Hue was once the site of Chinese authority, the outside force with the most influence on the cultural development of Vietnam. Starting from the 16th century, the Nguyen family of Vietnam reigned here, and in 1802 they became the imperial family of the country, with Hue as the official capital. The Nguyens were backed by the French, then ruled by the French when Vietnam was a protectorate, then ousted in 1945 during the French Indochina War.
The capital of the country moved to Saigon and later to Hanoi, and Hue’s been of secondary importance for decades, at least politically. Culturally, it’s been seen by many Vietnamese as the seat of learning, religion, art, and cuisine. Part of the struggle over the city during the Tet Offensive of 1968 was its geographic position at almost the exact center of the country, just miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but part of it was a symbolic struggle for the heart of Vietnam.
The imperial city, behind the walls of the citadel, is about 2.5 kilometers along the perimeter. It used to house the main palace, in the Forbidden Purple City, but that was destroyed by the French in 1947. Apparently, the American and South Vietnamese forces were instructed not to touch the historically important citadel during the Vietnamese-American War, but as the Battle of Hue in 1968 dragged on, the restrictions were eased, and eventually many buildings were damaged or destroyed. Bullet holes can still be seen on many of the remaining structures.
In 1996, the communist government of Vietnam, which had not previously prioritized rebuilding a symbol of imperialism, realized the tourist dollars a reconstructed city could bring in, and it committed to a 15-year plan to rebuild it. When I was there, I saw the project in action, as craftsmen sawed and carved wooden doors to hang along the long halls of the interior palace. (Also, it’s not just foreigners who bring in the money here–only a little under half of the tourists in Hue are from out of the country.)
The flag tower of the citadel looms on the north side of the Perfume River. Beyond the citadel are the walls of the palace grounds, and once you buy your ticket, you pass through the gates and find the Hall of Supreme Harmony, fronted by a broad tiled pavilion and two fish ponds. You can’t take photos inside the hall, but it was gorgeous in there. A crab shell-style roof covered a long, empty hall; the pillars were carved with dreamy cloud and dragon combinations, and the beams of the ceiling displayed poems written in Chinese characters. In the back, a video played on loop, using digital reconstructions to show what the whole palace complex looked like in its glory days.
Behind the hall, I posed with a giant golden dragon, like you do, and then walked down one of the side halls of what remained of the interior palace. The side halls started out in magnificent style, double rows of red pillars, long lines of tall doors opening out onto the side gardens, but as I walked closer and closer to what used to be the center of the palace, the doors disappeared, the columns were unpainted, scaffolding appeared. What was once land so rarefied only the emperor could walk on it, was now flat stone foundations and trimmed green grass, barely the memory of a palace.
I then walked to the Dien Tho Residence, where the queen mother lived in the later years of the palace’s use. This had its own three-arched gateway, a couple lotus ponds, and long, low buildings (which I couldn’t take photos in).
Finally, I visited the Hien Lam Pavilion, which has the The Mieu Temple on one end, and nine dynastic urns on the other. The temple is richly decorated, showcasing portraits of emperors and queens. The urns are lined up outside, giant bronze castings carved with scenes of natural beauty, each urn named after an emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
Walking away as the palace closed for the day, I left the swirls of clouds and curves of trees on the urns, passed the rows of flowers along the path and the sun setting behind the citadel walls, and strolled back into the city.