A Tour of Huế, Part 1: The Purple Forbidden City and Citadel

With two impromptu days off, I got myself to the Hanoi train station and bought an overnight ticket to Huế, a small city sitting on the banks of the Perfume River, among pine-covered mountains in Central Vietnam. Huế was the imperial capitol from 1802, when Emperor Gia Long founded the Nguyễn dynasty, until 1945, when the last Nguyễn emperor abdicated the throne and Ho Chi Minh was elected president and prime minister.

Ngọ Môn (Midday) Gate, entrance to the Purple Forbidden City, which lies within the Citadel and location of the last emperor's abdication of the throne in favor of Ho Chi Minh's presidency in 1945. The abdication ended the Nguyễn Dynasty.

My Lonely Planet book (much as I try to ditch that thing, it is a more reliable quick-reference than wikipedia–this from the girl who wants to be an historian…) tells me that none of the buildings in the Huế Citadel are more than 150 years old. Only twenty now stand, many in varying states of restoration, thanks to American and French bombs. Before the wars, there were 148 buildings.  Within the Citadel lies the Purple Forbidden City, once the realm of the Nguyễn emperors, palaces and government buildings.

Huế was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

View of the Hue Flag Tower from the Ngọ Môn Gate.

The Huế Citadel initially seems small; the main buildings have been largely restored or rebuilt and most of the tourists seemed to stick to those buildings. But walking beyond those buildings yields a different view of Huế’s history. You see stone foundations where government buildings and other parts of the palace once stood. The occasional remnant of the tile floor remains, overgrown with weeds. Juxtaposed against the immensity of the Citadel’s gates and stone wall, it seems so fragile.

These guys heading across the plaza totally remind me of the Sharks and the Jets. Rumble at the Forbidden City...

I’ll be honest: I’m pretty terrible at remembering what’s what.  There are very few signs so I’ll add names of buildings as soon as I have scourged the Internets for them.  This building was, I think, a former government building and is situated kitty corner to the emperor’s home and cabinet rooms.

Dragons are common in the architecture here but the ones on the emperor's palace were some of the most ornate that I have seen. They are decorated mosaic similar to that which is found throughout the Forbidden City. Yellow roofs were reserved only for the Emperor.

I don't know that much about East or Southeast Asian architecture but I had never seen mosaics using pieces of blue and white china. The blue and white china is the type you would associate with the Minh dynasty in China or with the Chinoiserie fad in 18th century Europe.

Recognize this? The wedding scene in Indochine--during which Camille and Tuan have a fake marriage before he helps her run off to join Jean-Baptiste and the Communist movement--was filmed here. Personally, I think this hallway summarizes Imperial glory (or pompousness). It's the Vietnamese equivalent of Versailles' Hall of Mirrors.

The Empress' Pavilion

There was once a decorative tile floor in this grassy field. The building was probably bombed by the French or Americans.

Beyond the buildings that have been restored are the foundations and broken sidewalks of the old, bombed parts of the Citadel.

Ramdom gates appear so you lose track of whether you are within the Forbidden City or just within the Citadel.


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