Where am I?
Wandering over the moat and into the city walls of the Imperial Citadel in Hue made me feel like I was walking through turn of the century China, rather than modern day Vietnam. After an overnight train from Hanoi and a day spent recovering from the heat and exhaustion, Sammi and I started the long walk from our hotel in “central Hue” to the city’s main and only tourist site. The town was once site of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam, but now has little remnants from that time.
From 1820 to 1945, the city was home to the Nguyen Dynasty, the ruling family of Vietnam. The Imperial Citadel served as the palace and headquarters of the government, with each member of the family getting their own property and temples filling in between. Each gate is painted with vibrant colors. In 1945, Emperor Bao Dai abdicated the throne, which led to the establishment of the Communist government in Hanoi. He and his capital moved south to the new city of Saigon.
Hue suffered much damage during the Vietnam War, particularly when the Americans heavily bombed the area. Many locals were also killed by the Viet Cong here. The now-UNESCO World Heritage site was damaged during the Tet Offensive, so only 10 out of the original 160 buildings remain in the complex. The city is built inside the walls, which include the Imperial City, followed by the Purple Forbidden City, which was the most private for the ruling family.
Today the complex is being restored to its pre-war glory, so tourists arrive from day trips from Hoi An or, like me, on overnight trains, to see the former palace. We arrived still to late, at 10 am, as the sun had reached a high point in the sky and was mercilessly beating down on us on the long walk across the Perfume River. Even inside the palace, there wasn’t much shade, so I tried to keep cool by fanning myself.
I’ll admit that we weren’t entirely sure of the significance of the complex when we were there, but it didn’t make it any less impressive. Seeing pictures of the royal family in their traditional garb felt like being placed in a time capsule and getting up close to the gates made it that much easier to admire the intricate details and mosaics. I do wish we’d done this as a day trip rather than staying two nights, as our previous hotel owner advised us against, as there wasn’t enough to keep us. Even after sampling the famous bun bo hue, it was time to move on.
A large part of the palace was under construction during our visit, so do your research in advance. It was also significantly more to get in than I had read, at 105,000 dong ($5), rather than 15,000, without seeing the inner palace. While I’m glad we went, I may have done a few things differently, namely bringing more water, wearing a hat and doing research. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk from our hotel, but you can easily take a moto or taxi.