The city of Huế (pronounced Hwe) is a city that was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital of Vietnam from 1802–1945. Located in the Thua Thien Hue province in Central Vietnam, Geographically, the central Vietnamese city is well connected to other major cities in the country.
It is 700 km south of Hanoi, the government cap, and 1100km north of Ho Chi Minh City, and only a few miles from the sea. It is located on the bank of Song Huong, otherwise known as the Perfume River. Besides being the national capital till 1945, Hue is also the political, cultural and religious center of Vietnam under the control of Nguyen Dynasty.
Upon arrival at Phu Bai International Airport, the city is noticeably in contrast is more modern and has better infrastructure than the north in Hanoi. The roads and pavements are better made and so are the building infrastructures as a whole.
The city is home to a population of about 350 thousand people. Hue had been recognized as one of the World Heritage Sites by UNESCO given the number of historical architecture littered throughout the city. If you are into history and love discovering exotic cultures, the city of Hue former Royal Capital here is definitely on the top list of your travel plan during your stay in central Vietnam.
Hue, a city of history and beauty
The city of Hue represents the outstanding demonstration of the vanished Vietnamese feudal empire. Today, an assortment of well-persevered and restored complex of monuments, comprising of tombs, palaces and pagodas is all that remains, to tell the tales of the days past, which are also main attractions in Hue for tourists all over the world. To the 30 km long beautiful Perfume River which is fed from Bằng Lãng to the Thuan as an estuary. The river is runs through the entire city.
Shopping and Nightlife
Across the perfume river is where most of Hue’s city commerce resides, home to a number of commercial and residential districts. Shopping in Hue is adequate, comprising of a number of departmental stores and family owned stores in the busy parts of town. But history and not shopping is what you should visit the city for.
There are not as many shopping locations in Hue as say compared to Hanoi or Ho Chin Min. There are shopping and pedestrian streets at Phạm Ngũ Lão and Võ Thị Sáu streets lined with pubs and stores catering to tourists, particularly targeted to much to western tastes. This encompasses much of the night life in the city.
Like most parts of Vietnam, most shops are family owned stores, where a shop front residing on the ground floor with living quarters above. Never go about accepting any initial offer prices. You can easily strike a deal of 100,000 dong for “branded” sportswear which are sold everywhere here in Vietnam.
Hue Citadel and Forbidden Purple City
A major landmark dominating most part of the city is its vast, 19th-century Citadel, distinguished by its military-like fortress constructed out of brick and stone surrounded by a moat.
It is situated just by the city’s Huong (Perfume) River which fuels the country early transport and trade. It is not uncommon to see many of the water moat features surrounding the citadel transformed into small Lilly ponds bearing fishes and eateries.
In June 1789 Nguyễn Ánh took control of Vietnam and proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long. With construction started in 1804. The formidable citadel wall encompasses the entire Imperial Forbidden City, shielding the palaces and shrines of the Forbidden Purple City within from the outer city. Today, the inner citadel grounds are all publicly accessible via multiple small pedestrian road entrances and occasionally at strategic points, vehicular entrances large enough for at least a bus to pass through.
Two layers of walls separate the outer citadel walls from the inner. These intermediate grounds are vast, with many open green spaces such as fields, currently these are home to residential and commercial business comprising of small micro towns built in the citadel compound which mainly serve the tourist population visiting the Forbidden Purple City.
This large space sits in front of the city entrance which presumably was previously used as a military form up and barracks area, especially a place to round up and gather troops. A couple of defensive cannons can also be seen still sitting in this inner areas of the citadel grounds.
Inside the Hue Forbidden City
Large Meridian imperial gates and a giant Citadel flagpole bearing the Vietnam flag greet you at the entrance of the Citadel. The outer walls of the Citadel are built solidity like a fortress. Upon entering the compound, a bridge leads you directly to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which serves as an a royal Throne.
Given its historical significance, the citadel was featured in various Asian songs and poems. The original citadel grounds occupy a large, bounded area on the north side of Perfume River. It comprises of four separate citadels each with its own district to create the Capital City, known from the locals as Hoang Thanh, or Imperial City in English.
The inner grounds of the city consists of an assortment of royal palaces, buildings and shrines which are used for official business such as the equivalent of a parliament as well as living quarters for the king, an army and supporting servants.
Entrance to the Hall of Supreme Harmony
Much of the palace grounds had been destroyed in the Vietnam war. Despite more than half of the Purple Forbidden City grounds being left in ruins, destroyed by the elements such as termite, cyclone damage and the war. Today only a quarter of the full citadel compound is preserved as a museum, which the other districts opened for commercial developments.
Key buildings such as The king’s quarters, known as Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Purple City) for royal residences which once as the emperor’s home; were nicely restored. This area is centrally located past the compounds into the Inner city (or Dai Noi). The front of the Forbidden city was also nicely restored to as close as what it was as depicted in early black and white photographs records.
Panorama of the forbidden city and ruins in the distance
Moving beyond the majestic Thai Hon Palace is another central courtyard behind it flanked by two houses. These were also restored and houses a collection of painting and photos plastered on the inner walls of the houses. Today one of these houses open activity areas, a giftshop and photo shoot areas and a museum in the other.
Like the king’s quarters, most of the Forbidden city living quarters and the buildings which follows had been totally destroyed in the various Vietnam wars, buildings leveled with ruins littered all over. The Tran Binh Dai is known exclusively for its ancient architecture. A replica of the Royal Theater can also be found within the compound just across a large field clearing just by the royal residences.
Two long wooden hallways housing photographs, scriptures and lanterns were all painstakingly recreated to what it was, offering an eccentric mix of newly constructed era-accurate buildings right next to the original stone ruins. These hallways run from the Mandarins houses towards the end of the attraction palace grounds before ending at a large open garden.
Theses walkways are nicely painted in dark red lacquered on wood with gold trimming. They are made in traditional oriental style with slatted windows on the wooden doors, which swings outwards. These doors are designed to provide and facilitate convection cooling on hot days, especially in an era without air-conditioning. Paper lanterns are hung at regular intervals throughout the courtyard walkway for illumination.
The palace grounds, reduced to the quarter of it’s original size today ends with a lush garden and an altar flanked by two octagonal pavilions and two stone dragons leading up a flight of staircases where a large golden dragon statue reside. Up here, you can have a good view of the what remains of the forbidden palace grounds today.
Walking is the recommend mode of transport within the Forbidden City given the number of interlinking stepped walkways connecting the various buildings of interest. It is still largely wheelchair accessible, though you might not be able to access most buildings given the high step-in height at the entrances.
In all, Hue has enough charm to keep you staying as long as you can afford the time to visit. A visit to the Forbidden City can set you back at least half a day, and it is advisable to visit near the mornings where it is not so hot.
Check out more photos of the Forbidden City in Hue here.