Nestled in the centre of the Vietnam peninsula between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh city in the south, Hue was the former imperial capital of the first and the last Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Yes, you read right. Vietnam actually had a dynasty or kingdom of its own. However, it lasted less than 200 years. It may be little known to the outside world that Hue was once the capital city of the Vietnam empire and was embellished as the ‘forbidden city’ of south east Asia; a forbidden city that remarkably resembles much of China’s Forbidden City. It was the flash point of civil wars, occupation and independence of many empires from the early Chinese empire of the north and thereafter the Mongols, the colonisation and protectorate of Europeans by the French, religiosity by the Catholicism and Buddhism, the annexation and occupation by the Japanese, and finally the conflict of ideology between Imperialism, Marxism and Democracy. Once a beautiful and magnificent city of power and prosperity, Hue suffered the worst of Vietnam’s turbulent past and struggle for reunification.
The Purple Forbidden City
The ‘forbidden city’ of south east Asia rivalling that of Beijing’s own Forbidden City, the imperial citadel may not be as large or grand as China’s but it still holds significant representation of imperial sovereignty in its time. In fact, when the Ming dynasty of China fell to the Qing Manchus, the Han Chinese moved south into Vietnam to live and trade. They brought an influx of Chinese ethnic people as well as influence of architecture, cultures, wealth and lifestyles into Vietnam. This explained why some European explorers and traders who arrived at this Vietnamese continent often labelled the local inhabitants as reference to China, thus naming the place Indo-China.
Nevertheless after more than 300 years of brutal civil, ethnic and religious war between the early feudal clan lords, Vietnam was finally unified. Hue became the central administrative capital and palace of Vietnam’s very own first dynasty by Nguyễn Phúc Ánh who later proclaimed himself as Emperor Gia Long on 1 June 1802. The name Gia Long was actually a combination of two old city names; Saigon (Gia Định) in the south and Hanoi (Thăng Long) in the north. It symbolises his power and absolute reign over the unified Vietnam peninsula. Initially the empire was supposed to be named Nam Viet but China would not allow as it would conflict and confuse their own feudal lords of China’s southern state territories; hence the name VietNam was approved instead. It was the beginning of an era of peace and prosperity and the city of Hue grew but it was not for long.
The Imperial Citadel was situated on a large compound with moats surrounding the outer premises. The perimeter moats of the compound is so wide that it formed its own island and was connected only by bridges. The massive Perfume River flowed gallantly in front of the island separating the citadel from Hue city. The river currents constantly kept the moats filled. Back in the old days the river bore beautiful scents of flowers that fell into the river in autumn from the orchards upriver. Hence the river was named ‘Perfume River’ and is also probably the perfect place to build the imperial palace. But today, the river is anything but perfume and churns a constant mud brown from mud dug from the banks and soil slippage from farms and deforestation. A secondary moat surrounds the palace walls between the outer gates with a completely different hue of colour altogether.
Since the city of Hue is situated near the banks of the Perfume River and has a very wet and humid climate all year round, according to legend, it actually had misty and foggy phenomenons back in its hay days which probably bore mystical and celestial persona fit for the imperial reign.
But why was the imperial city called the “purple forbidden city”? There was definitely nothing purple in colour nor was the surroundings anywhere near that colour. The walls were red bricked and orange with dark grey stones and black moss fortifying its base. The bridges were black grey stone impregnated by dark green algae while the roads were cobbled stone lined with red mud bricks. The roof tiles were black but are being restored to its original orange colour while the garden ornaments inside the palace were pine trees and green foliage.
The answer to this mystery was due to the natural phenomenon brought on by the natural landscape back in the days when Gia Long first set eyes on Hue as his defensible palace and capital. The Ngu Binh mountain was a uniquely symmetrically shaped flat topped trapezoid mount and with the Truong Son mountain ranges beyond it to the South of Hue, they naturally formed a blueish dark green or purple hued “wall” or screen that spreads across the horizon as a result of the natural weather, lighting, mist and dark green pine forests over the tops of those mountains. As such, the citadel was built with the Perfume River in front of the imperial city and blanketed with a purple screen as viewed from the throne room of the imperial city; hence the name ‘purple forbidden city’. Of course, due to urbanisation and change of weather patterns encumbered today, it would be difficult to see this “purple screen” effect from the throne room facing South as there are many tall hotels and buildings blocking the view.
Since the last emperor Bao Dai was unceremoniously abdicated and forced into exile in Hong Kong, the purple forbidden palace fell into disuse and quickly became a relic of the past; a relic and symbol of imperialism. Marxism easily relinquished all and most of the imperial anarchy and these buildings along with all the royal heritage sites were abandoned, sacked and left unmaintained and forgotten. It wasn’t long before the start of the First Indochina War against France and later the Vietnam war ensued and Hue became the flashpoint closest to the first Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North Viet Minh and the South Vietnam allied forces. Initially, the allied forces vowed not to cause collateral damage to the heritage sites and buildings like the imperial citadel but due the Viet Minh using such structures as their main strongholds, the US inevitably bombed the compounds of this citadel to rubble.
Facts In And Around The Imperial Citadel
The Imperial Citadel has four main bridgehead gates; Nha Do gate, Quang Duo gate, Ngan gate and Thuong Tu gate. These bridgehead gates were seated behind a deep wide moat from the little islet between the Perfume River, fortified in moss and neglect. The paint and coats have long disintegrated leaving parts of the kilned red brick walls exposed to show a pale orange hue while the rest of the wall are black in fungus. The heavy doors were removed and the passageways to the upper turrets cemented off. The main superstructure of the gatehouse itself was about eight meters tall with a double storey watch tower above. Each of the gatehouses had housed a large calibre bronze cannon in the upper superstructure which has since been removed and placed behind the Ngan gate for display. The outer curtain walls stretched all along the moat perimeter with fort embattlements rigged consistently between distances but had no crenels like the Great Wall of China. The bridge road itself was narrow and the surface messily tarred over with the curbs cracked due to heavy vehicle use. The Ngan bridgehead gate is the closest to the main entrance, the Ngo Mon gate of the citadel.
The Ngo Mon gate, also known as the Meridian gate was the largest and most fortified main gate of the citadel and has survived years of endless wars defending the occupants as a secondary and final line of defence. It’s moat too is wide and deep with an elaborate double storey watch tower battlement with protruding wings and intricate roof ornaments adding to its architectural design. At the gate itself, there are three entrances with the centre being the largest to fit the emperor’s carriage as well as the prized war elephants used in battle and for ceremonies. The gatehouse walls are scarred with bullet holes while most of the original watch tower was badly damaged from artillery during the Viet Minh insurgency. Now, part of that damaged section of the watch tower has been restored but the repair looks too obvious and contrastingly different compared to the remaining superstructures.
Clearly, the citadel and its defences were simply designed to counter the conventional infantry based type of warfare in Asia back in the early 18th century as compared to the fortifications I’ve visited in Girona. The upper structure of Ngo Mon gate had red lacquered thick wooden pillars and beams sourced from the aged pine trees of this region with intricate details at beam ends and window sills instead of fortified stone or granite keeps. Another artillery stone bastion was built directly in front of Ngo Mon gate across the courtyard possibly on advise by the French military advisors to the emperor back then to counter modern artillery and siege weapons of the late 18th century. It is currently used to stand a large flag mast bearing the Vietnamese flag while the earthen bricked floor slates of the external courtyard are poorly maintained and are extremely slippery when wet.
Enter the main palace courtyard. The guards there will separate the Vietnamese and locals to the right side entrance while the foreigners are required to enter from the left most door. Might be a customary procedure rather than a difference in ticket pricing. As I entered, in front of me was a long discriminate measure of distance to the main throne room to symbolise power and influence. Unlike the Beijing courtyard of the Forbidden City, Hue’s palace grounds embodies two great ponds with fishes under a single causeway instead of a massive large marble and cobble stoned courtyard with bridges like that of Beijing. In the purple forbidden palace one may come to notice there are always three distinct bridges or walkways to every main building which is flanked by ponds, gardens or lakes in between.
This is because the imperial architects here believe that the main middle bridge or walkway is only meant for the emperor and his officials or foreign dignitaries to walk on while the side bridges are for everyone else of a lower vassal status. Maybe this explains the entrance protocol to this palace. Amazingly the main courtyard and the main throne hall was spared any damage from the reunification war leaving the marble slabbed centre causeway and stone fired kilned slates of the entire court intact. But much maintenance and restoration is left to be desired as the floor slates are extremely slippery when wet due to moss and neglect.
The startling difference in the purple forbidden palace is the two intricately colourful archway banner posts overhead that cover the main causeway which are not found at the Forbidden City of Beijing. These posts are made of colourful glass and porcelain pieces and intricately handmade painted art pieces carefully embedded into the placards that give an everlasting shine. A few sponsors from private corporations have helped restore some of these ornaments making them lively once again.
During this cold time of year the frangipani trees in the courtyard has withered all but its last leaves leaving the whole courtyard solemnly bare and nostalgically monotonous. As I walk down the rows of neatly arranged but unattended flower pots, at the end of the second archway are two bronze half-dragon-half-lion figurines at the far end of the centre courtyard. These ‘spiritual’ defensive ornaments are skinny yet aggressive looking compared to the great big lions at Beijing.
As I walk closer toward the Hall of Highest Harmony directly in front, three small separate short flight of stairs again separate the vassal classes when approaching the throne room. The great hall had three main entrances. The throne hall was impressive with red lacquered thick pine pillars, beams and arches inlaid with gold. Above the throne itself was gold leaf encrusted arches of intricate dragons overhanging between the main posts above the golden throne. This building has side halls for mandarins to gather and prepare before the royal reception of official dignitaries. The roof top ornaments are also not as intricate as China’s with not much shamanistic idols or figurines of feng shui beliefs except for persistent references of dragons; the mythical line of kings.
Unfortunately ladies have a strict dress code to adhere in this unused and unsymbolic throne room and I was not allowed to enter to take much pictures. They didn’t even provide a sarong or cloth for guests who came unprepared to cover up in order to continue to visit this area. Even in Bali, they provide sarongs to those who came to visit but are unprepared for the required dress code. I wasn’t even allowed to walk through being a lady and had to walk around this building to the back. So a word of advise to solo female travellers coming here, be sure to wear covered attire including long pants and trainers and no strapless or sleeveless tops.
The centre courtyard looked completely bare and open as the foliage of the gardens have totally overrun the debris. The middle palace has been flattened along with sections of the centre courtyard. All that remains is the sun terrace and moon terrace which have been converted into a tourist photography studio and gift shop, and the latter, an art exhibit shop. The only remaining relics in this court are the massive bronze cauldrons which signify luck and longevity to the imperial family. But why is everything bronze?
Well it is due to the available resources in this region. Silver and gold were scarce resources and most of the gold was given to China as an annual tribute and protection. Vietnam is also famous for lacquered boxes and containers inlaid with silver or gold which were considered very expensive gifts in those days. Bronze was also relatively expensive as they were used to stamp coins of the currency of the Vietnam empire. According to clerics and metallurgy scientists back in those days, bronze was a special metal that was not only abundant but is characteristic of the dynasty as well.
The value of bronze in Vietnam is measured by weight. Hence four massive bronze cauldrons each weighing over three tons was originally set in the centre courtyard to hold water to signify longevity. However after the war, only two remain. Even the Thien Mu Pagoda received a super generous gift from one of the late emperors, a bronze bell weighing over three tons that had an audible range of up to 10km!
Most of the structures of the inner palace were made entirely out of wood and was lacquered red and had royal edicts, poems, poetry and wisdom placards inlaid with gold that was hung along the main halls and walkways of the inner palace. There were huge intricately crafted paper lanterns that hung overhead to provide lighting in those days. The corridors were long with many beams across every pillar with foldable French doors to close or open access to side chambers and alleyways around the perimeters of the central courtyard. Most of side chambers, and the houses of the mandarins and servants at the far end of the left side of the centre court was demolished during the war.
Today, only the royal treasury building, royal library, royal theatre and the tennis court survived the war. Emporer Kai Dinh was the great great grandson of Gia Long and was an avid supporter and fan of everything French. Thus he too took up the sport in his backyard. The royal temple physically survived the bombings but is currently still in restoration process as its internal structure was badly burnt by the Viet Minh. The difficulty faced is the lack of required skills and experts to restore the intricate details of the original structure. All the other throne rooms including the emperor’s abode and bathhouses are nothing but grass and rubble today. The emperor’s garden has outgrown its place taking over the old cobbled walkways and rubbing away the old palace ground footprints from history.
Interestingly, the empress dowager’s abode and hall did partly survive the war along with all her furniture and wardrobes! In fact the whole hall was filled with the numerous and humongous dowager’s wardrobes, like a museum with cupboards of various sizes lined like a labyrinth. So ladies, this is what living like a queen is like!
Now a wooden golden dragon sits where the final throne room would be. A mark of the last imperial dynasty that first unified the Vietnam peninsula. Unfortunately no blueprints or design plans of this imperial city was ever recorded and hence no amount of effort could help rebuild this city and its structures within. What was lost was forgotten over the wars and even as most of the curtain walls of the citadel remain intact, the legacy of the purple forbidden city begins to fade into legend.
Located near the exit on the east of the Imperial Palace, towards Hien Nhon bridge was another hidden relic. The royal treasury building. Tucked away behind trees is a small unappreciated building in yellow with a small guard house and an arch overhead at the entrance. It had a small roundabout in front of the building entrance, something very much like a mini European chateau. The facade is completely deteriorated and looks very much like a haunted house and is out of bounds for tourists as the caretakers use this building primarily for themselves.
Once the empire’s coffers and national treasury of the empire’s entire wealth, the imperial regime became less and less favoured by the people due to the heavy taxes levied on them just to cover the costs of construction of every emperor’s grand designs. The people also suffered under the emperor’s own ‘fascist’ ideals imposed on them and yet did nothing to help them when foreign colonists entered the state. Hence the building that collected taxes is now a sight for sore eyes and little is done to preserve it.
Finally, the last piece of relic; the Hien Nhon gate located on the east of the citadel’s curtain wall is possibly the only gatehouse that has maintained part of its original colours and intricate glass works. This gate is only used as an exit. The beautiful colours is such a contrast to all the dilapidated and unmaintained structures within. This is the only structure I’ve taken a selfie with. Interestingly also, some upscale cafes and restaurants are ready to welcome you as you finally exit from the purple forbidden city, offering tourists a place to lift their tired feet and dampened spirits.
All in all, the parts of the citadel that remain are open for tourists include the main gate and throne room respectively. Most other palaces and buildings within the citadel compounds in the centre, north, east and northwest have been completely destroyed. The biggest challenge was that there were no blueprints or design plans of this imperial city ever recorded. It is impossible to ever reconstruct the citadel to what it was or would have been before. Since it was a ‘forbidden city’, nobody was allowed to take pictures inside except for a few royal photographers or foreign dignitaries back then. Only so few images of the citadel grounds remain. Hence the lost city of Hue.
Visiting The Imperial Citadel
The citadel entrance ticket alone costs VND55,000 per pax. There is also a combo ticket which includes entrance tickets to the citadel and two tombs for a total of VND280,000 per pax with a validity of two days. I bought the combo as it gave me plenty of time to visit those places at my own pace.
The caretakers of the imperial citadel provides electric golf cart pick up services from the entrance to exit but only for disabled or less ‘movable’ visitors. The garden slates can be very slippery when wet. I do advise to wear trainers with good traction as there is lots of walking to do! What they seriously lack here is good sign boards and placards of the names of buildings to help you get around! They don’t even provide a tourist hand out map to help you plan your itinerary to best cover the compounds with what time you have. Usually most people would spend up to 3 hours around here. All the remaining buildings in this citadel have been converted to capture as much tourist dollars. Even the royal theatre sells tickets for the performances that you can buy for a few hundred thousand Vietnamese Dongs.
Overall, even though the purple forbidden palace is in dire need of a major restoration effort, it is still a nice place to take a stroll and slowly digest the historic and dynastic past of Vietnam.