Surrounded by moats and thick walls, the 19th-century home of Vietnam’s final emperors is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The last emperor of Vietnam died in 1997, long after his realm had lost all right to call itself an empire. Indeed Bao Dai, who lived well into his 80s, had been born (in 1913) into a country that already was firmly controlled by the French. During his lifetime, he observed the overthrow of France, the rise of the Communist party and the reunification of the nation. He never had the opportunity to experience the true imperial splendor that once was Vietnam.
Modern visitors to Huế, on the other hand, can get a small taste of what it must have been like during the glory years of the Nguyen Dynasty, between 1803 and 1883. Its Imperial City, albeit ravaged by 20th-century wars, retains enough of its historical flavor to fascinate even the most jaded tourist. Flamboyant and architecturally spellbinding, massive in extent yet historically sound, the imperial enclosure and its surrounding Citadel are the central sites of the UNESCO-designated Complex of Huế Monuments, one of the most important heritage destinations in all of Asia.
Moats within moats
Huế (pronounced hway) is a city of about 400,000 people, three hours north of Da Nang by bus or train. It lies on both banks of the picturesque Perfume River (Sông Hương), about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the beaches of the East (South China) Sea. Prominent from the 16th century, it became the imperial capital in 1802, when Nguyen Phuc Anh established his control over the whole of Vietnam.
As Emperor Gia Long, Nguyen began construction of the Citadel complex — with enclosures within moated enclosures, within moated enclosures — in 1803. Work continued for three decades. At the heart was the Forbidden Purple City, home of the emperor. Stone walls over 2 meters (6.5 feet) thick extend 10 km (6.2 miles) within seamless moats 4 meters (13 feet) deep and 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) across.
Tourist-dependent Huế has suffered mightily during the COVID era, but I was selfishly glad for the opportunity to visit when travelers were few in number. Even though a high overcast left skies mostly gray, and I uncharacteristically (for the tropics) donned a jacket for my long day’s walk through the complex, I hardly saw another person during my time in the Imperial City.
I began my visit at the Ngo Mon gate facing the Perfume River. It’s one of 10 access points, but the one most convenient to a majority of visitors. An admission ticket is just 200,000 Vietnam dong, less than US $9.
Of 148 buildings that once comprised the Imperial City, only 20 are standing today. Restoration of several structures is slow but ongoing. An example is the Thai Hoa Palace, directly beyond the Ngo Mon gate. Sitting upon his throne, the emperor greeted official visitors here. When I visited it was undergoing extensive reconstruction, and a Virtual Reality program providing context for a full day’s exploration of the site had been moved to a nearby building. Closed at the time of my visit, it was scheduled to reopen by April.
Beyond the palace are two facing Halls of the Mandarins. The East Hall (on the right as I approached) contains captivating displays on traditional Vietnamese literature and music, pastimes not widely appreciated in contemporary society.
A meander to the right (northeast) reveals the Royal Theatre, one of the most active locations on the entire Imperial City campus. Traditional dance performances, 45 minutes in length, are presented here several times most days. Ancient musical instruments and masks are exhibited behind glass at all times. Construction of the original theater began in 1826, and it subsequently became the home of the National Conservatory of Music. It has now been rebuilt on its original foundation.
The theater is adjacent to the ruins of the grand Can Chanh Palace. Little remains here but a pair of long corridors that flank its remnants on the east and west sides. Reconstructed and painted with a brick-red lacquer, these open hallways are lined with historical photographs and interpretive studies of Nguyen imperial history.
To the right of the corridors are the Emperor’s Reading Room (Thai Binh) and the impressively tidy Thiệu Phương and Cơ Hạ gardens. The two-story reading room was the only part of the Forbidden Purple City — a space reserved specifically for the emperor, his concubines and eunuch servants — that was not destroyed in 1947 when the French reoccupied Huế following the Second World War. (In 1945, Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated and evacuated, putting an end to the Nguyen Dynasty.)
Thai Binh has a beautiful mosaic exterior and a far more classic, subdued interior. Beyond its walls, the Thiệu Phương Garden is a stylized work of naturally sculpted rocks and bonsai trees, accented by brightly blooming flowers and artistically designed windows. Further east, the Cơ Hạ garden is more free-form, a recreating the original royal botanical gardens with trees, gazebos, ponds and an impressive population of birds.
Forbidden, not forgotten
Walkways lead across the northern portion of the Imperial City complex to the Tru’ong San residence, traditionally home to the emperor’s mother. While the beautiful exterior has been mostly restored, its interior is largely empty, except for a model of the Imperial City as it appeared in the 1840s. (I’ve shown that photo early in this story.) Adjacent is the Dien Tho residence, home to the queen mothers.
Step outside and look back east to where the Forbidden Purple City once stood. It’s easy to see the devastation wrought in both the 1940s (by the French) and the 1960s and ’70s (by the Americans). Crumbling walls and arches, accented by overgrown trees, can only hint at the beauty that must once have existed here.
A temple complex
The southwestern quadrant of the Imperial City is occupied by the To Mieu Temple Complex, including (on its north side) the Hung To Mieu Temple. Original built in 1804 to honor Emperor Gia Long’s parents, it is still undergoing reconstruction.
The rest of the magnificent complex has already been largely restored.
Visitors enter through the three-story, 1824 Hien Lam Pavilion on the south side of the complex. Just within the gate are a set of nine enormous dynastic urns, cast in bronze in 1835 and 1836. Each is dedicated to a different Nguyen emperor, symbolizing the power and stability of their reign.
Opposite the pavilion is the To Mieu Temple, in which there are shrines to each of the emperors. The largest and most central honors dynasty founder Gia Long.
By the time of his abdication in 1945, at age 32, I’m sure Bao Dai understood that the relentless march of history had passed him by.