On January 30, 1968, after months of preparation, North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas launched a massive, coordinated assault on nearly every city, town, and military installation in South Vietnam in what became known as the Tet Offensive. One of the fiercest engagements of the offensive would be the Battle of Hue.

The Tet Offensive occurred during the Lunar New Year known locally as Tet, the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. Because of this many South Vietnamese troops were on leave and away from their bases during the attack. Further, great numbers of VC units were able to sneak into major cities and towns due to the holiday celebrations.

During the attack, more than 80,000 NVA and VC troops attacked over 100 cities and towns including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals, about a third of the district towns, and the capital of South Vietnam. It was the largest offensive conducted during the war up to that point.

The North Vietnamese believed that the South Vietnamese government had such poor support among the people and that its army such little will to fight, that the offensive would ignite a popular uprising allowing the forces of the North to sweep victory and oust the Americans from the country. 

Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a massive failure for the Communist North. After at first, quickly capturing many cities, they were just as quickly pushed back in nearly every instance suffering massive casualties during the bloody fighting. 

Yet, the Battles of Hue, Khe Sanh, and the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and their broadcast on American television turned a military disaster for the North into a major political victory. They were the impetus that began the American withdrawal from Vietnam.


The Calm Before the Storm

Marines Hue
Marine wounded are treated in Hue during the pitched fighting in Hue in 1968. (USMC)

The battle for the ancient city of Hue lasted from January 31 to March 2, 1968. Due to Tet, many of the South’s soldiers were on leave and the city was poorly defended. Hue, with a population of 140,000, was separated by the Perfume River. South of the river was the more modern half of the city while in the northern half, about two-thirds of the population lived within the walls of the Citadel, the ancient home of the Annamese emperors who had ruled what is now central Vietnam.