Hue

Hue Citadel: Legacy of Vietnam’s Last Feudal Dynasty

Hue Citadel (Vietnamese spelling: Cố đô Huế) was the last imperial capital of feudal Vietnam. It’s one of Vietnam’s most historical sites. The citadel was the country’s first recognized World Heritage Site (1993) and is under continual restoration efforts. Otherwise known as the Purple City (Tử Cấm Thành), it’s situated on the north bank of the Perfume River and is easily reached from anywhere in central Hue.

Hue Citadel – Erased by War, Resurrected in Peace  

Hue Citadel in Vietnam War
[ by photojournalist Eddie Adams 1933-2004 ]

The true magnificence of the Hue Citadel can only be grasped by understanding how little of the actual site, impressive as it is, managed to survive into the modern era. 

The Emperor Khai Dinh had done much to restore and preserve the Imperial City. However, after the abdication of his son and successor king Bao Dai in 1945, the citadel faced an uncertain future.

Then, in 1947, this natural bastion became a Viet Minh stronghold in the fight for independence against the French. A six-week battle saw many central buildings destroyed including the forever gone Imperial Palace.

Following the daring Tet Offensive of February 1968 that marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War, the Hue Citadel again became a naturally fortified garrison for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong fighters.

The subsequent Battle of Hue , which followed the Tet Offensive, was the bloodiest of the American War. Most of the citadel’s remaining 160 buildings were all but lost or severely damaged. Less than a dozen remained. The Purple City of Hue was in ruins with the dead and injured lying along its walls.

Hue Citadel into the 21st Century

Hue Citadel into the 21st Century
Mandarin Pavillion Restored
[ by Dương Nhân from Pexels ]

During the postwar era, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had little impetus, or reserves, to preserve relics of one of the most contentious imperial dynasties.

It has only been in more recent times, under the influence of global historical conservation efforts, and the allure of tourist dollars, that preservation of Hue’s monuments has gained momentum.

In January of 2021, the Phoenix Pavilion (Lầu Ngũ Phụng), that sits along the south-facing wall, was restored to its former glory after eight years of restoration work. Still under restoration (until 2022) from original blueprints is the Kien Trung Palace (Điện Kiến Trung). 

Originally, this masterpiece of Vietnamese, French, and Italian Renaissance architecture was designed by Emperor Duy Tân, and the building finalized by Khải Định. It was renovated by Bảo Đại who lived and worked there, and it’s where he negotiated his abdication with Ho Chi Minh.

Gia Long – The Man Behind the Purple City

King Gia Long
[ image from vietnamtimes.org ]

The legacy of the Purple City begins with Gia Long, born Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, the first Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. He started the construction of the city in 1805, some three years after his ascent, and largely completed it in 1832.  

Parts of the project were inspired by the Forbidden City of Beijing, but the defensive ramparts were of French military Vauban architectural design.

As a young teenager, Nguyễn Ánh witnessed the slaughter of his family by forces loyal to the Tay Son Brothers (Anh Em nhà Tây Sơn). Centuries of Nguyen power ended and he fled south with loyalist supporters and his mother. Eventually, he set up a base in the Phu Quoc Islands.

Over many years of dogmatic persistence and strategic alliances, he regained and lost Saigon twice. Saigon was finally recaptured on 7 September 1788. From then on, he steadily consolidated his power and gradually built up a modern naval and military force using Western (mostly French) advisors and expertise. 

Although respectful of Western powers, Nguyen Anh (later crowned Gia Long) always diplomatically held them at arm’s length.

Two years after the death in 1792 of the last Tay Son strongman, Emperor Quang Trung, Nguyen Anh launched an offensive to gain a foothold in Quy Nhơn — a strategic coastal city halfway between Saigon and Hue. Quy Nhon base was lost, but finally regained in 1801 as a weakened Tay Son Dynasty succumbed to infighting. 

By June of the same year, the Hue Capital fell. Soon after he crowned himself emperor under the name Gia Long in 1802. He quickly routed out the last of the fractured Tay Son Dynasty from the north of Vietnam. An independent and unified Vietnam under a Confucian system of governance emerged.

The Fated Dynasty that Won and Lost All

Tomb of Emperor Gia Long
Tomb of Emperor Gia Long: Hue
[ by BluesyPete from CC ]

A new imperial dynasty was forged and a united Vietnam stretched further than ever before. Under his successor Emperor Minh Mạng, the southern Cham Kingdoms were finally erased. Vietnam was now the most consolidated and powerful it had ever been.

Ironically, the Confucian isolationism of Minh Mang, and his two successors Thiệu Trị and Tự Đức, saw a sharp decline in Vietnam’s military defenses in a rapidly advancing world. Vietnam essentially became a sitting duck waiting to be incited into conflict and then partitioned and controlled by the French.

The final years of Emperor Tu Duc saw Vietnam split into three parts. Southern Vietnam was unified with Laos and Cambodia to form Cochin China. The central Kingdom of Annam remained as the seat of symbolic royal power. The north was partitioned into the French protectorate of Tonkin.

Emperors after Tu Duc had short reigns beset by internal intrigues. Rebellious emperors were declared insane or sent into exile by the French. Emperor Khai Dinh was the longest-serving under the French, and his son Bao Dai was the final monarch.

King Bao Dai abdicated and left the Purple City in 1945, but went on to become the chief of state of the State of Vietnam from 1949 to 1955. Later he was overthrown in a fraudulent election when Ngô Đình Diệm took control of South Vietnam. 

The former king had no desire to get embodied in the political conflicts brewing in Vietnam.Eventually he died in exile and lies buried in a famous Paris cemetery.  

Bird’s Eye View of the Hue Citadel 

Bird’s Eye View of the Hue Citadel
[ by Nông Thanh Toàn from hueworldheritage.org ]

The Hue Citadel is contained in a 510-hectare square area surrounded by moats and ramparts. Each wall is about 2 km with up to 10 km of wall in total. 

The walls are around 2 m thick with some 24 defensive bastions. This entire area is also known as the Citadel or Kinh thành. An integrated seven kilometers system of moats, canals, and sluices link the complex to the Perfume or Hương River. 

Within the Hue Citadel is the Imperial City (Hoàng thành / 皇城) with its own walled perimeter, and the enclosed Forbidden City (Tử cấm thành / 紫禁城) which housed the royal residences and buildings for imperial personal use. These are the two areas typically visited. 

The Forbidden City is in the upper due east quadrant from the Imperial City. Most of the Forbidden City is lost, including the Imperial Palace and other residences. The main attractions here are the Royal Theater, The Royal Reading Pavillion, and the Royal Gardens.

The Imperial City, located in the center extending due west. It houses the central ceremonial Thai Hoa Palace, the Royal Temple in the lower west quadrant, and other palatial residences in the top northwest quadrant. 

The most intact part of the Imperial City is the northwest quadrant. It was the location for the palace of the Dowager Empress and the Queen Mother as well as related temples, pavilions, lakes, and gardens.

There are four main gates, but the main south gate or Meridian Noon Gate is where the ticket office is. You usually exit through the East Gate to the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities, but the North Gate to Tinh Tam Lake (hồ Tịnh Tâm) may sometimes be open. 

Best Route to Follow in the Hue Citadel

Best Route to Follow in the Hue Citadel
[ by konkarampelas from Pixabay ]

The only ticket entrance is the Meridian Gate facing the Hue Flag Pole. Generally, if the citadel is really busy, you have to exit through the East Gate or Cửa Hiển Nhơn.

To view the entire citadel in detail may take the good part of a day. Although there are a couple of coffee shops on the east side and souvenir shops that sell drinks, it’s best to take some refreshments and snacks with you.

For a full day out, once you’ve viewed the central Thai Hoa Palace, it’s best to head down to the lower west quadrant to the Royal Temple and Hien Lam Pavilion

Then, head straight up to the Cung Dien Tho Palace. This is a quieter area with quite a few intact buildings, some nice lotus ponds, and you’ll find a cafe to rest for a while. There are also nice clean toilets here. 

The final leg is to make it over to the east quadrant to what remains of the Forbidden City. You can stop by the small Royal Theater, head up to the Royal Reading Pavilion overlooking a beautiful lake, then pop on over to the Royal Gardens.

Near the East Gate where you exit, you will find a couple of cafe coffee shops with souvenirs you can buy. Once you exit the gate, it’s a short walk to the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities if you have time to look at a great collection of royal artifacts.

If you don’t have a lot of time, you may just want to view the Thai Hoa Palace and the few places within the Forbidden City near the East Gate. Either that or explore the Royal Temple area next and then quickly head out the East Gate. 

Ticket Prices for the Hue Citadel and Royal Monuments

These are the set prices as of January 2020. There are various package tickets available to combine the Citadel with Royal Tombs. An all inclusive ticket to Hue Monuments including Hon Chen Temple, An Dinh Palace, and Nam Giao Esplanade is 580 000 VND / Adult  and 110 000 VND / Child.

  • Adult Entrance Ticket: 200 000 VND
  • Child Entrance Ticket: 40.000 VND
  • Duyet Thi Duong Theater show: 200 000 VND / 1 ticket
  • Summer: 6:30 – 17:30 / Winter: 7:00 – 17:00

View all locations mentioned

Highlights of the Hue Purple City

While there is much to discover wandering around the Hue Citadel, these are some of the main places not to miss and where they are located:

1. Hue Flag Tower – outside the walled city
2. The Noon Gate – main entrance facing southeast
3. Phoenix Pavilion – sits above the Noon Gate
4. Thai Hoa Palace – south-central parallel to Noon Gate
5. The To Mieu the Royal Temple – lower west corner
6. Hien Lam Pavilion and Nine Urns – lower west corner
7. Cung Dien Tho – upper west quadrant
8. Duyet Thi Duong Theater – northeast Forbidden City
9. Thai Binh Royal Reading Pavilion – upper Forbidden City
10. Cua Hien Nhon – East Gate exit 

Hue Flag Tower

Hue Flag Tower
[ by Trần Anh Dũng from Facebook ]

The Hue Flag Tower (Cột cờ Huế) is in the foreground of the citadel. This flat tri-pyramidal structure was part of the original design. It’s about 17.5 m high and the modern steel core flag pole itself is 37 m. The most recent renovation was in 1995 by the Hue Monument Conservation Center.

This symbolic foreground witnessed the abdication ceremony of King Bao Dai in 1945 shortly after the Japanese defeat in WW2. The August revolution swept through the country and Vietnam declared independence.

The Meridian Gate and Phoenix Pavilion of Hue Citadel

The Meridian Gate and Phoenix Pavilion of Hue Citadel
[ by konkarampelas from Pixabay ]

The Noon or Meridian Gate (Ngọ Môn) is one of the longest surviving architectural structures of the complex. It was modeled after the same named gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In 2021, the pavilion was completely restored.

It has a main hall and two slightly protruding side pavilions giving it a formidable u-shaped appearance. On the upper level, the Emperor would observe ceremonies and parades. The base is brick and stone, while the pavilion is wood with glazed ceramic tiles.

The stone foundation was restored in 2019 by German experts using specialized steam cleaning. Apart from destroying bacteria deep inside rock holes, it gave the outer wall a whitened appearance.

You can access the fully restored structure now from two side staircases once you have passed through the main gates. 

Thai Hoa Palace – Witness to Thirteen Coronations

Thai Hoa Palace
[ by Adam Hinett from Flickr ]

The Thai Hoa Palace (Điện Thái Hòa) is the first building as you proceed through the Purple City. It’s also one of the oldest surviving Hue Citadel buildings and a World Heritage structure.

It was the ceremonial palace where 13 Nguyen Kings were crowned and the place for various rituals, ceremonies, or welcoming of foreign ambassadors.

The palace’s highlight is the magnificent golden throne with its nine-dragon pentagram. There are 80 supporting ironwood columns all beautifully adorned in red lacquer with dragons playing in the clouds.

The second Emperor, Minh Mang, moved and rebuilt the hall in 1833 moving it further south and enlarging the structure. Another major restoration was in 1923 under the reign of Khai Dinh.

The word ‘thái’ means great and ‘hoà’ means harmony. The Thai Hoa Palace in its design and function was to reflect universal harmony of all aspects of form, function, and the elements with the throne of the emperor in the center. From this harmony would arise the prosperity of the nation.

Although the exterior is unassuming, the interior draws one into a seemingly larger space. There’s actually a front and back hall with an overlapping roof that gives the illusion of a single space. The main front hall has an arched ceiling colloquially called a crab-shell roof makes the interior appear larger.

Protip: Behind the palace through the Great Palace Gate (Đại Cung Môn) is the long Hall of Mandarins – now restored to a gallery museum – and the left hall which used to hold imperial examinations is a souvenir shop.

The To Mieu – The Royal Temple in Hue Citadel

The To Mieu
[ by falco from Pixabay ]

Thế Tổ Miếu – 世 祖廟 – translates as the Temple for Ancestral Worship. It’s similar in design to the same named Taimiao in Beijing Forbidden City. Here you will find shrines of worship to 10 Nguyen Emperors, some including consorts.

Originally, only the emperor could come here for worship and women were forbidden. To enter you should have your knees and shoulders covered. 

The temple was built by Minh Mang from 1822-1823 to worship his father – Emperor Gia Long. The same site first housed a temple (1804) to Gia Long’s father, but it was moved 50 m behind. The building you see now is largely a reconstruction from 1951 after damage in the war against the French. 

In the center is the altar to the dynasty founder Emperor Gia Long and his two consorts. Emperor Minh Mang is on the far left, and Thieu Tri on the far right and so on in order of the lineage. Up to 1958 and Vietnamese independence, only seven emperors – those who died in office – were worshipped. 

The Three ‘Patriotic Kings’

Emperor Duy Tan
‘Rebel King’ – Emperor Duy Tan
[ by Manhhai from Flickr]

After the August Revolution, the ‘three patriotic kings’ – emperors exiled by the French – namely, Kings Hàm Nghi, Thành Thái, and Duy Tân were installed. The two dethroned monarchs Emperors Dục Đức and Hiệp Hoà are not represented. Nor is King Bao Dai who abdicated thus ending the lineage. 

Ham Nghi, the first emperor exiled (to Algeria), married a French Algerian Countess and is buried on an estate in France. Emperor Thanh Thai and his son Emperor Duy Tan were exiled to Reunion Island. 

Thanh Thai, whom the French declared ‘insane’, eventually returned to Vietnam in 1945 living under house arrest in Vung Tau until his death in 1954 in Saigon. 

Duy Tan, who valiantly served in WW2, died in a plane crash in central Africa. His body was returned to Vietnam in 1987. In 2001, his son Bảo Vàng published the biography Duy Tân, Empereur d’Annam 1900–1945 about his father’s life

Hien Lam Pavilion and Nine Royal Urns

Hien Lam Pavilion and Nine Urns
Hien Lam Pavilion and Nine Urns
[ by BEZALB from Pixabay ]

The Hien Lam Pavilion (Hiển Lâm Các) is just across the courtyard from The To Mieu Temple so you can’t miss it. It was also built by the second Emperor Minh Mang in 1821-1822. It’s one of the most accomplished buildings in the Hue Citadel both architecturally and artistically.

The wood carvings, panels, and wooden staircase inside are quite exquisite. The purpose of the building was to honor all the achievements and hard work of not only the Emperor but also the mandarins. As such no other building could exceed its height of 12 meters.

The nine dynastic urns outside were completed in 1837. Later the urns were given names to symbolize each emperor of the dynasty. Each urn has detailed bronze workings of animals and other natural scenery.

Cung Dien Tho Palace

Cung Dien Tho Palace
[ by BEZALB from Pixabay ]

Dien Tho Palace (Cung Diên Thọ) and the area surrounding it is the largest intact architectural system to have survived in the Imperial City. This palace was for the Dowager Empress.

The original palace, now long gone and dismantled by Minh Mang, was built by Gia Long for his mother who had escaped with him to Phu Quoc during the Tay Son massacre. Buildings have come and gone with each passing reign.

The main existing palace was recognized as a world cultural heritage and sections were restored between 1997 and 2005. Buildings here are connected with roofed corridors and 20 m away is the small Truong Sanh Palace (Cung Trường Sanh) for the imperial mother.

The most recent building was the Tinh Minh Pavilion (lầu Tịnh Minh) built in 1927 by King Bao Dai for his mother. You can also visit the Luong Phong Temple (Lương Phong Đình) and there are nice lotus ponds and places to relax, including a cafe.

Duyet Thi Duong Theater: The Oldest Theater in Viet Nam

Duyet Thi Duong Theater
[ by The HUE of HUẾ from Facebook ]

From behind the Thai Hoa Palace, if you head upwards to the northeast you’ll find a quaint little building in the sector which was known as the Forbidden City, or where the royal family lived. 

This building, Duyet Thi Duong (Duyệt Thị Đường), is the oldest theatre in Vietnam. The inside is really beautiful with lush wooden paneling and decorated pillars. It was also built by Emperor Minh Mang in 1826. The (destroyed) Imperial Palace was situated nearby. 

The theater was a favorite location for the performance of classical Vietnamese operatic plays called Tuồng. Unlike Western opera, in addition to song it more readily combines dance as well as poetry.

In the 1950s it was the Hue Music College, and the Hue College of Art was located here from 1962 to 1990. It underwent restoration between 1995 and 2001, and now regularly stages special gala events.

Visitors can still enjoy classical performances here for 200 000 VND a ticket. Daily performances have resumed as of March 2021, but the situation may fluctuate. 

  • 4 performances per day 
  • 20 minutes each performance
  • Morning shows – 9:10 – 9:30 AM, 10 – 10:20 AM
  • Afternoon shows –  2 – 2:20 PM, 3-3:20 PM

Thai Binh Royal Reading Pavilion

Thai Binh Royal Reading Pavilion
[ by Vinhtantran from CC ]

Thai Binh Pavilion (Thái Bình Lâu) was originally built by Emperor Thieu Tri, the third of the Nguyen dynasty. It was renovated in 1919 by Khai Dinh and a more recent restoration was done between 2010 and 2015.

This building is particularly noted for its colorful and ornate exterior— especially the roof ornamentation. Inside are beautiful gold-rimmed furnishings, old bookshelves, displays of ceramics, royal photo portraits, and there’s also a gift shop. 

There’s a beautiful lotus late that the building looks over and it’s also surrounded by the Thiệu Phương Garden and just a short walk away you can find the larger Cơ Hạ Royal Garden.

Cua Hien Nhon – East Gate Exit to Hue Citadel

Cua Hien Nhon
[ by Paul Cuthbert from Facebook ]

There are as many as 13 beautifully crafted gates associated with the extended Hue Citadel area. Within the Imperial City itself, the East Gate Cửa Hiển Nhơn was where only official Mandarin and other men could enter. The West Gate Cửa Chương Đức was for women. 

This gate has stood since the time of its construction by Gia Long in 1805. Much of the decorative ceramic embellishments were added by Emperor Minh Mang in 1833. It was restored by Khai Dinh who did a lot of restoration work in the Purple City.  

If the Hue Citadel is very busy when you visit, you will probably be requested to exit through this gate. Ordinarily, the gate is used for Citadel staff and special events. Near this gate, you will also find a Highlands Coffee shop — basically the Vietnamese Starbucks.  

A little way up from Highlands Coffee or just north of the gate is a venue called Đông Khuyết Đài. They stage traditional Vietnamese tea ceremonies and other events. It’s also a cafe bistro space and they have a shop selling crafted silk, leather, lacquer, ceramics, silver, and gold to high-quality tea, coffee, and chocolate.

The Unique Museum of Royal Antiquities

The Unique Museum of Royal Antiquities
[ by Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities from Facebook ]

Once you exit out the East Gate, it’s only a short walk to the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities (Bảo tàng Cổ vật Cung đình). This was the first museum ever established in Vietnam for the public preservation of precious artifacts. 

It was established by Emperor Khai Dinh in 1923 as the Musée Khai Dinh (Khai Dinh Museum). It has collections of porcelain and enameled bronze wares, royal attire and seals, musical instruments used in ceremonies, glass paintings, mother-of-pearl inlaid woodwork, and much more.

The museum is to the right of the park, but f you walk through the park to the left side, you will come to the Luc Bo Cultural Space (Không Gian Văn Hóa Lục Bộ). They do handicraft workshops with fun stuff for kids. There’s information on royal products and they have an excellent high-quality souvenir shop. You can also view them online.

Best Time to Visit Hue and the Citadel

Hue has some distinct seasonal periods. There are pros and cons to each depending on what you want to experience: 

February to end April – this is the spring time starting around the Tet Lunar New Year. The temperature is fairly cool averaging 22 ℃. It does tend to rain on and off, so you can’t always be guaranteed those perfect days. May is a kind of shoulder month that tends to be rainier and hotter.

June to mid-September – these are the peak summer months and also summer vacation for many tourists. Hue can be really hot at this time around 30℃ or well above. It’s best to plan your schedule accordingly to avoid the afternoon heat. It can also be really crowded at this time. The blue sky is great for photography though.

End September into December – this is the rainy season. It can be really damp, overcast, with temperatures dropping at night. If you like this kind of weather, the bonus is you can get plenty of pics with no people. October and November are the wettest months.

Autumn in Hue – Towards the end of November and into December, the Autumn in Hue can be particularly nice. Leaves change and fall, and the mornings are often bright and cool and there’s less rain to deal with. January doesn’t have so much charm, but it’s not a bad month to visit.

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