In 1777, a fifteen-year-old boy was forced into hiding after his entire family was killed. His name was Nguyen Phuc An, and he was the nephew of the final Nguyen lord who ruled over the southern half of Vietnam. As the lone surviving member of a once-powerful clan, he vowed to take revenge against their conquerers, the Tay Son army.
It would take multiple attempts over a period of a couple of decades, but the young Phuc An would eventually succeed. He took advantage of his family’s former trading relations with nations like the Siamese and French, beckoning them on to take up his cause. He used the foreign assistance to gradually build up a powerful army that would finally emerge victorious in 1802.
Phuc An declared himself emperor and officially established a brand new era for both Vietnam and his family: the Nguyen Dynasty. His name was changed to Gia Long, and he built a new Imperial City in Hue, the ancestral home of the Nguyen clan. Gia Long’s descendants would continue to rule from this Imperial City, also known as the Citadel, up until 1945.
Though much has been damaged in war or simply lost to time, a walk inside the walls of the large Citadel complex provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives and inner workings of Vietnam’s final imperial dynasty.
Though much has been lost, the Citadel still contains plenty to explore. You could easily spend several hours inside. But if you’re short on time, you want to stick to the main highlights. In this guide, we’ll be going over the main points of interest of the Imperial City along with a recommended route for your walking tour.
Inside the Gate
After paying the admission fee (150,000 VND) you’ll arrive at the imposing Ngo Mon Gate. The gate, supposedly built to resemble a group of five phoenixes, has since become a symbol of not only the Citadel, but of Hue itself.
Gia Long and his descendants would sit at the top during special ceremonies, looking down at their subjects from high up above. But now, on the other side of the courtyard is a large flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, reminding modern-day visitors of which side eventually came out on top.
Another highlight you’ll encounter early on are the “Nine Deities Cannons,” located just inside the gate. Mostly symbolic in nature, the large bronze cannons are said to represent the five elements of Taoism. More cannons can also be spotted at other gates around the Citadel.
Thai Hoa Palace
The Thai Hoa Palace, also known as the Throne Palace or as the Palace of Supreme Harmony, hosted many of the important ceremonies and state meetings of the Nguyen Empire. The structure was built at the same time as the rest of the walled city, and was used in 1805 for Gia Long’s own coronation. It also happens to be one of the major buildings which survived American bombings during the Vietnam War.
Entry to the palace is allowed, though pictures are forbidden. Inside you’ll find some old furniture and relics on display, along with a model of the entire Citadel. Back out on the other side, you’ll encounter a large courtyard with two mandarin’s buildings on either side. The Nguyen Dynasty took a lot of inspiration from imperial courts in China, implementing the same imperial examination system. Those who did well in the exams were promoted to the rank of mandarin, or public official.
The mandarins were divided into a hierarchical rankings system, with some of the highest-ranked officials getting the privilege of staying just behind the Throne Palace. Now, one building is host to a small museum about the history of the Nguyen Dynasty, while another functions as a small gift shop.
After the throne palace, you have a number of choices for where to go next. You can go east, west, or straight up the middle to the Purple Forbidden City Area. Given the Citadel’s massive size and placement of landmarks, there is no perfect route. The map at the entrance, though, recommends heading east after the Throne Palace, so that’s the route we’ll also follow.
The eastern portion of the Citadel might not contain as many impressive structures as the rest of the walled city, but its notable highlight are still worth a visit. And as this area tends to receive less tourists, it makes for a peaceful break away from the crowds. If you’re short on time, stick to the southern and central portions before heading back west to the Forbidden Purple City.
Trieu Mieu Temple
The Trieu Mieu Temple (also written as Trieu To Mieu) is another one of the earliest structures built in the Imperial City. Temples in Vietnam are often used specifically for ancestor worship, as opposed to pagodas, which are more general religious structures. In this case, the enshrined soul is none other than Nguyen Kim (1476-1545), considered the founder of the entire Nguyen clan.
After visiting the interior, make sure to look at it from the outside to appreciate details like the intricate roof carvings and expressive dragon statues. When finished, our next destination is located just south.
Thai Mieu Temple
Just south of Trieu Mieu is the Thai Mieu Temple, which has clearly seen better days. The dilapidated structure isn’t even open at the time of writing, but you should still be able to peak through a broken window for a look inside. It’s worth the couple-minute detour just to see the current state of some of the old buildings which still await proper restoration. Supposedly, Thai Mieu and Trieu Mieu were part of a larger compound which contained around ten other ancestral temples.
The Royal Treasury
Heading north, you’ll eventually encounter the Royal Treasury, a much more European-influenced than the other buildings in the Citadel. While the original was built in 1837, it was rebuilt again in the early 20th century when the French colonial era was well underway. Though it was once the place where the Nguyen Dynasty stored all their money, it was later converted into a guard headquarters, and more recently, an Arts College!
The atmosphere around this building is pretty different from that of the rest of the Imperial City, with colorful lanterns hanging over a well-kept garden. You’ll find a large gift shop inside, though the area seems to have more local workers than it does tourists.
The Royal Theater
The Royal Theater was where the ruling elite got their regular dose of entertainment. It was built in 1826 during the reign of Minh Mang and later restored in the early 2000’s. The theater is still used today for performances of traditional Vietnamese music, making this the oldest working theater in the country. Overall, the space isn’t huge, but there’s an interesting display on the walls of some of the masks and costumes that performers used to wear.
Co Ha Garden
In the northeastern section of the Citadel is the Co Ha Garden. The space once contained a number of buildings for the young Nguyen princes to study in, but currently none remain. This part of the Citadel sees almost zero tourists, and is far from essential if you’re in a rush.
The Forbidden Purple City
The Forbidden Purple City was a small 25-acre city within a city that no man but the emperor himself was allowed to step foot in, except for some eunuch servants. On the other hand, the queen, the emperor’s concubines and a number of female servants were free to enter. Should any other man have set foot in the space, though, he would’ve been immediately condemned to death.
Disappointingly, the Forbidden Purple City is one of those attractions that’s more intriguing to read about than it is to actually visit. The reason is that this area, once home to dozens of buildings, was almost entirely wiped out in the 1960’s by American bombs. And without any blueprints of its former layout, officials have little idea of how it actually looked and haven’t made any effort to rebuild. Supposedly, it was at least partially modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Today, the former site of the Forbidden Purple City is almost entirely empty, save for some well-manicured bushes and a large bronze cauldron. Apparently, bronze was an especially big deal during the Nguyen dynasty, as gold and silver were so scarce in the region. Large bronze cauldrons, urns and bells can be found all around the Citadel and other important sites in the ancient capital.
While the main section is mostly empty, you can still walk along the corridors which once bordered the Forbidden City. On its eastern edge, however, there happens to be one structure from the ancient city that made it out unscathed: the Royal Reading Room.
The Royal Reading Room
The Royal Reading Room, or Thai Binh Lau, was a secluded place to where emperors could retreat and focus on reading and writing. It was originally built by Emperor Thieu Trie in the 1840’s. In addition to the reading room itself, you can see the well-preserved garden and courtyard surrounding the structure. As mentioned, this is the only surviving building of the Forbidden City, but it helps give an idea of what the rest may have looked like.
All in all, the western section of the Citadel is the most well preserved and therefore the most interesting. If, for whatever reason, you have very limited time within the Imperial City’s walls, come here after the Throne Palace. But if you’re able to take your time, as we recommend, it’s worth saving the best for last.
Dien Tho Palace
The Dien Tho Palace was a special area designated for the emperors’ mothers. Built by Gia Long in 1803, Dien Tho is easily one of the highlights of the entire Citadel. Much of the furniture and decoration on display actually belonged to the last Queen Mother of Bao Dai, the emperor who abdicated the throne n 1945
Dien Tho isn’t just a single residence, but an entire compound consisting of other residences and even a quaint traditional garden. In total, there are about 10 different buildings. And many of them could be considered among the best preserved in the Citadel, making this area a definite must-visit.
Among the highlights of the Dien Tho Palace compound is the Truong Du Pavilion, built in 1849. This small, Chinese-inspired garden now features a cafe if you want to rest your legs and fill your stomach.
The Tinh Minh building is another one of the highlights of the Dien Tho Palace compound. It went through a number of uses and iterations, ranging from a medical clinic for the empress to the residence of President Bao Dai. That’s right – Bao Dai, the last ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, went from being an Emperor to being a President. After surrendering to Ho Chi Minh in 1945, he was later placed in control of the French-backed State of Vietnam (South Vietnam). He was in power (at least on paper) until Ngo Dinh Diem took over in 1955.
The Tinh Minh, renovated as President Bao Dai’s private residence in 1950, reveals an interesting and often overlooked point in Vietnam’s, not to mention the Citadel’s, history. Not only was there some overlap between the Nguyen and the South Vietnam eras, but Hue’s Imperial City even remained in use once the Dynasty was officially over.
At the time of writing, the Nguyen family is officially headed by Nguyễn Phúc Bảo Ân, the youngest son of Bao Dai and his concubine Lê Thị Phi Ánh. Many of the Nguyen descendants continue to live in exile in France.
The To Mieu Temple
Nearing the end of the tour, we arrive at one of the most remarkable buildings of the Imperial City. Not only is its colorful exterior pleasing to the eye, but the The To Mieu Temple was one of the most significant buildings for the Nguyen family. In contrast to the temples in the Citadel’s eastern half, built in honor of more ancient members of the Nguyen clan, this temple honors the deceased Nguyen emperors of the imperial era.
Interestingly, a few of the emperors were left out at first and not officially enshrined here until 1959. Those particular rulers were considered anti-French, and therefore not allowed to be honored during the colonial era. (The Nguyens mostly ruled with French support.)
Today, the The To Mieu Temple remains very much a living temple. People can still leave offerings and pay their respects to the Nguyen rulers if they so desire. This represents an interesting aspect of Vietnamese culture and spirituality. While the Nguyen rulers are generally perceived negatively today as harsh rulers who exploited the poor and even sold out the country, it is by no means taboo to pay respects to their spirits. This is a major departure from the attitude of the French, who outright banned the enshrinement of those they didn’t like.
Even in an officially atheistic Communist country, Vietnamese folk traditions remain strong. According to animist beliefs, people, regardless of how they lived on earth, become spirits when they die and can still affect the world of the living in either a positive or negative way. Therefore, it’s not especially strange for locals to honor even those who ended up on the “wrong side” of official history.
Also nearby is the Hung To Mieu temple, which the first Nguyen Emperor, Gia Long, built in honor of his parents. In addition to animistic spirit worship, the Confucianist ideals of paying respects to one’s ancestors has long been important in Vietnamese culture.
Hien Lam Pavilion and the 9 Dynastic Urns
Just across from the The To Mieu Temple is the Hien Lam Pavilion, home to the Nine Dynastic Urns. Each large bronze urn features a unique and intricate carving, making them one of the artistic highlights of the entire Citadel. The urns, unsurprisingly, were installed to further honor the Nguyen emperors of the past. First placed by Emperor Minh Mang in 1837, the lone urn situated prominently in the center is in honor of the man who started it all: Gia Long.
An Evolving Citadel
In addition to the main structures and gardens of the Imperial City, there are still plenty of more details to take in, along with a few surprises in store, for those willing to explore. Don’t miss the outer edges of the walled city, where you’ll find impressive gates that rival many of the buildings within (none nearly as amazing, of course, as Ngo Mon).
As restoration work continues and as the Vietnamese tourism industry continues to gain steam, don’t be surprised if the Citadel gradually changes its appearance over the coming years. Some of the buildings, it must be said, are in really bad shape, seemingly about to crumble at any moment. Let’s just hope they can be restored before its too late. While the Nguyen Dynasty era is largely shunned by the current Vietnamese regime, maybe tourism dollars will encourage them to try to keep these marvelous buildings intact.
If you’ll be spending several days in Hue (as you should), this will be far from the last time you’ll hear about the Nguyen Dynasty and its rulers. Arguably even more impressive than the Imperial City are the various emperors’ tombs, scattered all throughout the general Hue region.
Hue can be reached by plane, train or bus from Vietnam’s major cities.
Train prices can vary greatly depending on what class you’re in. From Hanoi the journey takes around 14 hours, while from Saigon it takes around twenty!
A bus from either Hanoi and Saigon would only ever be considered by the most masochistic of travelers. Getting between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An, however, is best done by bus. The journey only last four or five hours.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling around Vietnam and are flexible with time, you might want to look up the “Vietnam Open Bus Tour.” Essentially, for a set fee, this allows you to get on and off long distance buses as you please.
You can also fly directly from Saigon to Hue (as I did), and the price is very reasonable. Be aware the when you arrive at the airport, there’s an airport shuttle that will take you into town, but it still may be another 10 – 15 minute walk to your hotel. As it was raining, I decided to just take a taxi.
As is common in Asia, you’ll be approached by a number of sketchy touts with big fake smiles as soon as you walk outside. Ignore them. You’re best off sticking to a proper taxi company with a uniformed driver, such as Mai Linh.
Hue’s attractions are very spread out and public transportation is nonexistent. The Citadel, fortunately, is walkable from the center of the city which also contains most of the hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s roughly twenty five minutes on foot and you’ll have to walk along the bridge over the river to get there.
To get around to the city’s various tombs and pagodas, you have the option of taking an organized tour, hiring a private driver or renting your own motorbike. I recommend a combination of these methods, spread out over a period of days.
If you need a driver, I would not recommend dealing with the drivers or touts who approach you in the street. They seem to be offering you drugs more often than rides! (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.) Instead, I recommend booking a private driver (often a just a motorbike, on which you’ll sit behind the driver) via your hotel with the price confirmed beforehand.
During my time in Hue I stayed at Ibiza Guest House which I couldn’t recommend highly enough. The hotel is well situated and the owner is incredibly friendly and helpful. She can provide a wealth of information on things to do and see in the area, and will set you up with a reliable driver if need be. Furthermore, the complimentary breakfast was delicious with generous portions.
Both shared as well as private rooms are available. I stayed in a private, which was one of the more spacious rooms for the price I’ve stayed at in Southeast Asia.
The weather in Hue is notoriously bad. If it’s not raining, the air will still be wet and moist and possibly even cold. It’s a far cry from what people often think of when picturing the jungles or beaches of Southeast Asia. If you’re traveling in the colder months, be sure to pack a few extra layers to sleep in. It can get cold at night and you’re unlikely to find anywhere with heating.