Central Hué

Imperial City

The Imperial City at Hué is built on the same principles as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. It is enclosed by thick outer walls (
Kinh Thanh
), 7-10 m thick, along with moats, canals and towers. Emperor Gia Long commenced construction in 1804 after geomancers had decreed a suitable location and orientation for the palace. The site enclosed the land of eight villages (for which the inhabitants received compensation) and covered 6 sq km, sufficient area to house the emperor and all his family, courtiers, bodyguards and servants. It took 20,000 men to construct the walls alone. Not only has the city been damaged by war and incessant conflict, but also by natural disasters such as floods which, in the mid- 19th century, inundated the city to a depth of several metres.

Chinese custom decreed that the 'front' of the palace should face south (like the Emperor) and this is the direction from which visitors approach. Over the outer moat, a pair of gates pierce the outer walls: the
Hien Nhon
Chuong Duc
gates. Just inside are two groups of massive cannon; four through the Hien Nhon Gate and five through the Chuong Duc Gate. These are the Nine Holy Cannon (
Cuu Vi Than Cong
), cast in bronze in 1803 on the orders of Gia Long. The cannon are named after the four seasons and the five elements, and on each is carved its name, rank, firing instructions and how the bronze of which they are made was acquired. They are 5 m in length but have never been fired. Like the giant urns outside the Hien Lam Cac , they are meant to symbolize the permanence of the empire. Between the two gates is a massive
flag tower
, from which the flag of the National Liberation Front flew for 24 days during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Northwards from the cannon, and over one of three bridges which span a second moat, is the
Ngo Mon
, or Royal Gate, built in 1833 during the reign of Emperor Minh Mang. (The ticket office is just to the right.) The gate, remodelled on a number of occasions since its original construction, is surmounted by a pavilion from where the emperor would view palace ceremonies. Of the five entrances, the central Ngo Mon was only opened for the emperor to pass through. UNESCO has thrown itself into the restoration of Ngo Mon with vigour and the newly finished pavilion atop the gate now gleams and glints in the sun; those who consider it garish can console themselves with the thought that this is how it might have appeared in Minh Mang's time.

North from the Ngo Mon is the
Golden Water Bridge
 - again reserved solely for the emperor's use - between two tanks, lined with laterite blocks. This leads to the
Dai Trieu Nghi
(Great Rites Courtyard), on the north side of which is the
Thai Hoa Palace
(Palace of Supreme Harmony), constructed by Gia Long in 1805 and used for his coronation in 1806. From here, sitting on his throne raised up on a dais, the emperor
would receive ministers, foreign emissaries, mandarins and military officers during formal
ceremonial occasions. In front of the palace are 18 stone stelae, which stipulate the arrangement of the nine mandarinate ranks on the Great Rites Courtyard: the upper
level was for ministers, mandarins and officers of the upper grade; the lower for those of lower grades. Civil servants would stand on the left and the military on the right. Only royal princes were allowed to stand in the palace itself, which is perhaps the best-preserved building in the complex. Its columns, tiled floor and ceiling have all been restored.

North of the Palace of Supreme Harmony is the
Tu Cam Thanh
(Purple Forbidden City), reserved for the use of the emperor and his family, and surrounded by walls, 1 m thick, to form a city within a city. Tragically, the Forbidden City was virtually destroyed during the 1968 Tet offensive. The two
Mandarin Palaces
and the
Royal Reading Pavilion
 are all that survive. The Royal Reading Pavilion has been rebuilt but, needless to say, has no books.

At the far side of Thai Hoa Palace are two enormous
bronze urns
(Vac Dong) decorated with birds, plants and wild animals, and weighing about 1500 kg each. On either side are the
Huu Vu
pavilions, one converted into a souvenir art shop, the other a mock throne room in which tourists can pay to dress up and play the part of king. On the far side of the palace are the outer northern walls of the citadel and the north gate.

Most of the surviving buildings of interest are to be found on the west side of the palace, running between the outer walls and the walls of the Forbidden City. At the southwest corner is the well-preserved and beautiful
Hien Lam Cac
, a pavilion built in 1821, in front of which stand nine massive
bronze urns
cast between 1835 and 1837 on the orders of Emperor Minh Mang. It is estimated that they weigh between 1500 kg and 2600 kg, and each has 17 decorative figures, animals, rivers, flowers and landscapes representing between them the wealth, beauty and unity of the country. The central, largest and most ornate urn is dedicated to the founder of the empire, Emperor Gia Long. Next to the urns walking northwards is
Thé Temple
(Temple of Generations). Built in 1821, it contains altars honouring 10 of the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty (Duc Duc and Hiep Hoa are missing) behind which are meant to be kept a selection of their personal belongings. It was only in 1954 that the stelae depicting the three Revolutionary emperors, Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan, were brought into the temple. The French, perhaps fearing they would become a focus of discontent, prevented the Vietnamese from erecting altars in their memory. North of the Thé Temple is
Hung Temple
, built in 1804 for the worship of Gia Long's father, Nguyen Phuc Luan, the father of the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Hué Museum of Royal Fine Arts

Housed in the Long An Palace, the museum contains a reasonable collection of ceramics, furniture, screens and bronzeware and some stunning, embroidered imperial clothes. The building itself is worthy of note for its elegant construction. Built by Emperor Thieu Tri in 1845, it was dismantled and erected on the present site in 1909.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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