Poetic, dreamy and romantic are some of the words people use to describe Hue, the final imperial capital of Vietnam under Nguyen dynasty (from the 17th to 19th century).
The old Citadel is the life of Hue, the defining feature of this quaint city. Filled with beautiful monuments, impressive architecture, and is especially well-known for its royal tombs. Home to an Imperial city, this well preserved Chinese style Citadel and settlement date back to the 1800’s.
While it’s a wonderful place to wander around and learn more about the city’s rich history, it often goes overlooked. I surmised travellers mainly stick to guidebooks, only visiting the Citadel and primary tombs, and leave with only a snippet of the beauty that lies within Hue. Beyond endless tombs and pagodas, there are other hidden gems that should not go unnoticed. Even if you visit there for just one day, it will surprise you how much you learn about Vietnamese culture.
It’s true that much has been damaged in the Vietnam war, but a walk inside the walls of the Citadel complex gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives and inner workings of Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty.
The Citadel still stands impressive and is definitely one of the highlights of Hue. The grounds are so huge, and you can spend a fair few hours wandering through the gardens, lakes, ruins and buildings.
Only at fifteen years of age, Prince Nguyen Phuc Anh escaped after his entire family were slaughtered in 1777. As the lone surviving member of a once-powerful clan, he sought revenge against their conquerors, the Tay Son army.
Eventually building an army and strategically placed alliances such as the Chinese and French, Phuc Anh emerged victorious in 1802 declaring himself emperor and the Nguyen Dynasty was born.
Changing his name to Gia Long, and he built a new Imperial City Complex in Hue, serving as the ancestral home of the Nguyen clan. Gia Long’s descendants would continue to rule from this Imperial City up until 1945.
From 1802 to 1945, the thick walls protected the royal emperors of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty. The Purple Forbidden City within the Citadel was reserved exclusively for the royal family. Providing multiple layers of defences, the fortress protected the royal family from potential invaders. No man other than the emperor was allowed to set foot within its walls with the exception of women of the household and, enuchs.
Perfume River (Huong River) flows through Hue City to the Imperial Palace giving this feudal site a picturesque landscape that only enhances the glory of this former Captial.
Walk through the old palace and imagine a day in the life of the emperors. Look up at the roof carvings and the ceilings, completely covered with intricate golden designs. The Citadel walls in its former glory were lavish and opulent, surrounded with ornate gardens, intricate pagodas and a labyrinth of paths leading to the prettiest gardens.
Ngo Mon gate dominates the main entrance to the Imperial City and is the only gate you can enter through. (You can exit through other gates). Still, this imposing Ngo Mon Gate stands, was built to resemble a group of five phoenixes, has since become a symbol of not only the Citadel but of Hue itself.
Emperor Gia Long and his descendants would sit at the top during special ceremonies, looking down at their subjects from high up above. On the other side of the courtyard is a large flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, reminding modern-day visitors of which side eventually came out on top.
Thai Hoa Palace
Thai Hoa Palace is the powerful symbol of the Nguyen Dynasty and is where the King’s official receptions and other significant court rituals such as anniversaries and coronations were taken place.
Hue’s Imperial Emperors built great tombs as eternal resting places, as heavenly palaces for their bodies and souls to enter the afterlife. The tombs often reflect the personality or tastes of the Emperor himself. Seeing all of them would be time consuming – and confusing. It’s best to prioritize and visit tombs such as Khai Dinh, Ming Mang and Tu Duc and other pagodas along the way.
Tomb of Khai Dinh
As the final resting place of Khai Dinh, the Emperor of Vietnam served from 1916-1925. His tomb is mostly made of concrete and includes many European architectural details, probably inspired by the Emperor’s visit to France in 1922 where he viewed the Marseilles Colonial Exhibition. Begun in 1920 and it was finally completed in 1931.
During Khai Dinh’s reign, he was largely unpopular, mostly due to his close relations with the French.
Financing his tomb was at the expense of Vietnamese which taxpayers paid 30% more. This was done by requesting permission from the French advisors to raise taxes on the peasantry, which they allowed.
Having died prematurely at age 40 of tuberculosis, his son and successor, Bao Dai, completed the tomb a few years later. Bao Dai was the last ruler of the Nguyen dynasty and lived until 1997. However, the tomb of Khai Dinh became the last grand imperial tomb in Vietnam.
Khai Dinh’s imperial tomb is so elaborately detailed, he went great lengths to source materials such as liaising with the French to buy steel, iron, cement and tiles. The emperor also dispatched ships to Japan and China to source ceramics and stained glass needed for the Tomb.
Thien Mu Pagoda
The Thien Mu Pagoda (“Heavenly Lady Pagoda”) is one of the oldest and prettiest religious building Hue has ever seen.
Legend has it, an old woman appeared on the hill where the pagoda stands today, telling local people that a Lord would come and build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Upon hearing this, Lord Nguyen Hoang, therefore, ordered the construction of the pagoda the “Heaven Fairy Lady” or Thiên Mụ in Vietnamese (also called Linh Mụ).
Under Lord Nguyen Hoang construction began in 1601. The temple began as a very simple form of construction, but as time went by, several kings of the Nguyen Dynasty such as Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Thanh Thai restored and expanded with it with more intricate features.
The standout feature of the pagoda is Phuoc Duyen tower erected in 1884 by King Thieu Tri, and is the unofficial symbol of Hue. Seven storeys (2m high), the octagonal tower is the highest stupa in Vietnam and dedicated to a Buddha who appeared in human form. Its significance is so lasting that and is often the subject of folk rhymes and poems in Hue. More importantly, it is considered as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital.
The main feature is the pavilion sheltering an enormous bell (Dai Hong Chung). Cast in 1710 by Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu, it’s famous for its grand size, reaching 2.5m high and weighing 3,285 kg.
On the right of the tower is a pavilion containing an inscribed slab dated from 1715. As a symbol of longevity, it is located on the back of a massive marble turtle.
Today, the pagoda is surrounded by ornamental plants and flowers with an integrated garden that creates a calm and romantic setting.
Tu Duc Royal Tomb
Tu Duc’s tomb is something to marvel at. His tomb site located in the most natural setting, surrounded by a Lake, and only 6 km outside of Hue, was used by the Emperor Tu Duc as a retreat home.
The emperor was a bit of a couch potato. When royal life wasn’t all fun and games, he would seek solace on the tomb grounds where he’d spend his time leisurely.
Built between 1864 and 1867, the tomb’s architecture was designed to work in harmony with the carefully laid out landscape. The woodland grounds are peaceful and perfect for picnicking or pontificating. Visitors can easily see why the emperor poet found such solace here. He was perhaps a lousy king but was an eager poet.
Hue used to be the city of the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty ruling Vietnam between 1802 and 1945.
The poor guy didn’t always have it easy. Tu Duc faced challenges as a ruler such as internal rebellion, French encroachment, and poor health rendering him infertile. Towards the end of his life, the Emperor retreated into his tomb, leading a life of hedonism where he would compose poetry, hunt, and spend his spend with concubines.
Despite his flawed rule, Tu Duc left behind a remarkable tomb site and one that is favoured by visitors today and serve as a reminder that money and power can only buy one so much happiness.
Imagine a maze where you need to navigate a labyrinth of doors, paths and even cross many gates just to find your way towards the center of the seat of power.
Minh Mang Tomb
Tu Duc’s grandfather, Ming Mang was one of the greatest rulers of the Nguyen Dynasty reigning from 1820 to 1840. The construction of his tomb began on the first year of his reign but was still incomplete upon his death. Falling to his son and successor Thieu Tri to complete his final resting place, with the help of about ten thousand skilled artisans, workers and soldiers.
Within the tomb complex, the gates and endless roofs are decorated gloriously. Lines of stone mandarins, elephants and horses can be seen in almost every direction.
Going through 3 bridges you leads you to pavilions dedicated to kings with a view of a quaint flower garden.
Minh Mang relished in architecture, that’s no wonder his tomb features some of the finest buildings in Vietnam.
His tomb is a place to linger. Set in stunning backdrop cypress trees and curving lakes, courtyards that smelled of frangipani trees, behind lacquer shutters in the cool dark rooms of temples, in grand pavilions where sparrows twittered through windows, you can imagine past nobleman enjoying their walks peacefully.
Emperor Minh Mang’s Tomb is a complex of 40 constructions: temples, places, pavilions, and more. People have said it’s a perfect combination of manmade and natural beauty of Hue, where architecture fits harmoniously into the surrounding landscape.
Compared to other royal tombs in Hue, Minh Mang’s tomb lacks the sprawling size of the former, yet far more refined than the latter. The Minh Mang tomb nonetheless offers a balance of landscaping and architecture that is unmatched among the tombs in Hue.
Apart from its majestic features, Minh Mang tomb allures visitors by the captivating beauty nature which has been somehow distorted to combine harmoniously with the architecture here.
You could easily get lost inside the 520 hectares Citadel particularly when you are exploring alone in the afternoon.
You may decide to ditch the piece of information in your hand with a list of endless names of every palace and pagodas and instead, explore the palace grounds freely with no sense of direction.
Thieu Mu Temple
The Royal Treasury
The Royal Theater
Co Ha Garden
Northeast of the Citadel is the Co Ha Garden. The site once had a number of buildings for the young Nguyen princes to study in, but currently none remain. This part of the Citadel sees few tourists, but makes for a pleasant stroll.
Front gate to Dien Tho Palace
Take a peek into Vietnam's last Imperial Citadel
Other than the main structures and gardens of the Imperial City, there are a lot more tombs, pagodas and details to take in, along with a few surprises, for those willing to dig deeper. See the outer edges of the walled city, where you’ll find gates that are as impressive as many of the buildings within (none nearly as amazing, of course, as Ngo Mon).
Despite being severely damaged in twentieth-century wars, ongoing restoration means that there is still much to see of what was once a feudal era, but the Citadel remains Hue’s most popular and most important historic site.