Beginning in the 15th century in a land known today as Vietnam, Dai Viet – an empire of the Viet people from the north – which had successfully defeated their long-time rival, the Chams, expanded their territory further south. Quite the opposite of the Hindu-influenced Cham culture, that of the Viet people who originated from what is now southern China and northern Vietnam was heavily influenced by Chinese beliefs and traditions. Like many other conquerors across the globe, the Viet introduced their culture, albeit forcefully, to their newly-conquered land. Since gaining independence from China in the 10th century, Dai Viet had grown into a significant power in the region with successive dynasties ruling Imperial Vietnam.
Similar to Imperial China which saw the rise and fall of powerful dynasties and warlords over thousands of years, Vietnam entered its own feudal period in the 16th century when its lands were controlled by rivaling warlords and clans. It was only in the early 19th century when Vietnam was once again unified, this time under the rule of the Nguyen dynasty with Emperor Gia Long, born Nguyen Anh, as its very first monarch. To mark the rise of a new Imperial Vietnam, the emperor commissioned geomancers to look for an auspicious site to build a new palace. Situated on the western banks of the Perfume River in central Vietnam, Hue was chosen as the location for the new seat of power.
It is said that during autumn in the past, flowers from the orchards along the river would fall into it and make the river fragrant, hence the name. And it was apparent that according to geomancy, this part of Vietnam had everything a palace needed, including Hue’s Ngu Binh Mountain which provided a protective screen to shield the palace from malevolent spirits. In 1804 construction of the citadel began. Guarded by protective walls and moats, the citadel would later host the Imperial Residence, the Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and many other structures.
The entire palace complex served as the seat of the Nguyen dynasty for almost one and a half centuries, a period of time remembered for the increasing influence and control of France over Vietnam. In 1945, following the defeat of Japan in World War II and the successful revolt of Viet Minh – Vietnam’s coalition for independence – the French briefly returned to Vietnam and waged war against the Chinese-backed Viet Minh for almost a decade. In 1954, an agreement was reached between Viet Minh and the French government, allowing the former to control the northern part of Vietnam while maintaining the Nguyen dynasty’s nominal control over the south. However, the king, who was backed by the French, was deposed a year later by his own prime minister who then became the first president of South Vietnam, marking the demise of Imperial Vietnam. Hue, precariously located near the demilitarized border between the north and the south, was no longer the capital as the seat of the new Western-backed republic was centered in Saigon, far to the south.
On January 31, 1968, when the Vietnamese were celebrating Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces launched a surprise attack on Hue, an important base for the U.S. Navy supply boats. The citadel, at that time used as the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division of the South Vietnamese Army, was an apparent target. Almost six hours after the first attack, the North Vietnamese troops successfully took control of the citadel and raised a Vietcong flag over its flag tower. The North and South Vietnamese troops were involved in a fierce battle concentrated around the historic complex, and finally more than three weeks after the first assault was launched, the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese Army regained control of the citadel. The U.S. and South Vietnam did emerge victorious, but roughly 80% of Hue was destroyed by U.S. airstrikes, a fact that raised questions among ordinary Americans and contributed to the decline of U.S. public support for the war.
Photos of the destruction of structures within the citadel emerged – a kind of image which unfortunately keeps surfacing even to this day with multiple wars and conflicts on the planet. 25 years after the end of the Siege of Hue, the Imperial City joined the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list, a testament to its past significance despite the sheer damage to the compound decades earlier. Then almost 25 years later, I get the chance to visit this marvelous work of Vietnamese architecture and craftsmanship and retrace its glorious, as well as dark, days.
Walking through the magnificent Meridian Gate – modeled after the one in Beijing’s Forbidden City – it is not hard to imagine the power the emperors held during the heyday of the Nguyen dynasty. Miraculously kept intact during the war, the gate still impresses modern-day visitors, as it must have done with royals and dignitaries alike in the past. Past the gate is Điện Thái Hòa, the Palace of Supreme Harmony, built by the first Nguyen emperor in 1805, then enlarged and moved to its current location by his successor in 1833. James and I then turn to our left side to an enclosed part of the Imperial City. Inside, the ancestral temples of Thế Miếu and Hưng Miếu stand in a tranquil setting with their doors open.
Exploring the many corners within the vast palace complex is like looking into Vietnam’s past. The lavishly embellished halls, temples and gates attest to Imperial Vietnam’s prominence and wealth. On the other hand, the ruins and unrestored parts inside the compound are a grim reminder of yet another man-made calamity the world has been witnessing for millennia. The heart of the palace grounds, usually reserved for an important structure, is conspicuously empty. Indeed, a grand hall once stood here, none other than the emperors’ office itself. It is here, under the scorching heat of Vietnamese sun, where we call an end to our visit to the impressive Imperial City of Hue. Under the same sun the citadel had seen emperors commissioning structures to impress, belligerents vying for control of this strategic asset, modern researchers meticulously studying what remains of the citadel for future restoration works, and visitors marveling at the results of the ongoing project. The allure of the Imperial City, it seems, endures to this day.