Hue: the Imperial capital and soul of Vietnam

CUTLINE: The Tu Duc Tomb is a 4950-square-foot complex composed of 50 different elements. Here, one can see part of the high walls, moat and walkways that take you around this part of the complex. (Jerry Wadian photo)





Hue: the Imperial capital and soul of Vietnam


By Jerry Wadian
Contributing Writer

Hue was the old imperial capital, and still reigns as the spiritual, cultural and literary center of Vietenam. It is also a city of great charm, historic sights, the Perfume River, and bloody memories from the Battle of Tet in 1968.

While Hue has weeks’ worth of sights, we came to Vietnam to visit UNESCO sites, and the main one in Hue is the Citadel. The Emperor Gia Long moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue in 1802, and set to work building the Citadel in 1804, finishing it in 1834. 

It is an imposing sight, surrounded by a moat with walls 20 feet high and 65 feet thick. 

In 1968, a full division of North Vietnamese (NVA) troops occupied the Citadel. The division was eventually wiped out, taking over 150 American marines with them, but the NVA flag flew over the Citadel for 25 days, a big factor in turning American opinion away from supporting the war.

The Citadel still bears scars of the 1968 battle. There are machine gun holes in the thick walls, and portions of other walls still bear   gaping holes. Many of the buildings were totally destroyed, but others still stand, and the Vietnamese have been busy in restoring as many others as they can.

Within this massive structure of the Citadel are several complexes, almost miniature cities. The most famous is the Forbidden Purple City, modeled after the Forbidden City in modern Beijing, China. In Hue, the Forbidden City has its own walls enclosing 120 square yards.

The Imperial enclosure is another complex-within-a-complex and was the home of the emperor. Unfortunately, after heavy bombing, only 20 of the original 148 buildings survive.

Also in the Citadel is the three-tiered Hien Lam Pavilion, nine dynastic urns (each over seven feet high, weighing almost 800 pounds) dedicated to the nine Nguyen emperors, the To Mieu Temple housing shrines to each of the emperors, and structural wonders, many adorned in red lacquer.

We arrived in Hue during the middle of the afternoon and proceeded straight to the Citadel. That may not have been the wisest decision of the tour. The heat and humidity were the highest, and the Citadel is about 10 square kilometers (about six miles!) in area. 

The long walk was hot and tiring but really worth it, as you see the history of the Vietnamese emperors, and the cultural and spiritual aspects of the country through various temples, artifacts, and general aura of the place.

I blew through a lot of images, but was glad we took a pedicab (like a rickshaw, only it is a bicycle with the driver in back) home. Riding in the front gave professor McComb and I a good idea of what a lack of EPA emissions in motor scooters really means.

The next day we went up the Perfume River (which they say ran red with blood during Tet), a major artery in central Vietnam that runs through the city of Hue.

We rode on a dragon boat, so named for the carved head of a dragon that embraces the front of each boat. The dragon is a powerful symbol throughout most of Asia. In Vietnam, it is a symbol of royalty and imperial power, adorning many palaces and tombs; it is also a symbol of good luck, prosperity and good fortune.

The Perfume River is wide with many sights along its banks, from rural Vietnam, to many types of boats, historic buildings, modern architecture and beautiful landscapes.  

Our ride ended at the Thien Mu Pagoda, the second-most recognizable landmark in Hue; it was built in the early 17th century. 

The Pagoda (a pagoda is a tiered place of worship) is a complex highlighted by a 70-foot tower. There are several courtyards reachable by many steep steps. Along the way are sculptures, including a mock army that looked much like the Terra Cotta Warriors in China. It was, like everywhere else in Hue, a subject for several days worth of exploring, but we had a tour schedule.

Our final stop was the Tu Duc Tomb, named after an emperor of the Nguyen Family that ruled Hue for centuries. 

Tu Duc Tomb is actually a 4950-square-foot complex with 50 different elements, including the actual tomb. 

My favorite part of the complex, and perhaps of all Hue, was the Xung Khiem Pavilion, a Japanese-like structure alongside the largest lake in the complex. The emperor would come there to contemplate; it is said he would sit for hours. In the short time I was there I could see why: it was calm, beautiful, and completely peaceful. I could have spent a few hours there myself – but the complex is long and exquisite.

Along the way, I had the most refreshing cold drink: sugar cane! A vendor would run dry sugar cane stalks through a machine to crush out the juice; then they would add a little lime and pour over ice. It was more than delicious and completely thirst-quenching.

From Hue, it was 60 miles back to Da Nang to catch a plane to our next stop: Hanoi, the ancient and current capital of Viet Nam.

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