You’ve heard of the Forbidden City located in China, but did you know that Vietnam has a similar city of its own? From 1805 to 1945, the central Vietnamese city of Hue was both the national capital and the seat of the leaders of the Nguyen Dynasty, which was Vietnam’s last royal family. While those feudal days are long gone, nowhere else in Vietnam are the country’s royal roots more apparent than in this city. This month, we’ll be looking at the sites that not only represent Hue, but also reflect Vietnam’s elegant history and traditions.
At the top of the list of Hue’s most popular sites is the Imperial City itself. These days, it’s a collection of locations—including the emperor’s residence and multiple temples and places—enclosed within a unique citadel by six-meter-high walls, each about 2.5 kilometers long. Here you can see ancient pieces of royal history, such as the Nine Holy Cannons, which were commissioned to be built, but to never be fired, and the Ngo Mon Gate, which not only serves as the main entrance to the enclosure, but was also the site of the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai.
Not too far from the City lie the Royal Tombs, each belonging to one of Vietnam’s many royal leaders. The tomb of Emperor Duc Duc, for example, is considered to be the smallest, because Duc Duc only reigned Vietnam for three days! The tomb of Emperor Tu Dac, meanwhile, is considered the most beautiful, as it effortlessly blends into the peaceful lake that surrounds it. But the most majestic of the tombs, and the one that attracts the most tourists, is that of Emperor Khai Dinh, whose tomb was built as both a mausoleum and a monument, which explains why it took the whole area eleven years to be fully constructed.
No visit to the city would be complete without a charming boat ride on the Perfume River that slowly winds its way through the city. It’s a great place for boat tours and a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of the fantastic flora and fauna that populate Vietnam’s wilderness. The river itself owes its name to the fact that its water flows through many upriver forests with aromatic plants. Any of these plants that fall into the water give the river its perfume-like fragrance.
And of all the ancient temples to visit in Hue, the site with the highest priority on your itinerary should be the seven-story-high Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, which overlooks the Perfume River from a hill a few kilometers away from the Imperial City. This historic site is something of an unofficial symbol of the city; the legend goes that the pagoda was constructed when an old woman once told the locals that a great king would one day come and build a temple for all of Vietnam’s prosperity.
Hue is also the birthplace of beautiful Vietnamese traditional clothing, áo dài. Originating from the court uniforms of the Nguyen Lords, the áo dài is characterized as a tight-fitting, silk tunic worn over the trousers, with splits extending well above the waist. Commonly worn by women, the dress is believed to tie feminine beauty to Vietnamese nationalism. Meanwhile, the men have the áo gam, which is a brocade tunic commonly worn at events where women wear the áo dài.
As does any tourist destination, Hue offers a diverse array of dishes. Most of the people in Hue are serious Buddhists, which is why the city has more vegetarian specialties than you can expect from any other Vietnamese city. The locals have proven to be quite adept at making a wide variety of foods that replicate meat-based dishes. So if you’re ever in the area and order a bowl of, say, bún bò Hue, it might actually be fruits and beans than have been prepared to look like beef stew!
Originating to the court house outfit in Hue, ao dai, is a beautiful silk tunic worn over trousers (above). Located on the west bank of Perfume River, Minh Lau Pavilion (Pavilion of Light) in the Tomb of Minh Mang (Reign:1820-40) was built by his successor, Thieu Tri (below).