰魂) altar (Altar of the Spirits) on the spot where Tôn Thất Thuyết commanded his forces next to the city walls. In Hue today, the day is commemorated as a collective day of mourning, with offerings akin to those made during death day commemorations. The offerings are made to the spirits of those who died on that day, and the beach town of Thuan An has a particularly large commemoration due to the large number of people who perished there (the town lies at the mouth of the Huong River and guards the entry to the city of Hue from the sea). The commemoration is a testament to the fact that despite the city’s brief tenure as the national capital (only 150 years), it witnessed some of the most important events in Vietnamese history and has a unique and complex culture as a result of this history.
This event is even remembered in a nursery rhyme and children’s game, which I remember playing with my dad as a child. The game is usually played with little children, with the adult prodding the palm of the child for the first five lines, and the child trying to catch the adult’s finger on the last line. However, the lines have more meaning than that. The first line, Chi chi chành chành, sets up the story (a type of “Once upon a time). The second line, Cái đanh thổi lửa, means “the đanh blows fire” (I’m not sure what đanh translates to), refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết firing on the French garrison. The third line, Con ngựa đứt cương, translates to “the horse has lost its bridle” refers to the death of Emperor Tự Đức in 1883, which led to considerable turmoil in the imperial court. The fourth line, Ba vương lập đế, translates to “three kings crowned emperors”, refers to the year 1883, where Vietnam had three different emperors. The fifth line, Bắt dế đi tìm, translates to “Catching the dế (which I would translate as cricket, but may be a variant on đế, or emperor) to search” refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết fleeing with Emperor Hàm Nghi. Finally, the last line, Ù à ù ập, is an onomatopoeia of a trap springing, refers to the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi in 1888 (Hàm Nghi was eventually exiled to Algeria).