My impression of Vietnam from my trips in the past years is marked by charming street life in the old quarters and dynamic city life in the modern districts of the towns. It is a living contrast that may strike many visitors from the very first moment they arrived in Vietnam, a country that has a turbulent history dating back over 2,000 years. After liberation from the Chinese occupation over 1,000 years in the 10th century, Vietnam has established itself as independent country under control of several dynasties until it fell into French rule in the 19th century.
In big cities, such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, traces of the Vietnamese imperial glory are rarely found, except in the street names or as monuments. So, “Where can I find the royal past of Vietnam?” This is one of the questions that popped in my head while planning my recent trip to Vietnam. After visiting Hanoi, HCMC and Hoi An on the past trips, I was looking for a place that could give me a new perspective of this country. I have not found the answer until I read about Hue, a city in Central Vietnam.
Hue (Huế, pronounced “hway”), originally known as Phú Xuân, started to rise to prosperity in 1802 after Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen dynasty took control of the whole Vietnam and moved the capital from Hanoi in the north to Hue, in an effort to unify northern and southern Vietnam. The city flourished, yet underwent threatening influences from France and remained the national capital until 1945, when a communist government was established in Hanoi, marking another chapter in the Vietnamese history.
To experience the imperial glory of this former capital of Vietnam, one should not miss the Hue Citadel (Kinh Thành Huế). It was built between 1804 and 1833 on the northern side of the Perfume River (Sông Hương) and is still the heart of Hue until today. Fortified with 2m-thick, 10km-long wall und surrounded by a moat, the Citadel is divided into distinct parts. Among temple compounds, residences, gardens and lakes in the vast Citadel are the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City, which were reserved for the Nguyen royal family only and are nowadays one of the major sights in Hue.
Walking through the Ngo Mon Gate, the main entrance to the Imperial Enclosure (under renovation during the time of my visit), you will be greeted by the grand Thai Hoa Palace, where official receptions and important court ceremonies were held. (Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, but you can watch the excellent audio-visual presentation to get an overview of the whole Citadel, its architecture and its history.)
Behind the palace are the Halls of the Mandarins, where the court officials (mandarins) had their offices and prepared for court ceremonies. In the hall to the right, there is an exhibition of old photos showing history and court ceremonies during the Nguyen dynasty.
Behind the courtyard is a large compound where Can Chanh Palace used to be. Sadly, the palace was completely damaged by American bombings during the Vietnam War. Two long galleries have been rebuilt, where a collection of photos about the court life is on display. It is a good place for a quiet stroll learning about the history of the Citadel.
One of my favorite spots in the Citadel is the Emperor’s Reading Room (Thai Binh Lau). It is the only part of the Forbidden Purple City – the very center of the Imperial Enclosure, where only the Emperor, his servants and royal concubines were allowed to enter – that remains undamaged during the French reoccupation of Hue in 1947.
Situated in the southwest corner of the Imperial Enclosure is the impressive The Mieu Temple Complex, constructed between 1822 and 1823 for the purpose of ancestor worship of the past emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. The temple compound has been restored beautifully.
The temple is also known for its Nine Dynastic Urns, cast between 1835 and 1836. Each urn, 2m-high and weighing around 2 ton, represents one Nguyen emperor and symbolizes the power and stability of the Nguyen throne.
It is a regrettable truth that most parts of the Citadel were damaged during
the French and American wars the wars against France and America. Only 20 of 148 buildings in the Citadel survived the attacks. Restoration and reconstruction of the damaged buildings are being carried out until today. While working your way around in the Citadel, you may come across ruins and broken rubble covered with weeds.
The Imperial Enclosure, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage in 1993, is an enchanting site, which elevates the city of Hue into the world’s famous historic towns. It offers you a chance to admire the majestic imperial past of Vietnam, a country that may have received more attention from the West due to its dark history during the
American Vietnam War (or American War as the Vietnemese call it).
This “royal city” inside the Citadel, however, is not the only place in Hue that can take us back to the glorious majesty of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled the country for 150 years. There are numerous royal tombs scattered around the hills in the south of the city, which I will show you in the next posts. Please stay tuned!