Like many of Hue's historic sites, the Citadel is hardly ancient -- construction first began in 1805, under the rule of Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen Dynasty rulers.
Thereafter it functioned as the imperial seat of government.
Over the years, new buildings were added, and the fortifications strengthened to fend off would-be attackers. At its height, it was comparable to the Forbidden City in Beijing, but when the Vietnamese took on the French here in 1947, it was badly damaged. Then the 1968 Tet Offensive saw it mercilessly bombed, first by the North Vietnamese before they took the city, then by the Americans before they took it back. Precious few of the interior structures were left standing, though the fortified walls survived.
During the early years of communist rule after the end of the American War, the Citadel was neglected and seen as an embarrassing vestige of imperial rule. But over the past 20 years, the Vietnamese government has gotten hip to the old city's value as a lure for tourism and has been slowly fixing it up. It's important to note, however, that these reconstruction efforts are ongoing and far from complete. Some of the most interesting buildings were razed to the ground and only their footprints remain, untended and overgrown with weeds.
Many guidebooks hype the Citadel because of its historical significance, but after reading these overblown descriptions tourists routinely show up to see it and are disappointed. On an earlier visit we investigated the best way to see the Citadel, visiting once on our own, and the second time, booking a guide at the office at the gate. We have to say this is one place where a guide really makes a difference. Our guide was knowledgeable, spoke English well, and the information really added a lot to the experience. It's affordable, at US$5 a pop plus tip, no matter the size of the group. If you hook up with a licensed tour guide elsewhere in the city, they should be able to visit the Citadel without paying for themselves, and should also be able to give an informative tour
Our only complaint about the tour is that it didn't cover quite the entire Citadel and we saw a bit more when we went on our own. So, once your guide is done with you, hang around and explore.
On our return in 2014 we couldn't get a guide at the entrance for love or money -- it seems this service is being phased out in favour of a large-screen information area just inside the entrance to the left of the palace, where a 15-minute documentary runs on loop throughout the day. There's signage outside each of the buildings in English, French and Vietnamese; although informative, the positioning of these signs meant most visitors were taking photos of them. We later found out that licensed guides were easily booked in advance through tour booking offices for the same price.
Seven-seater electric cars are also available for hire at 180,000 VND (30 minutes) or 280,000 VND (one hour). If it's a really hot or wet day and you can get a few others on board to share the cost, it's not a bad way to go, although you'll see more by walking.
You can enrich the experience by taking a look at the book Life in the Forbidden Purple City, by Ton Thai Binh, Danang Publishing House, 2003. It's not a great book, but it will help you think of some informed questions to ask your guide. It's available for 30,000 VND at most book stores in town.
Half-hour cultural performances are held at the Royal Theatre four times a day, as long as a dozen or so people want to watch. Start times are 09:00, 10:00, 14:30 and 15:30. If you're in a group, let them know you're coming in advance: T: (054) 529 219, 514 989, (0913) 439 183.
You can get a picture of yourself in royal dress sitting on the Emperor's throne for 100,000 VND, or more if you want two Vietnamese dressed as mandarins to pose with you. A similar photo op is available at the Hall of the Mandarins.
If you decide not to go the guide route, the Citadel is still a pretty, peaceful place with a smattering of interesting buildings worth walking around and exploring on a lazy day.
How to get there
To get here from Le Loi, take the Phu Xuan bridge across the river and take a left. Take any right turn you please, and the entrance is behind the very-hard-to-miss gigantic flagpole. The tour guide office is on the right side of the central gate.
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