The Imperial City, Hue

We came to Hue primarily to visit the Citadel, and we were not disappointed. I didn’t really know what to expect and I really enjoyed the whole day wandering around this amazingly big, interesting and historic site. We had a couple of rest periods at the coffee shop to rejuvinate. We got ourselves a guide, Tian, to explain some of the historical stories. Tian is a local, having grown up within the outer walls of the Imperial City. She studied history at a local college and proved an engaging storyteller. Here is some of what she shared…(once again, retold by me from remembering Tian’s stories with some facts, spellings and names confirmed from Wikipedia.)

The Nguyen Dynasty began when Nguyan Anh took control of Vietnam in 1802 and proclaimed himself to be emperor. He chose to build his citadel at Hue beginning in 1804.  The outermost walls are about 2 kilometres square. Inside, the Purple Forbidden Palace is surrounded by several extra rings of walls and moats. Purple does not refer to the colour but rather it means “Imperial Palace”.

The surname Nguyen is the most common in Vietnam with about 40% of people having it. Many people changed their surnames depending on who was in power and the Nguyen Dynasty was the last line of emperors in Vietnam. As well as commoners changing their names to the royal family name for protection, the Emperor also gave favoured people his name. Consequently, all Nguyen’s are not related.

There are four gates to the Citadel. The main gate is only used in times of ceremony. This has 5 passageways through which to enter the citadel. Only the king enters in the middle, the military manderins on one side and the civil manderins on the other. The outer entrances are used by elephants and horses.

A gate on the left wall is for the general use by the important men and one on the right for the important women. There is a back gate for everybody else. Left is more important because it is the side the heart is on.

In the ceremonial palace, in front of the emperor’s throne is a large metal pot from which smoke emerges during ceremonies. Only high ranking manderins and the Imperial family are allowed to see the Emperor’s face, so the smoke acts as camouflage. It is forbidden for peasants to look at him when he appears in public, they must bow their heads. To sneak a peak is to risk two entire generations of their family being beheaded.

The Perfume River separates Hue from the Citadel and until recently no commoners were allowed to live on that side of the river within the outer most wall and moat. Nowadays, 80, 000 people live in this area, but only behind the Citadel, the front area is reservered for tourism. Our guide, Tian was born and grew up within this area.

When you enter a temple you take three incence sticks to light and place in the pot to honour your ancestors. The number three is important. It refers to heaven, human and earth. 

One of the early Emperors was rumoured to have 500 concubines. Every night the concubines would cook fifty dishes and present them to the Emperor. He would choose five to eat and the concubines who cooked these dishes would sleep with him that night. He also had many official wives and many, many children. The Concubines lived in a separate part of the citadel, as did the children.

When one of the Emporers came back from a visit to France, he built two schools outside the Citadel, painted them yellow and opened them up for all the people. Prior to that education was for the elite only. In the past the written language of Vietnam was based on Chinese symbols – the Chinese occupied Vietnam for 1,000 years. After the French came, the language was changed to the current script and was influenced by French languages, particularly in the use of circumflex.
At the entrance to the Citadel are nine large cannons that one of the Emporers got made by melting down all the weapons of an enemy after a major defeat and had them placed here as a reminder to the people of his strength. Large bronze pots filled with water that appear in the main courtyard were made by in a similiar way by an early Nyugen Emperor.

After the French took over Vietnam they chose who was to be Emporer when the time came. They chose a young boy because he would be easier for them to control. Through the Emperor the French could better control the people of Vietnam. So the last 3 Emporers were very young and had no power…they were puppets of the French. In 1945, the Vietnamese revolution saw the end of the Imperial Family and the last Emporer abdicated in favour of the new communist government set up in Hanoi under Ho Ch Minh. There were 13 Nyugen Emperors in total.

A great majority of the 160 buildings that included residences and many, many temples, gateways, walkways and gardens have been destroyed over the years. Firstly, in 1947 during the revolution against the French. Then in the Tet Offensive of 1968. Originally the US was not going to bomb any of the historic area but in the end they did in order to secure Hue. Only 10 main buildings remianing. Gradually many others have been and are continuing to be restored. The US government has just given funds to support the restoration of a major covered walkway.For me a large part of the interest was in seeing the various stages and contrasts of renovation and ruin.

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