The serene Imperial City encompasses much more than what meets the eye.
Wandering through Hué’s Imperial City, one can’t help but feel a sense of calm and tranquillity having escaped the hordes of Hué’s bustling west bank.
One benefit to visiting the site — nestled against the Perfume River on Hué’s historic east-side — in the off-season is that the Citadel’s grounds are quieter. With rain pouring down heavily at random intervals, only a handful of other poncho-adorned tourists were wandering through the historic estate.
However, despite the serene ambience one feels stepping across the Imperial City’s pavilions and gates, built as early as 1804, the ruins of the city also shed light on the country’s turbulent past.
Hué was proclaimed Vietnam’s capital in 1789, when Nguyễn Ánh became Emperor Gia Long. Until that time, Vietnam had not been a unified nation, but a combination of feudal lordships — one of which belonged to the Nguyễn clan.
The Nguyễn clan had been in control of what is now South and Central Vietnam since the mid-1500s. In 1771, however, three brothers from Tây Sơn sparked a peasant revolution.
Within two years, the brothers captured the provincial capital of Quy Nhơn.
Taking advantage of the Southern province’s instability, the Trịnh family in Hà Nội, broke a 100-year-old truce negotiated with the Nguyễn clan and attacked; causing the Nguyễn lords to retreat to Saigon. Over the following four years, the Trịnh would claim most of the Nguyễn’s lands and kill nearly all of the noble family.
While this history may seem bleak for the Nguyễn’s, all was not lost. One nephew survived.
At the age of 15, Nguyễn Ánh took safety from the uprising in Siam.
They say it is “all about who you know,” and in the case of Nguyễn Ánh, this is certainly true. In Siam, Nguyễn Ánh befriended French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine, who would become pivotal in helping Nguyễn Ánh ascend to the Emperor’s throne and unite Vietnam for the first time in centuries.
They also say, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again,” which is another colloquialism true for Nguyễn Ánh and his new-found friend. Despite Pigneau de Behaine’s attempts to gain the support of the French government for Nguyễn Ánh’s cause failing, he managed to conjure the support of volunteers and in-so-doing took the fight — beginning in 1789 — all the way to the Vietnam-China border.
In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh at long last defeated the Trịnh lords and proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long.
Along with his new title, Nguyễn Ánh needed a new seat of power. A new capital city. And so, construction in Hué began.
The Imperial City is laid out like a set of Russian nesting dolls. The Citadel is the largest of the dolls and is ringed by a 10-kilometre long moat and two-kilometre-squared fortified ramparts.
There are five impressive gates that lead to the Imperial City — nesting doll number two. Today, visitors pass through the Ngo Mon Gate; through which the rest of the once great capital unfolds. The interior of the Imperial City hosted living spaces for the Emperor’s family, as well as the Great Rites Court, the Palace of Supreme Harmony (the royal throne room), and two temples.
The final Russian nesting doll is the Purple Forbidden City. When built, this collection of buildings and hundreds of rooms was the inner sanctum for the Emperor — and his concubines. The Royal Reading Room was added to the Purple Forbidden City in 1841 by Emperor Thieu Tri, and is the only remaining structure after the trials the Imperial City faced during the 20th century.
For the grandeur of the Citadel was not meant to last. Although the impressive Imperial City was built during a time of peace, its downfall would be a time of war.
Damage from cyclones and termites did take its toll on the Citadel’s many buildings, but in 1947 the Viet Minh seized the Citadel from the French colonists. In response, the French counter-attack led to a six-week long battle that destroyed many important structures — including the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which was set on fire.
Over 20 years later, what remaining structures could still be found in the Imperial City would come under attack once more. On January 30, 1968, roughly 80,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers instigated the Tet Offensive, which was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. The campaign affected over 100 towns and cities, including Hué.
The battle lasted for a month, during which time 150 of 160 structures were destroyed and thousands of people died.
Bullet holes from the battle can still be seen in parts of the Citadel’s walls.
Now 43-years after the end of the Vietnam War, restoration efforts for the UNESCO World Heritage Site are slow — but steady.
A few buildings, including the Palace of Supreme Harmony, have been restored to their original state. But much of the 520-hectare complex is a shell of its former self and retains an eerie calm — a gentle façade to the violent history that lies etched within the ruins.
Hungry for history? Discover the story behind Hoi An.
Photos and Text by Sarah Comber