The restored hallway in Purple Forbidden City

Hue: The Imperial Heart of Vietnam

Tiếng Việt

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, who 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 unified the whole country in 1789, Lord Nguyen Anh ascended the throne and declared Hue, his ancestral seat, as 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 centre.

During and after the Vietnam War, Hue’s cultural scene suffered major loss. As the 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.

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 defence. 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.

Flag tower of Hue Citadel
Meridian Gate – Main entrance to the Imperial City

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 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.

Hall of Supreme Harmony – The throne room of Nguyen Emperors
Dragon motif on the roof of the throne room
View of the Meridian Gate from throne room

The Purple Forbidden City

Behind the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the Purple Forbidden City – the living area of the emperors and his household. 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 results of neglect, natural disasters and military conflicts of the 20th century. The restoration is already under way, but it will take a couple of decades to return the Purple Forbidden City to its original state.

The restored hallway of Purple Forbidden City
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The Royal Tombs

Commemorating the dead with grand structures is a distinctive part in 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 relative good condition and better accessibility. Each tomb has its own characteristics. But they all represent the skill of the landscape architects. This is what captured the attention of UNESCO who named the complex of Hue monuments a World Heritage Site in 1993.

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.

The path leading to Minh Mang Tomb
Perfect symmetry

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 term of intricacy and opulence. The tomb is the final resting place of Khai Dinh, the penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.

Khai Dinh Tomb

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-inpsired columns and electric lamps. At the top floor is Thien Dinh Palace where the Emperor’s grave lies. It is a masterpiece, featuring colourful mosaics made of millions of pieces of broken glass and porcelain.

The central part of Khai Dinh Tomb

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 art value. It is one of Vietnam’s most remarkable imperial architectures, if not the most remarkable, that still exists today.

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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-storey 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 was deteriorated. In particular, the interior was covered by many different layers of new painting. Fortunately, since the 2000s, An Dinh Palace has been gradually restored thanks to Hue Monuments Conservation Centre and the support of Germany’s Federal Foreign Office.

An Dinh Palace

Just like Khai Dinh Tomb, An Dinh Palace was admired for its sophisticated architecture. It appears like a Western masion, with Roman columns, 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.

Courtyard of An Dinh Palace
The restored grand foyer of An Dinh Palace

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18 thoughts on “Hue: The Imperial Heart of Vietnam”

  1. XingfuMama – Seattle – Amateur photographer seeking beauty in both the memorable and the mundane. Sharing pictures, stories and meditations from here and there.
    XingfuMama says:

    Very beautiful. I appreciate the opportunity to see things that I would never otherwise.

    1. Honestly, I didn’t expect Hue to be that interesting 😛 But I realised I was wrong when looking at those intricate details. It’s pretty unique!

  2. So cool! I wish we had more time to explore Vietnam. Never heard of this place and it looks like it’s off the beaten track?

    1. Not really 🙂 It’s a cultural hot spot just 2-3 hours drive from Da Nang. But it’s a bit inland and there is not much to do except visiting those monuments.

  3. Ảnh đẹp quá. Cô đã đi mấy chỗ này nhưng sao lúc ấy không thấy đẹp mà bây giờ thì thấy đẹp quá muốn đi lần nữa.

    1. Dạ cháu cám ơn cô Tám. Chắc lúc trước cô đi khách du lịch đông quá nên không thấy đẹp. Chứ hồi tháng trước cháu đi chỉ có chừng hơn chục người trong cả cái cung điện nên tha hồ xem. Phải công nhận là người hồi xưa tỉ mỉ thật, ngồi khảm từng mảnh sứ 🙂

  4. Lignum Draco – ... A blog about nothing in particular, because "Candid photography is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get". Photography by "The Wood Dragon" since 2012.
    Lignum Draco says:

    Thanks for this introduction to Hue. I’d love to visit there when borders reopen.

    1. Thank you Virginia! Yes, I had luck with the weather. But it was pretty hot (34-35C), making the walk around the Imperial city a bit exhausting. I didn’t expect the palace was that big 😛

  5. Tina Schell – I am passionate about photography, love traveling and exploring new places and faces, and seeing the world from different perspectives. My lens is always on the lookout for something beautiful or interesting.
    Tina Schell says:

    We visited Hue many years ago Len and I was amazed at the splendor of the palaces. I found myself thinking it was a shame to spend such crazy time and money on mausoleums but you’re right, they have are truely architectural marvels showing the grandeur of days gone by. Your images are amazing

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