If art and architecture matter more to you than beaches and beer, Hué will be high on your Viet Nam must-visit list. The capital of the Nguyen emperors, Hué is packed with temples, tombs, palaces and pagodas – or at least the remains of those that successive armies didn’t manage to completely destroy. Foodies won’t want to miss the fussy degustation-style Imperial cuisine for which this city is rightly famous.
On the banks of the enigmatically named Perfume River, the peculiar light of this historic place imbues photographs with a hazy, purple tinge. It would all be quite idyllic if it weren’t for the constant dogging most tourists face as soon as they step off the bus. The touts in Hué are more incessant than most.
While the offshoots of mass tourism may be annoying, it should be remembered that Hué’s cultural sites were destined for oblivion without it. After 1975 they were left to decay – Imperialist reminders of the feudal Nguyen dynasty. In 1990 that the local People’s Committee declared these sites ‘national treasures’. In 1993 Unesco designated the complex of monuments in Hué a World Heritage site, and restoration and preservation work continues.
Emperor Khai Dinh came to the throne in 1916 and he chose the slope of Chau Chu mountain (also called Chau E), 10 km from Hue, as the location to build his tomb. The construction of the tomb was started on September 4th 1920 and lasted for 11 years.
In comparison with those of the preceding emperors, Khai Dinh’s tomb is much smaller in surface (117m x 48.5m) but it is very elaborate. It is the result of the interminglement of many architectural trends: European and Asian, as well as ancient and modern.
The overall construction of the tomb is an emerging rectangular structure with 127 steps, leaning against the mountain.- Entering the tomb area, one should climb a 37 steps gate with the biggest dragons in the country forming the side walls. In the courtyard, line two rows of left and right altar built according to traditional configuration of "double storeys with eight roofs", but all the rafters are made of reinforced concrete.
Climbing 29 further steps, one is reaching the imperial audience court, in the centre of which stands the octagonal stele monument also made of reinforced concrete. On both sides of the courtyard, two rows of statues are facing towards the court center. In addition to these statues, similar to those of the other tombs, there are six more couples representing bodyguard soldiers. These statues are made of stone, a material very rare in Khai Dinh's tomb. The courtyard is flanked on both sides by two high and imposing pillars.
You have to go up three more levels in order to reach the altar monument. The Khai Thanh Palace is the main room of the Thien Dinh palace, which contains many connecting rooms. The walls are densely decorated and inlaid with elaborate glass and porcelain designs. The floor is covered with enameled flowers bricks and the ceiling is painted with nine dragons, appearing in fine fleeting clouds.
The rear room of the Khai Thanh palace constitutes the main temple, which contains the statue of Khai Dinh, his grave and his altar. The tomb of Khai is one of the most surprising among the royal tombs of Hue.
Emperor Tu Duc enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1848-83. Although he had over a hundred wives and concubines, he was unable to father a son (possibly he became sterile after contracting smallpox). Thus, it fell to him to write his own epitaph on the deeds of his reign. He felt this was a bad omen, but the epitaph can still be found inscribed on the stele in the pavilion just to the east of the Emperor's tomb. This stele is the largest of its type in Viet Nam, and had to be brought here from a quarry over 500 kilometers away--a trip that took four years.
Tu Duc began planning his tomb long before his death in 1883. The major portions of the tomb complex were completed from 1864-67, along with future temple buildings that served as a palatial retreat for Tu Duc and his many wives during his lifetime. Construction of the tomb demanded so much corvee labor and extra taxation that there was an abortive coup against Tu Duc in 1866. This was put down, and for the remainder of his life, Tu Duc continued to use the tomb's palace buildings as his place of residence.
Amenities for the living are unmatched at any other tomb in Viet Nam. Here, the Emperor could boat on the lake and hunt small game on the tiny island in the lake's middle. He could recline at Xung Khiem Pavilion and recite or compose poetry in the company of his concubines. After trips on the lake, the boats would moor at Du Khiem Pavilion, from which the Emperor and his entourage could walk directly west into the palace area of the tomb.
After the Emperor's death in 1883 his adopted son Kien Phuc took over as the Nguyen Emperor. Perhaps because he only ruled seven months before dying, a separate tomb was not established for him. Instead, he was laid to rest in a small corner on the grounds of Tu Duc's tomb. Between the tombs of Tu Duc and his son is the tomb of Empress Le Thien Anh, Tu Duc's primary wife.
Interestingly, despite the grandeur of the site and the amount of time Tu Duc spent here, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. To keep the secret safe the 200 laborers who buried the king were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route. To this day, the real tomb of Tu Duc remains hidden for future generations to discover.
The name of the pagoda takes its source from a legend. It was told that long ago, there appeared an old woman every night on the hill where the pagoda stands today. She told local people that a Lord would come and build a Buddhist pagoda for the country's prosperity. Lord Nguyen Hoang, on hearing that, ordered the construction of a pagoda of the Heavenly Lady.
The pagoda is situated on Ha Khe, on the left bank of the Perfume river, in Huong Long village, 5 km from central of Hue city.
It was built in 1601, and then Lord Nguyen Phuc Tan had renovated in 1665. In 1710 Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu had a great bell cast (2.5 m high, weighed 3,285 kg) and a stele (2.58 m high) erected on the back of a marble tortoise in 1715. In the Nguyen Dynasty, Kings such as Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Thanh Thai all had the pagoda restored.
Phuoc Duyen tower (at first called Tu Nhan tower) was built in 1884 by King Thieu Tri. Phuoc Duyen tower has seven-stored with 21m high in octagonal shape.
Dai Hung shrine is a main-hall and a magnificent architecture. In the main-hall, besides the bronze cast statues, there preserved some precious antiquities: the bronze gong cast in 1677, the wooden gilded board with Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu's inscriptions in 1714.
On the both sides of the pagoda there are a bonze's room and a guest-room for visitors. In front of the pagoda is flowers and ornamental plant. At the back is a calm and romantic pine-tree garden.
The pagoda was heavily damage in 1943. Priest Thich Don Hau has organized a great renovation of the pagoda for more than 30 years since 1945. Nowadays it becomes more and more magnificent and attracts tourist near and far.
The grounds of the Imperial City were surrounded by a wall 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers, and the walls were surrounded by a moat. The water from the moat was taken from the Huong River (Perfume River) that flows through Hue. This structure is called the citadel. Inside the citadel was the Imperial City, with a perimeter of almost 2.5 kilometers. Inside the Imperial City was the imperial enclosurecalled the Purple Forbidden City in Vietnamese, a term similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The enclosure was reserved for the Nguyen imperial family
In June 1802 Nguyen Phuc Anh took control of Vietnam and proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long. Gia Long confided with geomancers to decide which was the best place for a new palace and citadel to be built. After the geomancers had decided on a suitable site in Hue, building began in 1804. Thousands of workers were ordered to produce a wall and moat, 10 kilometers long. Initially the walls were earthen, but later these earthen walls were replaced by stone walls, 2 meters thick.
The citadel was oriented to face the Huong River to the east. This was different from the Forbidden City in Beijing, which faces south. The Emperor's palace is on the east side of the citadel, nearest the river. A second set of walls and a second moat was constructed around the Emperor's palace. Many more palaces and gates and courtyards and gardens were subsequently added. The rule of the last Vietnamese Emperor lasted until the mid-1800s. At the time, the Purple Forbidden City had many buildings and hundreds of rooms. It suffered from termite and cyclone damage, but was still very impressive. Many bullet holes left over from the war can be observed on the stone walls.
Unfortunately, most of the buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War. During the past few years, most of the destroyed buildings have already been reconstructed with the cooperation of the Vietnamese government, UNESCO, and other organizations.