Travel Report: The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam.
The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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