We all know that Vietnam has a lot of history. But it comes as a surprise to find that like China, it has its own Forbidden City, the remnant of a fascinating imperial past. You can find it in central Vietnam, in a city called Hue.
It’s not a familiar name to most foreigners, but for centuries, Hue was the seat of an empire that once rivalled Beijing. It was led by the Nguyen (pronounced NWEE-en) dynasty, whose 13 emperors led the country through thick and thin. Their reigns spanned a turbulent time in Vietnam’s history, highlighted by a constant tug of war with the French colonialists. The last Nguyen emperor abdicated in 1945, at the end of World War II.
But along the way, they left some impressive monuments, including the citadel of Hue, a huge complex built around 1800 on the banks of the Perfume River. It later came upon hard times, sustaining heavy damage during the Indochina wars against France. But happily, in recent years the citadel has been partially restored. And somehow, the ruined state of some parts give it a slightly romantic feeling, as if you were visiting Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu.
The citadel is a walled compound, surrounded by a moat and entered through massive gates with three doors: one for state mandarins, one for military mandarins, and one used only by the emperor himself. Once inside, it’s divided into a series of courtyards, much like the Forbidden City in Beijing. In fact, the citadel and the other great monuments of Hue were designed using the same Confucian principles used in China.
Entering, you walk across a walkway with koi ponds on either side (above), and arrive at the Thai Hoa Palace. This huge throne room is supported by 80 red lacquered pillars decorated with the figures of dragons and clouds; these were supposed to represent harmony between the emperor and the people. The building was used only for coronations, royal weddings and receiving foreign ambassadors. (Sorry, no photos allowed.)
Next are the halls of the mandarins, where the emperor’s advisers used to gather and prepare for official functions. And it wouldn’t be an imperial palace without some bronze cauldrons in the courtyard.
From there, you wander through a series of restored buildings on either side of the courtyards, many filled with historic photos from the days of the emperors. The imperial family surrounded by their servants, mandarins with long white beards in ornate robes and hats with wings sticking out on each side – if you’ve seen The Last Emperor, you get the picture.
The centre of the complex is Vietnam’s Purple Forbidden City, which was just as exclusive as its Beijing counterpart. No man other than the emperor was allowed to set foot within its walls. The women of the household and court eunuchs were let in, but any other man who ventured inside was put to death.
And as with the Forbidden City in Beijing, every corner in the Purple City seems to lead you down a long, red-painted corridor with another vista at the end. Just as impressive are the ceilings, completely covered with intricate golden designs.
One of the great sights of the Purple Forbidden City is the Royal Theatre. It’s unimpressive from the outside, but once inside, you’re dazzled by the elaborate decorations. When I visited, a performance of traditional music was taking place – no visitors allowed. But it was worth the wait to get a look at the amazingly ornate stage and the rich panels that line the room (see photo at top).
Distressingly, today much of the Purple Forbidden City is still an empty ruin, totally destroyed by the French bombs. So what it originally looked like is left up to imagination – though you can see a digital reconstruction in a video outside the Thai Hoa Palace.
But especially on a rainy day, the ruination seems to add to the mystery. And exploring the outbuildings and forgotten corners of the complex, like these formal gardens, is a fascinating experience.
Everywhere there are statues, little pavilions, rock gardens, elaborate decorations. You could spend a day just looking at the details — like the amazing 3D tile work on the pillar base below.
I spent an afternoon exploring the citadel of Hue and the Forbidden City, but still didn’t see it had to offer. And Hue has another sight that’s just as impressive, maybe even more so: the royal tombs. But that was for another day – and another post to come.