A second moat and defensive wall inside the citadel guard the Imperial City, which follows the same symmetrical layout as Beijing’s Forbidden City – though oriented northwest-southeast, rather than north-south. The Vietnamese version, popularly known as Dai Noi (“the Great Enclosure”), has four gates – one in each wall – though by far the most impressive is south-facing Ngo Mon, the Imperial City’s principal entrance. In its heyday the complex must have been truly awe-inspiring, a place of glazed yellow and green roof tiles, pavilions of rich red and gilded lacquer and lotus-filled ponds – all surveyed by the emperor with his entourage of haughty mandarins. However, many of its buildings were badly neglected even before the battle for Hué raged through the Imperial City during Tet 1968, and by 1975 a mere twenty out of the original 148 were left standing among the vegetable plots. Some are in the midst of extensive restorations, and those which have been completed are stunning – notably Thai Hoa Palace, the The Mieu complex and Dien Tho. The rest of the Imperial City, especially its northern sector, is a grassed-over expanse full of birds and butterflies where you can still make out foundations and find bullet pockmarks in the plasterwork of ruined walls.
Ngo Mon Gate
In 1833 Emperor Minh Mang replaced an earlier, much less formidable gate with the present dramatic entrance way to the Imperial City, Ngo Mon, considered a masterpiece of Nguyen architecture. Ngo Mon (the “Noon” or “Southwest” Gate) has five entrances: the emperor alone used the central entrance paved with stone; two smaller doorways on either side were for the civil and military mandarins, who only rated brick paving, while another pair of giant openings in the wings allowed access to the royal elephants.
Five Phoenix Watchtower
The bulk of Ngo Mon is constructed of massive stone slabs, but perched on top is an elegant pavilion called the Five Phoenix Watchtower as its nine roofs are said to resemble five birds in flight when viewed from above. Note that the central roof, under which the emperor passed, is covered with yellow-glazed tiles, a feature of nearly all Hué’s royal roofs. Emperors used the watchtower for two major ceremonies each year: the declaration of the lunar New Year; and the announcement of the civil service exam results, depicted here in a lacquer painting. It was also in this pavilion that the last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated in 1945 when he handed over to the new government his symbols of power – a solid gold seal weighing ten kilos and a sheathed sword encrusted with jade.
Thai Hoa Palace
Walking north from Ngo Mon along the city’s symmetrical axis, you pass between two square lakes and a pair of kylin, mythical dew-drinking animals that are harbingers of peace, to reach Thai Hoa Palace (“the Palace of Supreme Harmony”). Not only is this the most spectacular of Hué’s palaces, its interior glowing with sumptuous red and gold lacquers, but it’s also the most important since this was the throne palace, where major ceremonies such as coronations or royal birthdays took place and foreign ambassadors were received (see Ceremonies at the Thai Hoa Palace).
The palace was first constructed in 1805, though the present building dates from 1833 when the French floor tiles and glass door panels were added, and was the only major building in the Imperial City to escape bomb damage. Nevertheless, the throne room’s eighty ironwood pillars, swirling with dragons and clouds, had been eaten away by termites and humidity and were on the point of collapse when rescue work began in 1991. During the restoration every column, weighing two tonnes apiece, had to be replaced manually and then painted with twelve coats of lacquer, each coat taking one month to dry. Behind the throne room a souvenir shop now sells books and tapes of Hué folk songs where once the emperor prepared for his grand entrance. It also contains two large dioramas depicting the Imperial City and flag tower in their heyday.
The Forbidden Purple City
From Thai Hoa Palace the emperor would have walked north through the Great Golden Gate into the third and last enclosure, the Forbidden Purple City. This area, enclosed by a low wall, was reserved for residential palaces, living quarters of the state physician and nine ranks of royal concubines, plus kitchens and pleasure pavilions. Many of these buildings were destroyed in the 1947 fire, leaving most of the Forbidden Purple City as open ground, a “mood piece”, haunted by fragments of wall and overgrown terraces.
The Left House and Right House
However, a handful of buildings remain, including the restored Left House and Right House facing each other across a courtyard immediately behind Thai Hoa Palace. Civil and military mandarins would spruce themselves up here before proceeding to an audience with the monarch. Of the two, the Right House (actually to your left – the names refer to the emperor’s viewpoint) is the more complete with its ornate murals and gargantuan mirror in a gilded frame, a gift from the French to Emperor Dong Khanh.
Thai Binh Reading Pavilion
Walking northeast from here you pass behind the Royal Theatre, built in 1826 and now belonging to the University of Fine Arts, to find the Thai Binh Reading Pavilion, an appealing, two-tier structure surrounded by bonsai gardens. The pavilion was built by Thieu Tri and then restored by Khai Dinh, who added the kitsch mosaics. This was where the emperor came to listen to music and commune with nature, but at the time of writing it was in a state of disrepair.
The Ancestral Altars
The other main cluster of sights lies a short walk away in the southwest corner of the Imperial City. Aligned on a south–north axis, the procession kicks off with Hien Lam Cac (“Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity”), a graceful, three-storey structure with some notable woodwork, followed by the Nine Dynastic Urns. Considered the epitome of Hué craftsmanship, the bronze urns were cast during the reign of Minh Mang and are ornamented with scenes of mountains, rivers, rain clouds and wildlife, plus one or two stray bullet marks. Each urn is dedicated to an emperor: the middle urn, which is also the largest at 2600kg, honours Gia Long. They stand across the courtyard from the long, low building of The Mieu, the Nguyens’ dynastic temple erected in 1822 by Minh Mang to worship his father. Since then, altars have been added for each emperor in turn, except Duc Duc and Hiep Hoa, who reigned only briefly, and Bao Dai who died in exile in 1997; the three anti-French sovereigns – Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan – had to wait until after Independence in 1954 for theirs. Take a look inside to see the line of altar tables, most sporting a portrait or photo of the monarch. Behind each is a bed equipped with a sleeping mat, pillows and other accoutrements and, finally, a shrine holding funeral tablets for the emperor and his wife or wives. Anniversaries of the emperors’ deaths are still commemorated at The Mieu, attended by members of the royal family in all their finery.
Exit The Mieu by its west door, beside a 170-year-old pine tree trained in the shape of a flying dragon, and follow the path north into the next compound to find Hung Mieu. This temple is dedicated to the Nguyen ancestors and specifically to the parents of Gia Long, and is distinguished by its fine carving.
North again, Dien Tho, the queen mother’s residence, is worth a look. Built in a mix of Vietnamese and French architectural styles, the palace later served as Bao Dai’s private residence, and the downstairs reception rooms are now set out with period furniture, echoing the photos of the palace in use in the 1930s.