Discovering Vietnam's imperial city

07 November 2007 (Thanh Nien News) – Find out more about the history of Hue, Vietnam’s imperial city and UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Imperial City of Hue in Vietnam. Thanh Nien News, 14 July 2007

Hue: pearl of central Vietnam
by Thu Thuy

Hue, Vietnam’s imperial capital city, is known for its royal palaces and tombs, which UNESCO recognized as a collective World Heritage Site in 1993.

Ten years later, the lyrical city by the Huong (Perfume) River received further honors when UNESCO proclaimed nha nhac Hue (Hue court music) as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.


Palaces, mausoleums and gardens

The fifth lord of the Nguyen dynasty, Nguyen Phuc Tran, also known as Lord Nghia, chose Phu Xuan Village on the Huong River as a suitable place for his capital in 1687.

More than 60 years later, Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoai proclaimed himself emperor and built more palaces, temples, communal houses and schools intending to turn Phu Xuan into the capital replacing Thang Long, present-day Hanoi, in the north.

Duong Xuan and Cam palaces are located on the upper Huong’s southern bank.

The magnificent Tuong Lac Palace and Duyet Vo House were also built nearby.

These and many more Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) structures concentrated mostly along the banks of the Huong River are all that remains of Vietnam’s last royal family.

By the late 19th century many French-style buildings and houses were built along the southern bank in a unique harmony with the older cityscape.

In addition to the ancient citadel, Hue houses seven mausoleums holding or once holding the earthly remains of the kings of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Along with other historic edifices, the Nguyen mausoleums form part of the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.

There were 13 Nguyen kings, but for various reasons tombs were only built for Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Tu Duc, Duc Duc, Dong Khanh, and Khai Dinh.

Each sits well-positioned in quiet surroundings full of statues and monuments.

The typical structure is composed an outer wall and triple gate (called Tam Quan), the Court of Salutations, the Stele House, temples, lakes and ponds, pavilions, gardens, and, finally, the tomb.

The most beautiful mausoleum is considered to be that of Tu Duc, who died in 1883 after 35 years on the throne.

Built between 1864 and 1867, his burial place includes 50 monuments and is surrounded by a 1,500 meter wall.

Tu Duc was an authority on philosophy, history, and literature.

He left behind 4,000 verses and 600 pieces of prose.

Some of the poems are inscribed on the walls of the mausoleum, which was designed to blend with the natural setting.

Hue is also famous for its old pagodas, of which the best known are Thien Mu and Tu Dam, and for their historic houses and beautiful gardens.

The garden is a constant theme in Hue architecture.

Houses, pagodas, palaces, tombs, and villages all have elaborate gardens in Hue, known as the “garden city.”

It is the diversity of its gardens that defines Hue.

Different designs represent different aspects of life and philosophy, depending on the creator’s outlook.

However, many gardens within the royal citadel and mandarins’ mansions have deteriorated over time.

Royal sounds

Nha nhac, “elegant music,” was originally a genre of court music reserved for annual ceremonies and special events like coronations, funerals, and official receptions.

Although its roots can be traced to the 13th century, nha nhac reached its zenith in Hue’s royal court under the Nguyen Dynasty.

The kings favored nha nhac to the point of making it the official music of the court, thereby establishing it as a symbol of the dynasty’s power and longevity.

Nha nhac became an essential part of over 100 royal ceremonies each year.

Rich in spiritual content, nha nhac not only provided a means of communicating with and paying tribute to the gods and kings, but also served as a vehicle for transmitting aspects of Vietnamese philosophy and cosmogony.

City of festivals

In 1992, Hue’s Vietnam-France Culture Festival drew the attention of many foreign visitors previously unaware of the city’s majesty.

Eight years later the city organized the first biennial Hue Festival.

The festival has become a huge success showcasing the diversity of Hue’s culture, landscape, and traditional handicraft villages.

Among the highlights are shows featuring nha nhac, traditional music & dance, and excursions to traditional villages that make non la (conical palm hats), lanterns, wood carvings, and lacquer and bronze products.

The city’s efforts have borne fruit with the number of visitors rising from 243,000 in 1993 to 1.33 million in 2002.

Hue is determined to capitalize on its advantages and develop into one of the most popular destinations not in only Vietnam, but the whole Southeast Asian region.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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