Remember the name Gia Long. It’ll be important. And it will relate to more of history than you realise.
This man, born 250 years ago, may not be a household name. He may not be someone you spend hours studying in school. But here in Vietnam, he is integral to the story of the country.
Gia Long was the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. He created this dynasty with blood, attacking self-styled emperors and rulers of different tracts of land in the region – bits that had previously been taken from Siam (Thailand) or Khmer (Cambodia).
He took their land over a number of years and united them into a single empire. The date was 1802.
What was the shape of this new country? Well, it looked like Vietnam today.
Gia Long had created what we know as modern Vietnam and the Nguyen Dynasty – which would be the last of the dynasties in the country – would rule over it for the next 143 years.
The capital of the Nguyen Dynasty was in the city of Hue, and the Imperial City of Hue was at the heart of it.
Why is the Imperial City of Hue important?
The Imperial City of Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled until 1945. As well as being politically important, the city is also significant because of its exquisite architecture and the way it is blended with the natural setting.
When was the Imperial City of Hue built?
The Imperial City of Hue was constructed from 1803 by Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty. Much of it was damaged in the second half of the 20th century and has been rebuilt in recent years.
Is it worth visiting the Imperial City of Hue?
The Imperial City is not just a highlight of Hue, it’s one of the most impressive heritage sights in all of Vietnam. It’s worth visiting the Hue Imperial City for its art and architecture, and to explore the history of this pivotal era.
The Imperial City still takes up quite a large area of central Hue and it’s certainly the most important thing to see in the city. Within the old walls are a collection of important public buildings, opulent residences, and places of worship.
Much of it has been rebuilt after being damaged in wars, but that’s been done authentically enough that it has still been listed as a World Heritage Site.
What you’ll discover when you visit the Imperial City of Hue are excellent examples of historical buildings from the period of Nyugen Dynasty, offering an insight into this period of the country’s story, and an opportunity to explore why Vietnam is the way it is today.
The story of the Imperial City of Hue
Gia Long founded the Imperial City of Hue in 1803, less than a year after he had proclaimed himself as emperor of a unified Vietnam and moved the capital to Hue from Thang Long (modern day Hanoi).
The city was once an enormous complex full of all the executive and bureaucracy you would expect from a country’s capital. It was enclosed within a square fortress (also known as the Hue Citadel), with each of the four walls about 2 kilometres long and a wide moat on the outside.
There’s lots to see at Hue’s Imperial City and I would recommend this excellent tour of the site so you don’t miss anything.
The Hue Citadel site was chosen by experts of geomancy, a spiritual science that looks for good omens in the natural landscapes. It was decided that the Perfume River and the mountains here would protect the city, because they looked like snakes and lions.
All through this huge city were temples, palaces, offices, gardens, and residences. The most important bit was in the middle.
It was called the Purple Forbidden City and it was where the emperor and his closest confidants lived and worked. Once, it would have been inaccessible to most people. Now, of course, we can all walk through it and see what remains.
I say ‘see what remains’ because much of the Imperial City of Hue has been destroyed since the Nguyen Dynasty lost control of the country in 1945.
Although natural disasters and the hand of time played their part, it was really the Vietnam War that caused most of the damage.
The North Vietnamese Army attacked Hue in January of 1968 and the Allied forces responded with bombings. Of the 160 significant buildings within the site, only 10 major ones survived the battle.
It wasn’t until the very end of the 20th century that there was a push to restore the Imperial City to some of its former glory. It was named a World Heritage Site in 1993 and work began to rebuild the damaged buildings and preserve those that remained.
Things to see at the Imperial City of Hue
It takes a long time to walk through the Imperial City as a tourist. Partly because of the sheer size but also because there are quite a few different sections to look at.
Buildings in the Hue Citadel have gradually been restored over the years and you can see that more continual work is taking place to restore even more. Although there are large parts of the site that are still empty, there are plenty of things to see.
The first thing you’ll see as you arrive is the Ngo Mon Gate, the enormous structure on the edge of the moat that I think is one of the most impressive parts of the site.
Through to the other side, you’ll find the main Thai Hoa Palace near the main entrance, where the emperor would have conducted much of his official business.
Continuing straight on is Can Thanh Palace, with its beautiful covered alcoves glowing in red and gold.
Along the west of the site are a collection of smaller compounds where some of the main residences once were, including Dien Tho, which was where the queen mother lived.
Make sure not to miss the Hien Lam Pavilion, one of the Imperial City’s most important buildings, which has nine large urns representing the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.
The eastern side of the site has fewer things to see, but you will find several significant temples here, as well as the Royal Treasury.
Perhaps the most impressive sight is the East Bastion, another colourfully decorated gate.
There are maps of the Hue Imperial City on display throughout the site to help you get your bearings, and they even have suggested routes to follow. But I found the suggestions to be a bit confusing and it was easy enough just to methodically make your way across the city.
The international significance of the Hue Imperial City
One of the reasons the Nguyen Dynasty was able to come to power in the first place, and remain there for so long, was because of its alliance with France.
French forces helped Gia Long (remember him?) unify Vietnam in the first place through the Versailles Treaty of 1787 (different to the famous treaty after the First World War).
As France expanded its influence in Indochina during the 19th century, it gradually took more and more control of different territories within Vietnam.
In simple terms, though, the real objective of the French was China and so they were relatively happy for the Vietnamese to keep their emperor as the titular head of the country, even if they had little actual power.
It was this relationship between the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and the French that facilitated European control for so long, that led to the First Indochina War, which led to the Vietnam War.
Ok, that’s an extremely basic description of decades of history, but I hope you see the point I’m making.
An event like the Vietnam War, something we consider to be ‘modern history’, can in many ways be traced back to Gia Long taking the assistance of France to create his unified empire.
This is what makes the Imperial City of Hue so interesting to me.
It seems like a part of an old Asian history that you visit because that’s what you do when you’re a tourist in Vietnam. But look at it from a broader perspective and its significance reaches a lot closer to home.
Visiting the Imperial City of Hue
I spend about two hours in the Hue Imperial City – and that’s just wandering around on my own. If you had a guide, telling you the stories and giving detailed information, it could take even longer.
That’s because, remember, the Nguyen Dynasty lasted for 143 years.
If you’re interested in having a local expert show you around, I think this private guided tour is the best option.
There are also some other good options here that offer slightly different ways to see Hue.
It’s also easy enough to visit independently, although I feel like there aren’t enough information signs offering interpretation through the site.
There’s no official dress code for the Imperial City of Hue, although I would suggest avoiding particularly short shorts or singlets that show your shoulders. I would also recommend bringing a hat or some kind of sun protection.
Where is the Imperial City of Hue?
The Hue Imperial City is on the northern side of the Perfume River, across from the central part of the city. You enter through the Meridian Gate, which is off Le Duan street.
You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to the Imperial City of Hue?
The Hue Imperial City is across the river from the main train station, if you are coming from another city on the train line.
From Hoi An, there are regular buses to Hue. You can easily walk from the tourist area to the main entrance gate (it will take less than 15 minutes).
When is the Imperial City of Hue open?
The Hue Imperial City is open every day from 06:30 – 17:30 in summer and 07:00 – 17:30 in winter.
How much does it cost to visit the Imperial City of Hue?
Admission to the Hue Imperial city for adults is 200,000 VND (US$8.39) and 40,000 VND (US$1.68) for children.
Although I think the Imperial City is the highlight, there are some other things to do in Hue as well that you might be interested in.
The most popular sights in Hue other than the citadel are the tombs of the emperors. They are spread out along the Perfume River south of the city. You can get a taxi to take you to see them, you can ride a bike, or you can go on a boat cruise.
Another lovely sight is the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is on a bank of the river and offers a lovely view of the area from the top. It’s a rather tall and striking building and there are a few things to see within the pagoda itself. But it’s really about the scenery here.
Speaking of views, you can also head up to Bunker Hill, which used to be a military vantage point, to get a great perspective of the city.
Like most cities in Vietnam, there are opportunities to see the vibrant and bustling local markets. I would suggest heading to Dong Ba Market if you’re interested in that.
Hue is a great place to do something like a street food tour. Have a look at some of these cool guided experiences around town:
And if you’re looking for a bit of adventure, you might like to head out to this cool abandoned waterpark in Hue.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN HUE
Many tourists pass through Hue quickly but it actually has some spectacular accommodation options if you want to relax.
For a good backpacker option, I would suggest staying at Why Not?. (Yes, that’s its real name.)
A good choice for a budget hotel in a great location is the Four Seasons Hotel.
For a relaxing ecoresort, Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa is wonderful.
And for luxury by the beach, try Ana Mandara Hue Beach Resort.