Prior to WWII, Hue had been the capital of Vietnam and the residents of this city act as if Hue still is. The city has a long and distinguished history. During the Tet Offensive in 1968 the North Vietnamese flag flew from the citadel flag pole for 25 days. When the Americans returned to re-take the city, Hue was virtually destroyed in over ten days of terrible conflicts. The film "Full metal jacket" has much of the major fighting set in Hue, and accurately represents just how completely devastated the city was. It is estimated that over 10,000 people were killed during this battle including thousands of people rounded up by the North Vietnamese as ‘undesirables' and shot or buried alive. The city has now been mainly rebuilt and no real signs of the Tet Offensive remain except for the virtual destruction of the Imperial city.
The construction of Hue Citadel was commenced in 1801 by Emperor Gia Long. This followed a period during which the Nguyen Lords moved the capital around the surrounding area. Since the initial construction, the citadel has been altered and improved upon by a number of Emperors including Emperor Minh Mang, whose tomb is not far from modern day Hue city.
Unfortunately, Vietnam's history of war has boded ill for the citadel, and much of the interior, particularly the Forbidden Purple City, has been destroyed. It was during the conflict with the Americans that some terribly bloody and vicious fighting took place, which flattened a lot of the inner city. However, some parts do still remain and will give you an idea of what a magnificent imperial capital Hue must have been.
The Citadel is almost 10 km in circumference and its walls are 6 m high and 20 m thick. The moat encircles the entire Citadel and is 23 m wide with a depth of 4 m. There are ten entrances to the citadel, many of which are now bridges and roads into the Citadel area (where people live and farm).
The Imperial City was constructed in 1804 and is square in shape, with a perimeter of nearly 2.5 km. It has four entrances: the Noon Gate that is opposite the flag tower, the Gate of Humanity on the left side, the Gate of Virtue on the right hand side, and the Gate of Peace at the rear. The city is surrounded by the Golden Waters pond that flows into the lakes at the northern corner of the city. Each gate has a bridge spanning the Golden Waters, whilst the Noon Gate has three bridges. In imperial times, the centre bridge was for the use of the Emperor alone, whilst the other two bridges were for the use of his entourage.
Once you enter via the Noon Gate, separating you from the Great Rites Court is the Thai Dich Lakes (Great Liquid Lakes). These were dug in 1883 and are spanned by a central bridge, the Trung Dao (Central path) Bridge. The bridge has two ornately designed gateway, carved with dragons slithering up and down them.
The Great Rites Court (also known as the Esplanade of Great Salutation) consists of two paved terraces. The upper was reserved for high ranking civil and military mandarins, whilst the lower was for village officials and elders. The steles on each side of the court indicate where each official's designated place was. At the two corners of the court stand two bronze Kylins, which are believed to bring peace.
Beyond the Great Rites Court there is the Throne Palace. This was used on meetings. During these meetings, the Emperor would sit on his throne whilst only four top ranking officials were allowed in the palace. The remainder of officials had to stand outside according to rank. The palace was seriously damaged during the Tet Offensive.
Behind the Throne palace is where the Great Golden Gate once stood, marking the entrance to the Forbidden Purple City.
The imperial City was not destroyed to the extent of the Forbidden Purple City and there are number of temples still standing, although some are locked up due to their instability. These include Trieu Temple, Thai Temple (a reconstruction), the Residence of Everlasting Longevity, Phung Tien Temple, Mieu Temple, and the Hung Temple.
Unfortunately most of the Forbidden Purple City was completely destroyed during the Tet Offensive. Most of what remains is no more than the foundations of what must have once been grand buildings. There are a number of smaller buildings that were spared complete destruction, and there are some attempts at restoration going on (and so there should be, given the admission price).
Before its destruction, the Forbidden Purple City was used solely by the emperor and his family. It was originally constructed during the reign of Emperor Gia Long and was known as Cung Thanh (City of Residences). It was not until the reign of Emperor Minh Mang that the name Forbidden purple City was adopted.
The City has seven gates linking it to the Imperial City. From the Great Golden Gate, you will enter a large paved area, backed by the foundations of everything that used to be there. To your left and right there are two small buildings that house many artefacts of the City. In the left house, you can dress up as an Emperor and have your photo taken sitting on a throne (really makes you wonder sometimes). There are only a handful of buildings within the city that have been completely destroyed.
Thien Mu Pagoda
This pagoda overlooks the southwest bank of the Perfume River, around 4km south of the railway bridge crossing. This was the home of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who burnt himself to death in protest to the Ngo Dinh Diem regime. The motor car that took him to the site of his self-immolation in Ho Chi Minh City in 1963 is out back. The pagoda has been adopted as the symbol of Hue City and is very popular with both foreign and local tourists, hence the trinket sellers and beggars out front. Behind the pagoda is a lovely garden and a large glass encased smiling Buddha. To the left of the pagoda is a huge bell dating to the 18 century and is said to be audible 10 km away.
The road to Thien Mu Pagoda runs along the bank of the Perfume River and is great for a late afternoon ride as many boats are returning upriver. The light is just great so take your camera. The road also passes by a Portuguese church and also a mid sized fresh produce market, which stocks excellent fruit.
The Imperial Tombs
Hue was the imperial centre of the Nguyen Dynasty which was founded in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long, and lasted until 1945. The banks of the Perfume River around the Imperial City became the royal graveyard for the thirteen rulers of this area. The majority of Vietnamese practice ancestor worship, regarding death as a passage into another existence. They believe the layout of a tomb affects the soul's journey to the spirit world, and the fortunes of the living relatives are determined through formal ceremonies to the dead and protection of the tomb. Desecration of a tomb would have detrimental affects upon both the living ancestors and the souls chance of reaching the ultimate resting place in the spirit world. The tombs of the Emperors were even more important as their position would determine the future of the Dynasty. The Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty there fore established their own Valley of the Dead, which is believed to be protected in both the physical and spiritual worlds.
Tomb of Tu Duc
Tu Duc was the Emperor of Vietnam from 1848 to 1883. He is regarded as one of the more decadent cruel Vietnamese Emperors. Although he was a dedicated Confucian, his lifestyle was unusual in all areas. At each mail he would have a choice of fifty dishes that were delivered by fifty servants and prepared by fifty chefs! He had over one hundred wives and quite a few girlfriends on the side, although he never had children. When Tu Duc drank tea, the water was collected as dew from lotus leaves. He also had one of his brothers put to death after his involvement in a revolt against him. His tomb was constructed between 1864 and 1867 and is own of the more grandiose tombs in Hue City's surrounds. In an attempt to foil grave robbers, his body was not even buried in the tomb, and all those who were involved in the burial were beheaded. His body and treasures are at a destination that remains unknown.
The centrepiece of the tomb is a huge stone tablet that is estimated to weigh over twenty tonnes upon which are inscribed various clarifications of his rule. There are also a number of temples and other buildings within the tomb grounds, along with a nice lake with an island in the centre. Towards the end of his rule, Tu Duc spent a lot of time on this island and generally within his tomb, accompanied by his entourage. The tomb of Tu Duc is about 7 km out of the centre of Hue city.
Tomb of Minh Mang
Minh Mang Emperor ruled from 1820 to 1840 and was responsible for some of the major construction upon the Imperial City. It was also the actions of Minh Mang towards the Catholic missionaries which first brought French military power to bear on Vietnam. The ground of his tomb are large and peaceful, and his actual bomb oversees the Lake of Tranquillity. The first entrance is guarded by a life size stone entourage of soldiers, horses and elephants, and opens to a courtyard containing three temples. Past the temples, you will cross Trung Minh Ho (The Lake of Impeccable Clarity) which is bridged in three places. The central bridge was for the sole use of the Emperor whilst the other two were for his entourage. Beyond the pond there is Sung An Temple that Minh Mang dedicated to his Empress. Following this temple you need to cross another bridge before reaching his tomb that is a huge walled-in dirt mound, which you cannot enter. To give Minh Mang peace of mind whilst ruling, all his servants were eunuchs.
Tomb of Khai Dinh
Khai Dinh Emperor ruled from 1916 to 1925, and his tomb majestically appears from the side of a mountain covered by forest. Unfortunately, the tomb lacks the harmonious blending with nature that many of the other tombs and Vietnamese architecture tries to achieve. This is due to the fact that the tomb was built earlier this century during the French colonial occupation and under their influence. The weather-stained and blackened concrete walls make the tomb seem older than it actually is, but the different style of Khai Dinh's tomb makes it worth a visit.
The tomb is layered, and each stage is divided by stairs. The entrance to the tomb begins with a long climb up from the street level staircase that is bound by dragon banisters. This opens up onto a courtyard, but it is the second level that has a stone statued entourage made up of life size mandarins, horses and elephants. You must contend with more stairs to get to the main part of the tomb and to where Emperor Khai Dinh is buried. The Khai Dinh temple is 10 km south of Hue City, and a sealed road passes straight past its entrance. The view from the top is quite beautiful, looking at the plains and surrounding mountains. The large white statue farther south standing on a hillside is of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy.