Deep in the heart of Vietnam lies Hue, a city that’s a bit out of the way for most travelers (which may actually be a good thing) but is a treasure trove of cultural attractions. Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam in the 1800’s, during a time when the country practiced a dynastic form of government with emperors at the helm. Imperial life then centered on the royal court, and elaborate buildings were built in and around the city’s citadel to host all the pomp and pageantry. With that undeniable Chinese influence, the Imperial city at Hue consisted of hundreds of buildings which served as government offices, residences for the emperor and his concubines and temples. Most of the Imperial City was destroyed however, during the Vietnam War, and today, barely a dozen buildings remain.
palace of supreme harmony, hue
It is perhaps the extent of the ruins which lead many to skip Hue while in the country. Truly, it would take a lot of imagination for one to recreate what court life would have looked like during the peak of Imperial Vietnam. Nevertheless, the imperial monuments in Hue were declared as a single UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. I decided to check this out during my third visit to Vietnam.
ngo mon gate
Similar to Beijing, Hue’s Imperial City sits within a walled enclosure. The main gate from which to enter is via the Ngo Mon Gate which today is probably the most majestic of Hue’s remaining structures. Entering it, I came face to face with the Thai Hoa or the Palace of Supreme Harmony. Today the best preserved of the Imperial City’s original buildings, it emerged virtually unscathed despite the heavy fighting that occurred during the Battle of Hue in 1968. The Thai Hoa Palace was also the most important building inside the imperial enclosure and traditionally used by the emperor for official receptions.
some of the restoration work inside the forbidden purple city of hue
Beyond this, the other surviving buildings inside the imperial enclosure were in varying states of ruin. The magical sounding Purple Forbidden City was little more than a grass field filled with empty bases and one or two partially restored buildings.
temple inside the imperial city
When in Hue, do allow at least one full day for sightseeing. Contrary to popular perception, the imperial sights are actually quite scattered and are not concentrated on just the Imperial City. A few kilometers beyond the city outskirts are the imperial tombs, those of the emperors from the 1800 to 1900’s. There are seven of these well-known tombs. We visited two, the Tomb of Tu Duc and the Tomb of Khai Dinh.
a pond, tu duc tomb
tomb of khai dinh
Of the two we visited, I was particularly impressed with the Tomb of Khai Dinh. Though his rule marked a further consolidation of power to the French colonial masters, the tomb built in his honor is arguably the most elaborate. The exteriors feature a multi-tiered staircase with terracotta-like figures guarding the entrance. The interiors is a visual feast with a mix of eastern and western architectural styles.
more of khai dinh’s tomb
There was impressive tilework done inside the tomb. It’s hard not to notice the origins of the tiles used. Many originated as recycled cans, soft drink bottles and even plastic wrappers! It’s a wonder how the builders were able to turn trash into something so spectacular.
thien mu pagoda, symbol of hue
Hue today is a tourist-centric albeit still a sleepy town. One could hardly surmise the impact it has had on Vietnamese history, both as the former capital and as the site of one of the most decisive battles during the Vietnam War. The city had been scarred deeply and it’s hard to imagine how less than 50 years ago, the city was witness to some horrific episodes from the war. Nevertheless, Hue is an important stop in Vietnam. The city is still one of the most architecturally important cities in the country, with a cuisine that many locals consider to be the best Vietnamese food around.
How to get there: Hue is located in Central Vietnam. While the city has its own airport, it is being upgraded at the moment and the nearest airport is in Da Nang which is about 2-hours away by car. Regular domestic flights shuttle passengers between Da Nang and Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City