The Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam
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 that brings me to my visit to the old imperial city here.
The Imperial City of Hue 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, with each of the four walls about 2 kilometres long and a wide moat on the outside.
The site was chosen by experts in ‘geomancy’ a spiritual science that looks for good omens in the natural landscapes. It was decided that the 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. 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 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 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.
There’s the main Thai Hoa Palace near the main entrance, where the emperor would have conducted much of his official business; a collection of temples to the west of the palace are in excellent condition; residences to the north of that show a bit of daily life for the elite; and the in the centre of the site are the remains of two more palaces with their beautiful covered alcoves.
I spend about two hours in the 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. There’s a lot of history here as buildings came and went and the needs of the empire expanded. Different emperors (there were 13 of them) wanted to make their mark on the country and their capital.
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.
Where should you stay in Hue?
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 wonderful relaxing ecoresort a little bit out of the city, Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa is a great place.
And for luxury by the beach, have a look at Ana Mandara Hue Beach Resort.