Best wandered slowly
Published/Last edited or updated: 20th July, 2019
Like many of Hue’s historic sites, Hue Citadel is hardly ancient—construction of what you can see today first began in 1805, under the rule of Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen Dynasty rulers. What remains has been ravaged by war, looting and age, but remains a fascinating attraction well worth a half day of your time.
While generally referred to in tourism literature as “The Citadel”, much like a Matryoshka (Russian) doll, the Citadel is really three cities within a city. The all encompassing city is the Citadel, with its imposing brick walls forming a perimeter of almost 10km. Off centre within the Citadel lies the moat-enclosed Imperial City with the circumference of the moat coming in at around the 2.5km mark. At the centre of the Imperial City lies the Purple Forbidden City whose walled perimeter is around 1.3km in length.
Today the inner two—the Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities—form the “museum” part of the affair (and are ticketed, see below for details), while the larger Citadel retains a living breathing Vietnamese city and is easily our favourite part of the entirety of Hue.
Built on a northwest southeast axis, Hue Citadel was the final incarnation of a citadel building boom which raged across Vietnam through the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. Taking place during the reign of Emperor Gia Long (and continued by his successors Minh Mang and Thieu Tri) the citadels were initially built with the assistance of French expertise, though later were largely local efforts—often requiring the recruitment of vast labour reserves. Aside from Hue, citadels were build in Hanoi, Quang Ngai, Lang Son and many other locations across the country.
As was in vogue at the time (and still to a considerable extent today) geomancy played a major role not just in the orientation, but also the position of the Citadel. Ngu Binh, a small mountain (really just a hill, you can see it just to the east if you visit the Quang Trung memorial) to the south was seen as a protecting screen, as was the Perfume River. Two small islands on the river, Con Hen to the east and Con Da Vien to the west were also seen as guardians, all coming together to form a multi-layered protective belt before the primary southeast facing entrance.
The Citadel was built in stages, with the Purple Forbidden City and the Imperial City being built in 1804, while the outer Citadel was built over a decade or so from 1805 to 1821. Simultaneously waterways were reengineered and rerouted to form the beautiful network of ponds, lakes and canals which snake through the greater city today. While much of the visitor interest is focussed on the buildings (and/or what is left of them) do make some time to wander the water features as well—take our word for it, they’re ideal spots to escape the midday heat!
Back in the day, the Citadel was home to princely homes and other royal residences, think the upper echelons of Hue’s royal scene. While life started for these people within the walls of the Imperial City, once they came of age they were expected to move out into the wild cruel world and make a go of it. As this generally meant they just moved from the Imperial City to the Citadel, it still wasn’t too bad a deal—commoners were way outside the walls and on the south bank of the Perfume River (today that’s where you’ll find the backpacker district...). The Emperor and his immediate family were the sole residents of the Forbidden Purple City, while the Imperial City held residences for second tier royals, houses of worship, government ministries and so on.
Over the years, new buildings were added, and the fortifications strengthened to fend off would-be attackers. At its height, the Imperial City was comparable to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Citadel however was to face three major tragedies which left much of it in ruins.
First in 1885, during the Fall of Hue, invading French troops ransacked the Imperial City, killing over 1,000 people, destroying buildings and looting valuables. Then, following the end of World War Two, during the Siege of Hue (December 1946–February 1947) fighting between the Viet Minh and the French saw the enclosures heavily damaged, with the Viet Minh blowing up bridges and roads and the French using heavy artillery. Again priceless valuables were looted and lost forever. Lastly, in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, street to street fighting and aerial bombardment levelled much of the greater city with an estimated 40% of the entire city destroyed—more than 100,000 people were made homeless.
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—charming in its own way.
How to visit the Citadel can take a few different forms—with or without a guide and and on or separate to a group tour. Choosing which approach you take will very much depend on three things—how much time you have, what level of interest you really have in the subject matter, and, arguably most importantly, how good your imagination is. We mention imagination because, well, much of what was once standing no longer does and it can be a challenge to recreate royal magnificence from some overgrown brick foundations and some faded, poorly reproduced black and while photos.
A city tour, taking in a number of other points of interest may spend as little as an hour or so taking in the entire Citadel. Groups can be large and the guiding very variable—we saw one guide point at a set of foundations and say “there used top be a royal house there” before moving on. So, if you’re set on a reasonable standard and length of time in the Citadel, then we’d say a city tour is the approach most fraught with risk unless you are happy with just a quick walk through and a few happy snaps.
The second option is to engage an official guide—this will cost more but you should get a better standard and length of walkthrough—do be sure to specify just how long the guide will hang around for. Electric cars tours are also available, starting at 240,000 dong for a 45 minute trip, but we’d say walking would be preferable.
The third option is to just do it yourself with the assistance of your own reference material. We went with the third option, accompanied by a copy of Tim Doling’s exhaustive Exploring Hue—when we say exhaustive, we mean exhaustive—and we spent a full day wandering the grounds of the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City. Yes, six hours.
There is no “right way” to explore the Imperial City. Doling’s primary route takes the reader to the Forbidden Purple City first, followed by the eastern realm then looping back to cover the west—we followed this route and it worked, but next time we’d reverse it, doing the west before the east, but this is a minor quibble. The advantage of exploring with your own resources is you can just wander the place, find something that looks interesting, figure out where you are and learn a bit. We found this to be a great way to take in some of the charm of the place which is not evident at first glance.
For us, some of the highlights included the following:
Shortly after entering the Imperial City, you’ll reach Thai Dich Pool—a large lotus-topped pond filled with carp with a single bridge leading across the center. Somewhat setting the stage for the opulence to come, back in the day, the pond was reserved for the Emperor alone. Note the ceremonial gateways (one at each end of the bridge) with the painted enamel panels. Doling explains the Chinese characters explain how the Nguyen Emperors will rule with benevolence, righteousness and humanity.
Beyond the bridge lies the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which was the site of the Gia Long’s official coronation in 1806, continue on from here and you’ll shortly enter the inner sanctum—the Purple Forbidden City. Today little remains save the foundations and some surrounding walls and minor structures, but we loved the time stood still vibe to the area (especially once the groups of tourists had wandered off), and were in luck that the rear was swept with sunflowers, making for some pretty photos. Do pay attention to the ruins that remain, especially the porcelain features edging the walls and roofs that remain. Don’t miss Emperor Bao Dai’s tennis courts off to the west.
On the western side of the Purple Forbidden City you’ll find Thai Binh Lau—the former royal library (though today mostly a souvenir shop). The building is one of the few to escape destruction during the fighting and while its contents were all sadly looted, at least the building, with its beautiful floor tiles, remains standing. The enclave include a pool and rockery and note that while you’ll most likely enter it from the west, the primary entrance is from the east—do walk around to the far side to appreciate the craftsmanship on display in the ceramics and mosaics work.
Nearby lies Thieu Phuong Royal Garden which is surrounded by the Ngoc Dich Lake—a small body of water which fronts onto he northern side of Thai Binh Lau. The island is meditative (if a bit scruffy) and was once used as a sanctuary for rare birds and animals. Today it is a shady spot where kids (and the young at heart) can feed rotund carp in the waters below.
Over in the southwest corner of the Imperial City you’ll find the Nine Dynastic Urns. Cast in the mid 19th century, they range in weight from just over 1,000 kg through to a staggering 2,755 kg, with each being dedicated to a Nguyen Emperor. Of particular interest are the motifs on each urn which feature a variety of representations of frequented seen flora and fauna from across the country. If you are travelling with kids, see how many they can identify.
Aside from aimlessly wandering around to see what you can find, there are a couple of pre-packaged activities you can do. Forty minute traditional dance and theatre shows are performed at the Royal Theatre (centre, east of Purple Forbidden City) twice a day at 10:00 and 15:00 costing 200,000 dong per person, with a minimum for five in the audience for the show to go ahead.
For those who like to get dressed up, over in the Right House (centre, west of Purple Forbidden City), you can get dressed up in traditional garb and pose on a throne. Rates start at 115,000 dong for just you, 195,000 dong if you’d like two servants. No, you are not permitted to wander around the Imperial City in the costume.
Admission to just the Imperial City costs 150,000 dong per adult and 30,000 dong per child (aged 7-12).
Alternatively you can choose from two package tickets, Package One costs 280,000/55,000 dong for adult/child and Package Two costs 360,000/70,000 dong. Package One includes the Imperial City, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang tombs while Package Two includes the Imperial City, Khai Dinh, Minh Mang and Tu Duc tombs.
In either case the pass is valid for two days, and if you are planning on seeing some tombs as well as the Imperial City within the prescribed time, it will save you money as Khai Dinh, Minh Mang and Tu Duc tombs each charge 100,000/20,000 dong admission if purchased separately.
Address: North bank of the Perfume River, Hue
Coordinates (for GPS): 107º34'39.4" E, 16º28'12" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 150,000 dong for adults, 30,000 dong for kids aged 7-12
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 8 other sights and activities in and around Hue