The “Ancient” Imperial City of Huế

This is how I referred to Hue, until I found out that it was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the not-so-ancient Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945 CE).  Oops.  Never hire me as a tour guide.*

You might forgive my ignorance if you’ve seen the state of the various historical sites of Hue (pronounced similar to “whey”).  A century of armed conflict, most notably the Battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, ravaged its splendor, population, and standing in Vietnam.  The current regime’s disinterest in preserving reminders of a “feudal” past has only exacerbated the state of neglect here, making things appear much older than they actually are.

Hue Collage Trio #1

Nonetheless, Hue remains a great place to soak up the history of Vietnam and deserves a couple of days on your itinerary.

History

Hue is the birthplace of the seafaring kingdom of Champa, formed in 192 CE when an official of China’s Han dynasty decided to make himself king of the region.  Ahhh … the good old days.

This new kingdom ruled most of central and southern Vietnam as well as parts of Cambodia for almost 13 centuries until 1471, when the Viet people invaded from the North.  The Vietnamese captured the region and continued their campaign south, eventually conquering Champa completely.

The fall of Champa meant much of this land was now “up for grabs”, despite being nominally headed by a Vietnamese emperor.  Hue became the seat of the Nguyen lords, a prominent family who controlled much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  After many years of fighting between the various Vietnamese families and the reigning dynasty, the Nguyens finally came out on top.

New Emperor Gia Long established Hue as the capital of a unified Vietnam in 1802.  It remained the capital until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dai, the last of the Nguyens, abdicated the throne to Ho Chi Minh’s communist party after years as a puppet of French colonial rule.

Hue Citadel Collage #1

What comes next may be more familiar: the French, with the support of the U.S., made a failed bid against the communists for control of Vietnam, which resulted in the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel under the Geneva Accords.  The North went to the communists, and the south went to Bao Dai for a hot second before he was deposed by Prime Minister Ngo Dình Diem, who was backed by the U.S.  Diem promptly established a not-so-nice dictatorship, hastening the inevitable Vietnam-American war.

Hue, the northernmost city in South Vietnam, was right in the line of fire, and it did not fare well.  The Battle of Hue in 1968 was one of the longest and deadliest battles of the war, leaving the city in ruins and the local population devastated from urban combat (to which the battle of Fallujah during America’s recent invasion of Iraq draws comparisons).

Nowhere is this damage more apparent than the Citadel, the former imperial city of the Nguyen dynasty. 

The Citadel

Situated on the banks of the Perfume River and enclosed by a moat and perimeter wall, the Citadel was modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City, a result of Vietnam’s long (but complicated) history with China. The complex stretches just over a square mile and is divided into four sections based on function: the Capital City for official administrative buildings, the Imperial City for royal palaces and shrines, and the Inner City for the stuff of everyday royal life – ceremonies, worship, storage, workshops, a garden, and even a school for the princes.  The fourth and most important section, the Emperor’s Forbidden Purple Palace, sits at the heart of the Inner City.  For more on the Citadel, click here.

Hue Citadel Collage #2

Of the city’s estimated 160 structures, less than 20 have survived.  Most are crumbling, and they bear obvious scars from automatic weapon fire, shrapnel, and bombings.

All of this makes for a fascinating and eerie day (or more) touring the complex.  We opted to forgo hiring a professional guide – we’re on a budget, do-it-yourself types, blah, blah, blah.

Hire a guide.  There is little information provided (in English or any other language), no audio headsets, no signage, nada. While you can look up information online either before or after your visit (we did the latter), nothing beats having explanation and context in the moment.  Travelfish.org has a lot of helpful info on finding a tour guide in Hue.

Because we didn’t have a guide, we spent the better part of the day wandering the grounds on our own, eavesdropping on English tour groups and trying to imagine the former splendor of an imperial city that seems misplaced in time.  Monarchies are a fascinating and foreign thing to us Americans in general, so a post-industrial, post-Great Depression, WWII-era dynasty styled after those of ancient China is sort of unfathomable.

Yet, walking among the ruins, I was struck not by cultural and architectural differences, but by what unites all of humanity: ego and death.  We all have a yearning to be someone special, to make our mark on the world, and it’s hard to imagine a future different from our present, without ourselves in it.  I’m sure the Nguyens would have never imagined that the seat of their empire would be reduced to rubble in a little over 165 years, their legacy basically forgotten by the world.

It made me wonder what our relics from the present day will be, and what conclusions future peoples will draw about us.  It’s a fascinating question.

Hue Tombs Collage

The Imperial Tombs … And Other Important Stuff

If it was in fact difficult for the Nguyens to imagine life after dynasty, they must be rolling over in their tombs as the tourist hordes trample over their final resting places for a just a few bucks.  Immortal but trivial – one of many boxes for a tourist to check.  Hey, you can’t have everything, even if you were an emperor.

We suggest you check all these boxes in one fell swoop, using our one-day, DIY sightseeing route through the city, doable by both motorcycle and bicycle.  This route is by no means exhaustive, but it hits the high points of Hue, maximizing your time in the city.

  1. START: An Dinh Palace (built by Emperor Khai Dinh and final Hue residence of his son, Emperor Bao Dai, the last Nguyen emperor)
  2. Residence of Tu Cung (home of Bao Dai’s mother, even during the fierce Battle of Hue, until her death in 1980)
  3. Ho Quyen (the royal arena for tiger vs. elephant contests from 1830-1904)
  4. Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc (1847-1883)
  5. Tu Hieu Pagoda (established in 1842 and dedicated to imperial eunuchs, who are buried in the adjacent graveyard)
  6. Dàn Nam Giao (ceremonial and religious site of the Nguy?n dynasty from 1806-1942)
  7. Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh (1916-1925)
  8. Tomb of Emperor Gia Long (1802-1820)
  9. Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang (1820-1841)
  10. END: Thiên Mu Pagoda (Hue’s oldest pagoda, famous for its activist monks – most notably self-immolating monk Thích Quang Duc)
Of course, you could hire a guide for the tombs as well, but that starts to add up.  I recommend springing for a guide for the Citadel and tackling the rest yourself.

Eats

Once you’ve exhausted yourself from all this sightseeing, take a load off and sample Hue’s many local delicacies, developed and perfected by imperial chefs for the demanding Nguyen emperors, who refused to eat the same meal twice in a year. Highlights include:

  • Banh beo (small steamed rice cakes w/ savory toppings like shrimp, fried shallots, mung bean paste, and green onion)
  • Com hen (rice with clams and all sorts of mix-ins: peanuts, rice crackers, chilis, apple, banana flower, herbs … the list goes on and on)
  • Banh khoai (savory rice flour crepe with a special pork-tastic dipping sauce – see chef Luke Nguyen’s recipe for the insanely long list of ingredients – if you dare, make it and report back!)
  • Bun bo Hue (spicy lemongrass noodle soup with beef, pig’s knuckles, and congealed pig blood, which you can of course opt out of if you are a picky eater) 
  • Banh uot thit nuong (grilled pork belly with thick, wet rice paper, served wrapped or stacked, with a special soy-based dipping sauce)

The beauty of eating here, and Vietnam in general, is that every family has their own take on even the most iconic dishes, so you’ll never eat the same thing twice.  It’s hard to go wrong when ordering any of Hue’s specialties, though they are best eaten on the street rather than in a formal restaurant.  I don’t have any specific recommendations, so find a busy stall (high turnover + popularity = lower likelihood of getting sick), pull up a stool, and dig in.

Hue Collage Trio #2

Final Thoughts

There is a certain je ne sais quoi about Hue’s people.  They’ve experienced the high of being the seat of imperial power, intellect, and culture in Vietnam, and the terrible tragedy of literally being caught in the cross-fire of war, spared by neither side.  And now the people of Hue suffer another blow – the indignity of being a fallen city, a relic of a past people would rather forget.  

Yet Hue’s people remain proud and hopeful as they search for a new identity for their beloved city.  If there is a place to bridge Vietnam’s tumultuous past with its bright future, Hue just may be it.

 

*  Footnote: I should take a moment to apologize to the unwitting souls that had the misfortune of having me as a tour guide of the U.S. Capitol when I was an intern there many years ago.  I studied the materials my boss’s office gave me (FWIW, I am good at short-term, rote memory)…and then I made the rest up.  I feel bad about this, but then so should you for not knowing your history.**  

**  Addendum to footnote: If you want a legitimate tour of the U.S. Capitol complex, bypass your Representative’s or Senator’s office and go directly with the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.  Those people are real professionals, not some intern who had too much to drink at a pseudo-important cocktail party he or she crashed the night before.

2 Responses

  1. Such a great read and pics!
    Your overview of Hue’s past and present is really nice for someone who plans to visit. We were there a couple of months ago and, while Hue’s citadel is still very pretty, it was also very sad to see how parts of it are totally gone and only picturing what went down over there gives me the chills. No matter what, very worth a visit indeed!

    • courtneyderr
      | Reply

      Thanks so much, Backpack ME! Takes a lot more time to write up the overview and history, so I’m glad you think it’s useful (and fairly accurate!). I agree about the chills. It’s impossible to look the ruins and not imagine the horror of how it happened. Reminded me a bit of my visit to Auschwitz about 10 years ago. Haunting.

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