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Travel Report: The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam.

Exploring Hue Citadel.

The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam.

April 2018.

Following my adventures in Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Dong Hoi and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, I finally arrived in the pretty river town of Hue. Home, among other delights, to Vietnam’s wondrous Imperial City.

As one of the country’s historical highlights, I couldn’t wait to set about exploring what was once Vietnam’s royal and political capital. Thus I immediately set off after checking in at my Hue digs, Home Hotel.

The Imperial City Hue Vietnam.

The Imperial City, Hue.

It was a thirty minute walk to the Imperial City’s main entrance, Ngo Mon Gate (Meridian Gate). As for the weather, by this point I’d gotten used to the inescapable greyness. Indeed it had informed much of my travels since I’d arrived in Vietnam. Though happily this hadn’t managed to spoil my enjoyment of some stunning landscapes.

Emperor Gia Long Vietnam.

Emperor Gia Long.

The Imperial City was a key enclosure of Hue Citadel, built between 1804 and 1832. Its creation came upon the order of Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. That’s the last of the Vietnamese dynasties, which ruled from 1802 to 1884.

Gia Long was one of Vietnam’s most important emperors. Through a series of fierce bloody battles, he wiped out several regional rulers in order to unify what is now modern day Vietnam.

The Imperial City, Hue.

The Imperial City in Hue.

Meridian Gate.

Furthermore, he reestablished a Confucian education and civil service system. He also built strong ties with The French, created an efficient postal service and greatly strengthened the country’s military dominance over Indochina.

Painted map Imperial City Hue.

An antique hand-painted map of The Imperial City.

Gia Long created quite the legacy, and at the heart of it all was The Imperial City. After all, this is where the great man lived in an opulent palace. Where he held meetings with his closest advisors and planned military offensives. The site of lavish birthday celebrations and where Gia Long died in 1820 aged just 57 years old.

Visit the Imperial City Hue Vietnam.

The Imperial City, Hue.

One of the first buildings I saw was the handsome Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony), pictured above. This is where the emperor received foreign ambassadors and where the royal court held coronations and celebrated its anniversaries.

The Imperial City in Hue Vietnam.

The Imperial City, Hue.

Behind Thai Hoa Palace, one can stroll down the highly picturesque Halls of the Mandarins. The long, narrow hallways once contained the offices of the mandarins. These bureaucratic scholars were experts in Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean history.

Halls of the Mandarins.

The Imperial City, Hue.

Mandarins typically dealt with all matters relating to official court ceremonies, including administration, costume and music. Fittingly, this is where you can try on traditional costumes for a photo. It’s all a bit tacky, but seemed popular, especially with domestic visitors.

Hue Citadel.

Halls of the Mandarins Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

Unfortunately, much of The Imperial City’s remains were destroyed in The Vietnam War. In January 1968 The North Vietnamese Army attacked Hue. This caused the Allied Forces to respond with a relentless bombing campaign. By the time they were done, only a dozen of 160 key structures remained standing. One of these is The Royal Reading Pavilion (Thai Binh Lau), pictured below.

Royal Reading Pavilion Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

Built between 1919 and 1921, this wooden, two-story building lies in the so-called Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Tanh). This is the Imperial City’s innermost sanctum, only accessible to the emperor and his immediate family. Hence this is where the emperor and his loved ones would come to read and study.

Concubine residence Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

I was tickled to see a few remaining concubine residences within The Purple Forbidden City. From what I gather, there must have been a lot of these houses back in the day. Take Emperor Minh Mang, for example, who succeeded his father, Gia Long. According to some online articles he had 43 wives and around 100 concubines!

Emperor Ming Mang Vietnam.

Emperor Ming Mang: Produced a child or two.

One of my favourite things about exploring the Imperial City was its collection of extraordinary gates connecting various courtyards. Despite standing largely unrestored, they remain a visual treat, with crumbly ledges, wooden doors, painted murals and dragon sculptures on the roofs.

The Imperial City, Hue.

Ornate gate Imperial City Hue.

The Imperial City, Hue.

As with much of the Imperial City, I was left frustrated by a distinct lack of information. Dig around online and you can find the names of some of the gates. Sadly I was unable to track down the two gates featured above and below. If I could go back and do the visit again, I’d definitely pay extra for a private guide.

Dien Tho Residence Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

Eventually, my wanderings took me to the outer walls, where I found an Administrative Office Garden. Here mother nature had gotten pretty wild, with loose path slabs, overgrown bushes and frogs hopping between the weeds. A tiny, unloved temple sits in the centre of the garden opposite some mossy headstones.

Administrative building Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

In contrast, The Royal Garden is a small but exquisitely manicured corner of the Imperial City. By the late 1800s there were seven such gardens, which accounted for about a quarter of the entire citadel. The emperor would invite Vietnam’s most renowned writers and artists to come and work in these gardens. And then join him for tea when they’d finished. 

Royal Gardens Hue Vietnam.

The Imperial City, Hue.

Today just one garden remains, but they’ve done a really magnificent job with it. There are still, green ponds, trickling streams, delightful rockeries and wooden birdhouses. Elsewhere, a covered, wooden walkway takes you around the main pavilion, protecting the lawn from visitors’ footsteps.

Adventures in Vietnam.

Imperial City Royal Gardens Hue.

The Royal Garden, Hue.

The lawn features the most incredible orchids and bonsais. This was the busiest spot of the entire compound, with serious photographers, incessant selfie-takers and curious passers by all jostling for a prime viewing spot.

The Royal Gardens Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

A short while later, quite unexpectedly, I passed under another old gate and found myself in a secondary layer of The Imperial City’s inner walls. Here, I could wander down a path with fine views over a deep green moat, fed by The Perfume River.

Pavilion and moat Imperial City Hue.

The Imperial City, Hue.

It was so perfectly calm that afternoon. And therefore quite dizzying to imagine the thousands of workers that once busied away here building Emperor Gia Long’s grand, ambitious citadel.

The silence was also an apt moment to consider The Imperial City’s sad demise. After the French imposition of the 1880s the citadel stood largely as a site for symbolic traditions, until the Nguyen Dynasty faded out altogether in 1945. All things must pass, I guess.

Outer wall and moat The Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

I’d been walking the inner wall path for quite some time when I came upon one final surprise. In fact, I hadn’t heard anything about an International Bonsai Exhibition Garden, but here it was. Heading through the entrance gate and… wow… the garden was massive!

The Imperial City, Hue.

Bonsai Exhibition Garden Hue Vietnam

Imperial City, Hue.

There were literally hundreds, if not a thousand bonsais spread across the vast green space. A short, mostly uninformative information board explained that a team of international horticulturists had brought the collection together.

Bonsai Exhibition Garden Hue.

The Imperial City, Hue.

I spent a solid hour exploring the bonsai garden. Finally, I made for the short hillock at the back of the complex, where a grassy platform overlooks everything. Taking the short but steep stone path up to the top, my reward was an astounding view fit for a Nguyen emperor.

Bonsai Exhibition Garden Hue Vietnam

The Imperial City, Hue.

It was the perfect end to a wonderful day exploring Hue’s fascinating Imperial City. Sat on the twisting roots of the tree that shelters the hillock, I briefly pondered what Hue had to offer beyond its main draw. Time to find out, I thought, as I rose and made my way back down the stone path.

Hue’s Imperial City opens daily from 08:00-17:30, except on Wednesdays when it enjoys extended access until 22:00. Entrance tickets cost 150.000 VND ( £5/ €5.60/ $6.50).

Bonsai Exhibition Garden Imperial City Hue

The Imperial City, Hue.

Like this? Then why not have a leaf through my many articles from across Vietnam.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • expandingtravels

    It’s a huge place and it was incredibly hot when we went. But I can’t really say if we saw it all, as we eventually lost track of where we were.

    October 3, 2021 - 9:17 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah it is a huge site, with the buildings spread out across the complex. Thanks for reading and contributing to the comment thread.

      October 3, 2021 - 9:29 am Reply
  • Anonymous

    Hue still looks so majestic in your photos.

    October 3, 2021 - 9:17 am Reply
    • Leighton

      That’s very kind, thanks for reading!

      October 3, 2021 - 9:23 am Reply
  • pedmar10

    For some reason my vietnamese hosts did not take me here, but looks nice indeed.

    October 3, 2021 - 9:41 am Reply
    • Leighton

      It’s an amazing place, Vietnam’s former royal and political capital and home to the country’s final dynasty (Nguyen). Thanks for stopping by!

      October 3, 2021 - 9:52 am Reply
  • Jyothi

    The bonsai Garden looks amazing! Great sharing Leighton!

    October 3, 2021 - 10:48 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Jyothi, that bonsai garden was the icing on the cake of a fantastic experience.

      October 3, 2021 - 11:03 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Enjoyed your tour around the Imperial City Hue. It looks to be a vast complex and all those bonsai trees must be stunning to view. Hope your weekend is going well. Marion.

    October 3, 2021 - 11:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Marion, I think it’s impressive enough in its own right to warrant a trip to Hue. Though the city definitely doesn’t rely on its citadel, plenty more to come from Hue in my next posts. Have a great Sunday!

      October 3, 2021 - 11:58 am Reply
  • NattyTravels

    This place looks amazing! Thanks for sharing

    October 3, 2021 - 12:10 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Natty!

      October 3, 2021 - 12:12 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    Hue was high my list. Such site incredible to see. We roamed all around ..seeing this incredible Palace.. was a fascinating site to see..and the food here was my favorite. Thanks for sharing, this brings back memories of our time there.

    October 3, 2021 - 12:25 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you also enjoyed this majestic site. It’s such a pity that there aren’t a few more of those original buildings to enjoy, but the human race has a habit of destroying things. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      October 3, 2021 - 12:29 pm Reply
      • 100 Country Trek

        Yes I agree …humans do destroy each other and things.

        October 3, 2021 - 6:06 pm
  • WanderingCanadians

    The gardens look beautiful in the Imperial City. That’s too bad about the lack of information.

    October 3, 2021 - 2:43 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading. A guided tour is definitely the way to go to get the most out of the history. Unfortunately, they hadn’t made much of an effort with written information.

      October 3, 2021 - 3:25 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Would love to see this first hand. It’s difficult to imagine a huge garden devoted entirely to bonsai. I’m always impressed with your patience. Crowds of people and yet you manage to obtain photos without the human clusters distracting. BTW you look right at home seated in the Imperial garden.

    October 3, 2021 - 3:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I do patiently wait for people to pass before taking my shots, but inside I’m screaming at them to **** off ha ha. So not quite as zen as you think. Hm, maybe I was an Nguyen emperor in a previous life.

      October 3, 2021 - 4:04 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    What a beautiful glimpse back into history. I know that these places were built on the backs of common folk and slave labour, but I find it incredibly sad that the effort of the workers and craftsmen mean nothing to conquering nations to the point that they destroy it without really knowing what they are destroying. 43 wives and 100 concubines. Yikes. Stay well Leighton and thanks for sharing. Allan

    October 3, 2021 - 3:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading Allan and for your thoughts, which I share wholeheartedly.

      October 3, 2021 - 4:25 pm Reply

    Looks fabulous despite the notorious grey and misty weather. Hue would have been our next call after Tam Coc/Nin Binh so is definitely on our radar for our return. I’ve noted loads of useful information from your post, in readiness!

    October 3, 2021 - 6:31 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hue is a very cool city, three more instalments coming out over the next week!

      October 6, 2021 - 9:32 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Beautiful pictures!! I find that grey days can make for the best photo ops.

    October 4, 2021 - 2:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Today I would fully embrace a grey day with my current camera. Back then, it was an almighty pain in the ass ha ha.

      October 4, 2021 - 8:59 am Reply
      • Lyssy In The City

        Haha I hear you, beautiful sunny days are way better for the mood.

        October 4, 2021 - 2:57 pm
  • Rebecca

    How imperial for The Imperial City! The natural landscaping is exquisite, really fit for an emperor. I can imagine just how much the city-palace flourished during its time!

    October 4, 2021 - 2:44 am Reply
    • Leighton

      You do get a sense (but only just a sense) of how majestic the complex must have been back in its pomp. Very Imperial-y.

      October 4, 2021 - 9:01 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Thanks for a great tour through The Imperial City – it certainly looks beautiful (and quite big … as if around every corner, or should I rather say through every gate, there’s something new to see). And you say 43 wives … he must have been a brave man 😉.

    October 4, 2021 - 7:49 am Reply
    • Leighton

      I know, right? 43 wives and 100 concubines. It’s a wonder he found any time for actual Emperor-ing. (That should be a word).

      October 4, 2021 - 9:04 am Reply
  • ourcrossings

    Wow, looks like a fascinating place to explore. Visiting the Imperial City of Hue when in Vietnam will no doubt be a highlight of anyone’s trip. With amazing architecture, an impressive history and the most stunning grounds I would certainly be in awe as I was always fascinated by the intricate carvings and well-preserved architecture of Vietnam’s beautiful temples.

    October 4, 2021 - 1:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you appreciate the look of The Imperial City. Thanks for visiting Aiva.

      October 4, 2021 - 1:38 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Wonderful post all around and a fantastic start to my week! So interesting to read about such an extensive history of the imperial city and I couldn’t get over how beautiful and well preserved so many of them were. I had to laugh though when you said it was the domestic visitors all vying to dress up and have their picture taken- you’d think it would be more of a touristy thing to do not a local thing to do.

    October 4, 2021 - 4:06 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha right? Maybe I should have gotten a photo in the costume. Just to entertain my readers 😉 Thanks for your kind words and for keeping up with my Vietnam adventures.

      October 4, 2021 - 8:44 pm Reply
      • grandmisadventures

        Just means you’ll need to go back so you too can have your picture taken in full touristy splendor 🙂

        October 4, 2021 - 9:04 pm
  • travelling_han

    It’s really beautiful – I’d love to see Hue in person one day 🙂

    October 5, 2021 - 10:49 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Han, I have three more articles on Hue coming out over the next week. Hope all is well in England.

      October 5, 2021 - 10:50 am Reply
  • Monkey's Tale

    I loved all the old buidings and those red doors too, but too bad we missed the bonsai gardens! I wish we knew about them, I’d spend an hour in them too 🙂 Maggie

    October 7, 2021 - 6:03 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I’m not sure if it was a temporary exhibition or something permanent. Very little about it online in any case. Thanks for stopping by Maggie.

      October 7, 2021 - 6:32 pm Reply
  • expandingtravels

    The architecture and gardens alone are worth the visit. Only problem was when we visited it was so hot there. 👍

    October 16, 2021 - 4:27 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, the heat in Vietnam can often be brutal. Thanks for reading!

      October 16, 2021 - 9:36 am Reply
  • Lookoom

    It is a beautiful place with a history to which the country can look back, beyond the colonial period and the pains of independence.

    October 25, 2021 - 11:32 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Lookoom!

      October 26, 2021 - 9:04 am Reply

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