Southeast Asia travel · Travel · Vietnam travel

Huế’s Imperial City

Depending on how strong your knowledge of Vietnamese history is, Huế may or may not be a famous city. For me, I had to visit it due to it having been Vietnam’s capital before Hanoi, and for its Imperial City, where the emperor lived and held court. This was the main reason I was going to Huế. I didn’t know much else about Huế, other than that it saw major fighting in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive.

I found Huế to be very laidback and much less hectic than Hanoi. It was less crowded and had wider streets with less traffic. At times I hardly saw anyone on the streets, and to be honest, it seemed kind of dead compared to Hanoi. On the other hand, it did feel very safe and seemed like a relatively prosperous place. My very first impression wasn’t a very good one, as I mentioned in my previous post on being hustled right at the train station. Eventually my opinion of the city improved, but not to the point where I can say I liked it a lot.

On my first day, after I reached my hotel and checked in, I took a brief rest and then went to the Imperial City, which was only about 20 minutes away, across the Perfume (Huong) river, which divides Hue. The northern part is the historic area, while the south, where my hotel was, is more newer, with more hotels and businesses. The Imperial City is a massive compound consisting of a citadel and numerous imperial court buildings, temples, and residences inside, including the emperor’s palace (Purple Forbidden Palace). This whole “city” was built at the start of the 19th century, modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden Palace. And like the Forbidden Palace, Hue’s Imperial City was quite huge, and it was kind of hard at times to know which building was which, since all I could use was the tiny map on the ticket. I should point out that there seems to be dual pricing with Vietnamese paying less than foreigners. I assume this because after I’d bought my ticket and entered the gate, a security guard saw my ticket and gestured to me using Vietnamese, as if to ask why was I using the ticket. The ticketchecker lady talked to him, possibly saying I was a tourist, and I got through.

Before you get to the entrance gate and buy the ticket, if like me you’re coming from across the river on the south side, you’ll first see a large lawn with a large fortified mount and a giant flag in the center. You pass this, crossing over a small bridge over a moat that leads directly to an entrance gate in the wall, topped by a two-storey pavilion on top. There is no sidewalk so you have to dodge motorcycles and scooters from time to time. Then, you’ll pass another lawn behind the wall, where several large cannons are on exhibit under an open shelter at the side. Then you’ll see the main entrance, which is topped by a pavilion on top, and surrounded on two sides by protruding sections, giving it a squarish U shape. Unfortunately, this entrance looked a little less than grand since the two extensions were being renovated and thus, covered by green screens and scaffolding.

The Imperial City was quite decent, but several of the buildings were a bit shabby and overall it wasn’t in very immaculate shape. After the main entrance, there were several modest pavilions arranged around stone courtyards, as well as two large ponds filled with lotus fronds and carp. A lot of renovation was going on, which gives the impression of being in a construction worksite, but this means in future, it should be nicer to visit. There were even a few ruins which you can poke around in.  Some of the nicer buildings were in the back, including a residence for the emperor’s mother, and a temple. These buildings are in their own small walled compounds while paved roads run at the side. More buildings were constructed up till the early 20th century so some are more modern, such as the Royal Administrative Office built in 1932, a rather plain two-storey building which served as the office of the Royal Cabinet. One quirky thing I saw was a large 19th century map of China, with the caption below saying how this Chinese map clearly showed that the Paracel and Spratly islands were not included, demonstrating that these islands were not part of China – I don’t know how authentic this is and also whether this is definite proof since China could have had other maps including the Paracels, which are very close to China’s Hainan province. This is a major issue with Vietnam, though I would say they have a point with the Spratlys.

The most attractive parts of the Imperial City included:
—The flag tower of the citadel which surrounds the Imperial City. The large rampart with its huge Vietnam flag is the first thing you see when you approach from across the river, and it’s an impressive sight.

–The main entrance gate and  the temples and pavilions immediately after it. While the main gate was marred by scaffolding, I think it’s a very decent structure.

—The Truong San residence, near the rear on the left side, which has a moat garden with trees growing from a giant rock formation in the water. It was a retreat used by the emperor’s mother who lived in a nearby building.

—The The Mieu and Hung Mieu compound, which has several temples to honor past emperors and the parents of Emperor Gia Long, the early 19th century ruler who had the Imperial City built. There are several pavilions and temples here, as well as drum and bell towers. It’s also on the left side, before the Truong San residence.

–The Dien Tho residence, where the emperor’s mother lived. There’re several attractive buildings in here, including a two-storey house, a temple, and a large lotus pond with a pavilion built next to it. This compound is also on the left side.

–The small exit gates at the sides, especially the left, of the Imperial City, which feature very elaborate multicolor designs. While the writing is in Chinese and the meaning of the symbols may be derived from Chinese mythology, the design is very Vietnamese.

–The Duyet Thi Royal Threater. This performance hall  was renovated in the late 1990s and the inside is richly decorated with red wooden decor, classic lanterns, and dragon-decorated pillars.

The Imperial City is huge just like the Forbidden City in Beijing. But while the Forbidden City consists of many buildings interconnected within high walls and gates, the Imperial City’s buildings are all separate from each other. Commoners were forbidden from entry, just like in Beijing’s palace. There is a lot of empty space inside, including lawns, whereas the Forbidden City is all paved, and it was difficult at times to keep track of where I was. I even walked out the rear exit, which faces a small street, and walked back in, though with the approval of the security guards there, who were relaxed enough sitting and chatting with each other. While I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole place, I do think it is a good place to visit and explore. I am certainly glad I went there by myself rather than on a tour, where I probably wouldn’t have been able to see everything.

To be fair, the Imperial City suffered a lot of damage during the Vietnam War, specifically during the Tet Offensive. In this campaign, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters launched large attacks on cities in South Vietnam, resulting in a lot of urban fighting and destruction. As such, many buildings inside the Imperial City were destroyed. According to sources online, the Imperial City buildings also suffered from weather and termite damage.

When I was ready to leave, I experienced a slight hiccup as the main entrance had been closed. I had to walk all the way to the side entrance to go out, which took a good extra 10 minutes. Walking towards the citadel, it was nice to see a lot of people flying kites on the lawn behind the citadel walls. I walked back over the bridge atop the Perfume River, being momentarily confused by the lack of pedestrians and I felt a little weird walking by myself (on the sidewalk) next to noisy traffic. Later that night, I’d walk to a nearby street to find a place to eat and had dinner at a rather decent Indian restaurant.

Greedy fish swarming by me, some with their mouths wide open hoping for food. The ponds inside all had carp who were probably very accustomed to being fed (fish pellets were on sale in nearby boxes) since they all swam expectantly by me whenever I stood over them.

A pleasant scene in the late afternoon exiting the Imperial City.DSC09446
One of the buildings after the main entrance.

I’m not sure if this is an altar. There were a few “ruins” like this.

A pleasant pavilion atop the gate at the rear of the Imperial City with a cafe inside.


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