Brimming with historic wonders, Hue today is high on the list of Vietnam’s top destinations. Its magnificent palaces and elaborate mausoleums still resonate with the glories of the Nguyen dynasty, which reigned the South East Asian country for over 140 years.
Commanding the southern and northern banks of the Huong River (Perfume River), Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam. After unifying the whole country in 1789, Lord Nguyen Anh ascended the throne and declared Hue, his ancestral seat, the kingdom’s capital. From there till 1945, the city grew into the seat of power as well as the country’s political, cultural, and religious center.
During and after the Vietnam War, Hue’s cultural scene suffered a major loss. As a result of battles in the city, many imperial sites, including the Purple Forbidden Palace, were reduced to ashes. Others were neglected because they were seen as “relics from the feudal regime” by the ruling government. However, there has since been a shift in policy, and thus many historic wonders are being restored.
1. Hue Citadel
To fit Hue’s new role as the imperial capital, a citadel was erected on the bank of the Huong River. It covers an area of 52 hectares and consists of multiple rings of defense.
The construction began in 1804, but it took nearly 30 years to complete this monumental project. Though suffered severe damage, Hue Citadel is still an impressive sight. It reflects the grace and pomp of Vietnam’s last dynasty, as well as its turbulent history.
1.1 The Imperial City
Hue Citadel’s most crucial part is the Imperial City – the seat of power during the Nguyen dynasty. It is a magnificent ensemble of gated courtyards, gardens, pavilions, and palaces. All were elaborately constructed, with dragon and phoenix motifs found throughout the area.
The buildings were placed symmetrically along a north-south axis, which runs through the ornate throne room. Named as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, this place is where the emperors held an audience and ruled over the nation. The hall was also the venue for grand ceremonies, such as coronations, emperors’ birthdays, or the Vietnamese New Year.
1.2 The Purple Forbidden City
Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the Purple Forbidden City – the living area of the emperors and their households. At the time, there were various edifices with hundreds of chambers. Regrettably, Purple Forbidden City is no more than just a name.
The entire complex was ruined as a result of neglect, natural disasters, and military conflicts of the 20th century. The restoration is already underway, but it will take a couple of decades to return the Purple Forbidden City to its original state.
2. The Royal Tombs
Commemorating the dead with grand structures is a distinctive part of Hue culture, spurred by the Nguyen emperors. In total, there are seven royal mausoleums around the city. Of which, Minh Mang’s and Khai Dinh’s are the most visited thanks to their relatively good condition and better accessibility.
Each tomb has its own characteristics. But they all represent the skill of landscape architects. This is what captured the attention of UNESCO who named the complex of Hue monuments a World Heritage Site in 1993.
2.1 Minh Mang Tomb
Located in a tranquil setting of gardens and ponds, Minh Mang Tomb is dedicated to the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. It’s the grandest and most solemn tomb, reflecting the Emperor’s strength and power.
As expected from a staunch traditionalist, the tomb of Minh Mang follows a classical Chinese scheme. The entire complex has an oval form and is laid out in a strict symmetric order. It includes forty structures that are built in pairs and arranged symmetrically along a central path. This path runs through the salutation court, the stele pavilion, and lastly to the Emperor’s own tomb. A series of vegetation and two large ponds are also added, creating perfect harmony with the environment.
2.2 Khai Dinh Tomb
Measuring only 5.700 m2, Khai Dinh Tomb is the smallest of the seven royal tombs. But it easily surpasses the others in terms of intricacy and opulence. The tomb is the final resting place of Khai Dinh, the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
Unlike those of his predecessors, Khai Dinh Tomb doesn’t follow any specific architectural style. In contrast, it’s a curious fusion of Western architecture and the nation’s traditional art. For instance, the use of wrought-iron and concrete in place of wood, Ardoise roof tiles, Roman-inspired columns, and electric lamps. On the top floor is Thien Dinh Palace where the Emperor’s grave lies. It is a masterpiece, featuring colorful mosaics made of millions of pieces of broken glass and porcelain.
A curious fusion of Western architecture and traditional art.
In the past, Khai Dinh and his lavish mausoleum received a lot of critics. Some even accused the Emperor of treason because he imposed heavy taxation on peasants to finance the construction of this edifice. However, no one can deny the fact that Khai Dinh Tomb boasts a unique artistic value. It is one of Vietnam’s most remarkable imperial architectures, if not the most remarkable, that still exists today.
3. An Dinh Palace
Located by the bank of An Cuu Canal, An Dinh Palace is a newcomer to the list of royal wonders in Hue. This three-story building was originally the private residence of crown prince Buu Dao (later Emperor Khai Dinh). After ascending the throne in 1916, he gifted it to his son Vinh Thuy who later became Vietnam’s last emperor, Emperor Bao Dai.
When the monarchy was ousted in 1945, Bao Dai and his family moved from the Imperial City to An Dinh Palace. He had lived here until Ngo Dinh Diem seized the palace and forced him to live in exile. Over the course of time, the palace deteriorated. In particular, the interior was covered by many different layers of paintings. Fortunately, since the 2000s, An Dinh Palace has been gradually restored thanks to the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre and the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office.
Just like Khai Dinh Tomb, An Dinh Palace was admired for its sophisticated architecture. It appears like a Western mansion, with Roman columns, a grand foyer, and an elaborate courtyard. But if you look closely, you will notice traditional elements such as apricot blossoms, lotus leaves, and dragon motifs. They are intricately blended into the Western structure, making the palace truly unique.
At the time, no other private residence was as grandiose as An Dinh Palace. Even today, it is still counted as an outstanding example of Neoclassical architecture in Vietnam.