Once considered its cultural, religious and educational heart, Hue, Vietnam remains a vestige of its country’s former dynastic rule and its more recent war-torn past.
Battleground and Buried Emperors:
The Imperial Tombs
Straddling the Perfume River, Hue served as Vietnam’s capital for over a century under the ruling Nguyen family, from 1802 to 1945. During this era, many of the 13 rulers left a mark on the city in the form of tombs built in their honour, a massive Citadel and several notable pagodas.
You will be able to better understand the layout of each of Hue’s ancient tombs by knowing the five key elements of each:
1. A brick courtyard with stone mandarin guards, horses and elephants.
2. A pavilion with marble tablets in praise of the emperor. The son, who was to become the heir, most often inscribed these, though in the case of Tu Duc (see below) he inscribed his own; because of his supposed infertility, he had no male heir.
3. A temple for the worship of the emperor or empress.
4. A lotus pond.
5. A sepulchre, usually inside a square or circular enclosure, where the emperor’s remains were buried.
Ming Mang (2nd Nguyen Emperor, ruling 1820–41)
This tomb is considered to be the finest of the imperial tombs. It was designed in a style that promoted balance and harmony between the architecture and natural surroundings. The main attraction here is the garden with its frangipani and lotus blossoms.
Tų Đuc (4th Nguyen Emperor, ruling 1847–83)
Oddly, this tomb was constructed during the reign of Emperor Tų Đuc. More than 3,000 labourers were hired by the emperor in 1864 to build the lakeside pavilion, plant the gardens and pine forests, and construct the surrounding walls. The 12-hectare (30-acre) gardens and tomb took three years to complete.
Tų Đuc, who ruled for the longest of any of the Nguyen monarchs, used the gardens as a place to self-indulge—and probably also to escape his 104 wives and countless concubines! He fished, listened to music, ate elaborately prepared meals and wrote poetry (although many of his poems were written in praise of himself). Curiously, Tų Đuc was not even buried here after his death. His remains were buried along with treasures in a location deemed so sacred that the 200 servants that buried the emperor were beheaded so its location would remain a mystery. He died a disgraced man, however, having lost Vietnam to the French and also leaving no children to take his place on the throne.
Completed in 1931, this is one of the more recently constructed tombs. Its design builds on both European and Vietnamese elements. A point of interest at this tomb is the little man selling postcards in the main building. He is known to be the last living eunuch of the Nguyen Dynasty. He is more than happy to pose for a photograph or two.
Forbidden Purple City
The Royal Citadel was originally modelled after the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, China. Its construction began in 1804 under Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. It is composed of three walled ramparts, each enclosing the other and, in essence, forming a city within a city. Once inside the first set of walls, you will notice nine ceremonial cannons that were placed there in 1802. The Nine Cannons are named after each of the five elements and the four seasons.
The Tet Offensive
Hué was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive. Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army forces (NVA) marched into the city during the Tet Festival of 1968. They seized control of the ancient Citadel and transformed it into the base from which they would rule over the next 24 days. Over 3,000 suspected sympathisers of the Saigon government were massacred in the wake of the invading North. In all, over 10,000 people were killed by the time the American forces were able to regain control of the city.