Having missed Hue on previous visits to Vietnam, I was determined to make it a priority on my most recent one. The seat of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, the city is full of splendid imperial sites, most notably the Citadel and the royal tombs. It is also charming for other reasons, with one of the largest markets in Southeast Asia and several fine French Colonial structures.
Set by the banks of the Huong or Perfume River, the Citadel is easily spotted due to its enormous flagpole. The great flag is impressive not only for its extreme scale, but for the dramatic contrast between the sky and its bright red and yellow colors. “The Citadel” consists of the court’s administrative complex as well as the Forbidden City, which was closed to all but the emperor, his family and concubines, and the highest officials. Unfortunately, much of its splendor has been lost over the years to neglect, fire and war, most notably during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when the United States took the city from the Viet Cong. What remains, however, is still impressive and well worth a day’s visit.
The outermost part of the complex is the citadel itself, a massive square rampart that is a mile and a half long on each side with walls 20 feet high and 70 feet thick. Approaching these ramparts, the first feature you encounter is the magnificent moat that surrounds the imperial city. As you cross the bridge, look over the sides; the water is teeming with an enormous number of bright gold and red carp that look like windswept autumn leaves as they dash for food pellets.
The bridge will take you to one of the treasures of the Citadel, the awesome Ngo Mon, or Midday Gate. This was the entry to the Imperial Palace, with the central entrance reserved exclusively for the emperor (the others were for lesser nobles and officials). The emperor used the expansive hall on the second story for reviewing troops and observing ceremonial functions. Glistening yellow tiles (suggesting gold) top this part of the gate, while the two flanking wings are far less elaborate. This gate is in remarkably good condition and the level of workmanship is astonishing, from the detailing in the roof tiles to the intricacies of the wood carvings inside.
The other great highlight of the Citadel is the Dien Thai Hoa, the Palace of Supreme Harmony. One of the oldest structures here, it was built in 1805 by Emperor Gia Long, then moved to a higher foundation in 1833. A magnificent building, it was appropriately reserved for the meetings of the high court. As with the Midday Gate, the roof is covered with yellow enameled tiles, with two large dragon figures on the peak paying homage to the moon. The dragon theme is beautifully repeated throughout with inlaid multicolored ceramic chips. Inside, the large supporting columns are decked out in shiny red lacquer. Most impressive is the central hall, where the throne is set under a densely woven canopy with gorgeous dragon figures.
Throughout the Citadel, you will find other structures in good repair and others less so. A small theater is home to traditional dance performances and is worth a short visit. The Forbidden City in the center of the complex is, alas, now little more than a field, its treasures having been mostly destroyed by a great fire in 1947 and the rest of the structure finished off during the Tet Offensive.
But just when you feel a touch of melancholy at the sight of a once-proud structure in a clear state of neglect, you turn a corner and find a wall or a gate radiant with colorful detail (this is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so restoration is being undertaken with great care). One of our favorite unexpected sights was a group of four large guardian dog statues, their heads jutting up from a field of high green grass, patiently awaiting their return to places of honor.
The Imperial Tombs
Like other potentates throughout history, the Nguyen emperors created mighty shrines to themselves, most clustered to the southeast of the city. Although each was dedicated to a single emperor, they were all designed in accordance with the precepts of geomancy, which dictated sight lines and orientations consistent with supernatural forces. Common elements included a courtyard with figures of horses, elephants and men; a pavilion containing a stele, or commemorative column; a temple dedicated to the emperor’s soul; a “pleasure pavilion;” and the tomb. That said, the three tombs I visited were markedly different.
The Emperor Minh Mang ruled when the Nguyen dynasty was at its peak (1820-1840), and I thought his tomb was the most elegant. More than 10,000 workers and artisans worked on the complex, which consists of more than 40 structures inside a huge oval wall almost 6,600 feet around. This is bisected by a 2,300-foot walkway that leads to the actual tomb. The plaza that leads to the main gate is a vast space featuring the requisite stone representations of men, horses and elephants. The altar in the main temple dazzled with its elaborate red lacquer work and gold designs. And the tranquil gardens are perfect for a stroll past beautiful ponds and the outlying buildings of the tomb grounds.
The prize for best gardens goes to the tomb of Tu Duc. He ruled longer than any other Nguyen emperor (1848 to 1883), and his reign was fraught with the struggle against French colonial forces, as well as a homegrown revolt (precipitated by his harsh treatment of the workers building his tomb and the taxes he levied to pay for it!) and a failed attempt to produce an heir despite having 104 wives. The grounds include a beautiful lotus pond surrounded by frangipani trees. At the center, there is a small island used for game hunting.
Tu Duc also fancied himself a poet, and he left behind more than 4,000 works. Many he composed in the airy Xung Khiem Pavilion by the side of the lake, which you can still enjoy. Alas, being childless, Tu Duc had to write his own epitaph, which you can still see on the stele in his tomb.
Khai Dinh was an exceedingly unpopular emperor who ruled from 1916 to 1925, but he did manage to leave behind a tomb that looks like the set of an Indiana Jones adventure. Set on a hillside, it consists of a series of terraced levels connected by 127 steps. Made primarily from reinforced concrete, it has stunning archways and a plaza filled with statues of warriors, horses and elephants arranged as though for a giant game of chess. The tomb itself is an intriguing pastiche of Western and Asian styles; its walls feature intricate designs wrought in colored ceramics that seem very art deco (the emperor visited France in 1922 and was apparently deeply impressed by what he witnessed). The ceiling is has an extraordinary painting of nine dragons swirling through clouds. Unlike other emperors, Khai Dinh ordered his body buried in the tomb. The others, afraid of grave robbers, are buried in secret locations.