The Transformative World of Mr. Cu

Phan Cu was born in a sampan (a flat-bottomed wooden boat) on the Huong River, where he grew up with five siblings, his parents and two grandparents.

His father drove a cyclo — a bicycle with a passenger seat in front.

Today, Mr. Cu and his wife own The Mandarin Cafe in Hue, an enterprise that supports his family and a soccer program he uses as a vehicle for teaching children about health and safety.

From 1975 until the early ’90s he was among the have-nots. Unless you were a member of the Communist Party, you were locked out of a good job, he said.

His fortunes changed when the government allowed people to not only own their own businesses but their own properties.

During that time, he has developed his passion for photography. His cafe walls are covered with photographs. He is self-taught, with a skill that has earned him exhibits in France, Italy and Germany.

During the Battle of Hue in February 1968, Mr. Cu was a university student whose family lived in a house in the southeast corner of the Citadel — the old, walled part of the city.

The Citadel walls were impenetrable at 6 feet thick, built in the early 1800s to protect the Nguyen royal family.

The North Vietnamese Army occupied the Citadel before the Tet lunar new year while the populace prepared for the holiday. The U.S and South Vietnamese military assumed Tet would be honored as a lull in hostilities. Instead it became the point of an intense and horrific battle.

Mr. Cu’s family dug a trench beside their home to escape notice and weapons fire as the U.S and South Vietnamese forces responded to the North Vietnamese Army.

Mr. Cu estimates that 20 percent of his neighbors were killed, many while trying to flee, during the intense fighting.

Weeks after the battle began, American soldiers appeared at an intersection several blocks from where Mr. Cu and his family were running to get out, he said, “and we put our hands up.”

He demonstrated, throwing his arms into the air, amusing several lunch customers one recent day.

Asked if the American soldiers did anything to help him, he said, “No, no, they were very busy.”

— Diana Nelson Jones