The Imperial City is, by far, the most prominent feature of the city of Hue. It sits on the Huong river, or the Perfume river as it popularly known as. It’s minutes away from the South China sea. And should be your first stop on a visit to Hue.
It’s exactly these features that caught the attention of Emperor Gia Long, the first ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty. Its proximity to the surrounding mountains also made it an ideal location. He went about setting a new capital in 1802, making Hue the administrative and military center of Vietnam. However, when the monarchy came to an end in 1945, Hue lost its capital position to Hanoi. It nevertheless remained an historically important city.
A bit of history
A visit to Hue is to get an insight into the rise and fall of the Nguyen dynasty. For about 150 years, they ruled over Southern Vietnam from. And there is no better proof of that then The Imperial City. It’s from here that the rulers lived with their family and concubines. With its royal tombs, pagodas and temples in and outside the city, it is exactly these highlights that UNESCO saw, making it a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing, one cannot help noticing the strong Chinese influence on every aspect of the Imperial City. Carvings and inscriptions throughout are in Chinese characters, while the pagodas have a distinct Chinese architectural influence.
Ever since it was set up as the capital of a unified Vietnam, it’s always had to watch out for any attacks by the neighbouring kingdoms, especially the Champa and Khmer. While the early rulers tried their level best to minimise foreign influence, the rulers who came in later were deeply impacted by the French. While French architecture is visible across most of Vietnam, another major influence was the spread of Catholicism, especially among the elite.
By the 1880s, the French had made it a protectorate, leaving the monarchy more as a symbolic gesture, until they were finally ousted in 1945.
In 1947, when the Viet Minh captured the Citadel, the French led a counter attack that lasted for six weeks. In the process, large parts of the Imperial Palace were burnt.
Then, again, in 1968, because of its geographical location close to the DMZ, it was the scene for some of the longest and bloodiest battle between North Vietnamese and Americans soldiers during the Tet offensive. Much of The Imperial City was badly damaged. Efforts are ongoing to try and restore as much of it as possible.
What to expect
It took around 30 years to complete construction of the Imperial City. Construction work on the new city began in 1804. Workers built a walled citadel with a moat measuring about 10 kilometers long acting as a further deterrence. In time, the original construction was reinforced with brick and stone. The Citadel forms the outer part of the Imperial City. While it is more of a commercial center that caters to tourists today, it is here that the main administrative work was carried out by high-ranking officials, foreign dignitaries and serving staff.
The Imperial City is located inside the Citadel, where the rulers and their family used to live, with access only to close confidantes and servants.
At the center is the Forbidden Purple City. More of the ruler’s playground, it’s where the concubines lived, protected by an army of eunuchs. It was the most safely guarded place during its heydays.
However, depending on the amount of time you have, there are other things that are worth seeing – from the nine dynastic urns and war cannons, to the Royal Theater. While I am not sure if a full day is enough, it might make more sense to have a guide to show you the highlights. That way, you know you aren’t missing on anything of significance.
Information you can use
The Imperial City is a vast complex. That means you will need to plan your visit well, unlike me.
To help you get a sense of what you are dealing with and how to plan, there is a model of the entire complex that you can view at Thai Hoa Palace. It’s the first building that you see as soon as you enter the complex.
It’s open on all days from 8am till 5pm. Depending on the time of the year that you visit, you will need to reconfirm opening hours, as they normally have different timing for summer and winter. On a side note, I feel that summer months are the best time to visit. I was there in January, when there was a continuous downpour, making any sightseeing quite futile.
Prices to enter the Imperial City is VND 150,000 per person. If you wish to use the services of a tour guide, then there is an extra fee that is applicable.
Getting here is simple. If you live in the city, it’s about a half hour pleasant walk. Take time off on the bridge across Perfume river. Alternatively, you can hail a metered taxi.