Saturday, February 20

Max left early for an all-day tour of the DMZ (SE Asia:  PART IX), a site covering the Geneva Accords’ 1954 split of Vietnam into north and south divisions. A fascinating experience, to be sure, but one I knew he could aptly describe to me upon his return.

Instead I retraced our route to the Citadel from several days prior and crossed the moat where I, along with tour groups, spilled out into a wide open expanse of red brick pavers and wet greenery with the huge Flag Tower behind us sitting atop stone walls.

(With an old iPhone for a camera , I wasn’t too great using it; but, you’ll get the sense of the place…)


UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture, an abbreviation I should have spelled out before) added Hue Citadel to its roster of World Heritage sites because it’s “an exceptional specimen of a late feudal planning in East Asia.” This encapsulated city showcased Asian aesthetics with a French twist and further fortified when the outer earthen walls were replaced with stone in the style of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707), King Louis XIV’s military engineer.

Like many sites around the world, the Citadel has suffered from wars (the latest being the American/Vietnam War), human development, and climate change. Few structures remain from the original dozens….

some wear time’s erosion,


while those restored leave no doubt as to the power that once resided amidst this splendor.

hue interior

HUE 3 4.13.46 PM

I followed a route, beginning at the Ngo Mon Gate, an entrance once reserved for the emperor alone (the rest entered via other gates), and leading to the Imperial Enclosure and Forbidden Purple City, both straight ahead.


The Citadel is like one of those Russian wooden dolls where the largest is composed of several, ever-decreasing smaller ones.

In Hue Emperor Long decided to create two additional ‘cities’ in the center inside the “Capital Citadel” (whose walls at six meters high, two meters thick, and 10km in circumference enclosed the entire site):

  • the Imperial Enclosure (the “Royal Citadel”) where the emperor conducted his government, ceremonies were held, royals educated, etc. (walls four meters high, one meter thick, and 2.4km in circumference with a small moat).
  • and the Forbidden Purple City (the “Forbidden Citadel”), which is modeled on Bejing’s Forbidden City built in the early 15th century (both created to imitate the mythical Purple Palace in heaven). The latter was for the sole use of the Emperor and his family (walls roughly same height and thickness as the Royal Citadel and circumference of just over 1km).



map_of_hue_imperial_city_by_michell (1)

Located in the outermost “Capital” citadel were:

  • palaces for princesses and temples (SW);
  • national offices and palaces for princes (SE);
  • and, houses for officials and soldiers along with handicraft works, markets and depots (N).

I have to say this site was one of the most beautiful and most peaceful fortresses I’ve ever visited. Quiet raindrops dripping from the slate-gray heavens muffled sounds of others as  I wandered through pavilions, temples and gardens.




As I strolled through buildings historical photos populated the walls. In one I overheard a guide explaining an odd illustration:  that of a battling elephant and tiger. The elephant, a symbol of the monarchy, always won because the tiger, representing rebellion, was drugged and had both claws and fangs removed. The last fight took place in 1904 at the arena located off-premises. Must have been horrific to witness.


In many official portraits some Mandarins sat regally in their court costumes. This class of civil servants represented just one of the many cultural factors the Vietnamese had absorbed under the 1,000 year rule of the Chinese.

HUE 4 4.13.46 PM

Speaking of Chinese rule, below is a little more background on how the Nguyen Family came to rule over a unified Vietnam:

  • The Vietnamese cultivated the Red River Delta in the north and slowly started to inch their way further south in search of more land for growing rice, their staple crop.
  • Meanwhile its neighbor to the north, the Chinese under the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), invaded and occupied the Red River Delta. Although the Vietnamese never forfeited their strong identity, they were heavily influenced by the Chinese, especially the aristocracy.
  • With the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China, the Vietnamese overthrew their occupiers in 939 C.E. and began self-rule; however, there were repeated attacks by China in its effort to reclaim this rich delta state.
  • In 1428 Le Loi, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated heroes, defeated the Chinese once and for all and began the longest dynastic rule in the country’s history: 1428-1788.
  • During this time the Vietnamese expanded further south coming into conflict with the Khmers and the Chams, indigenous people of Cambodia and Champa. The latter were defeated by 1471, and the Khmers in 1749.
  • The Le Dynasty began with strength and reforms… for example, Le Loi introduced the Hong Duc legal code incorporating Vietnam’s recognition of the higher position of women, invested in infrastructure such as rebuilding irrigation dams, and encouraged the Confucian examination system resulting in a golden age of literature and science… a lot of his measures were influenced by the Chinese but adapted to Vietnam’s own cultural beliefs.
  • But, as the country and its population increased in size, the Le Dynasty’s rule weakened and conflict between two noble clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen, led to the partition of the country (similar to what occurred in 1954) with Trinh taking the north and Nguyen, the south by the 16th century.
  • A century later with peasants rioting against greedy feudal lords the Nguyen factor managed to grab power and eventually unified the country under the rule of Gia Long (1762-1820)  whose portrait I found online:

gia long


As mentioned earlier, many of the structures had been destroyed over the years; but, the buildings that were restored included some wonderful chronological displays. One topic particularly fascinated me:  the royal administrative documents. Thousands of these written records offer a detailed record of the social and economic issues facing the 13 emperors who ruled between 1802 and 1945.

A full range of subject matter is covered in these reports:  diplomacy, millitary, society, culture and economy. Like reading any historical papers, you can obtain a real-time glimpse into the life of the Vietnamese back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Presented to the emperor by local and central agencies, the documents reflect the personality and interests of each ruler measured by both the content and the number of his comments on specific topics. An explanation of the editing marks was included as part of the exhibit.

HUE 11

On display were documents illustrating Vietnam’s participation in foreign trade, including a list of gifts from the Siamese King to Emperor Gia Long and the resulting thank-you note.

These communications provided proof of an extensive export-import business with Vietnam sending missions as far as the European commercial centers. Below is an 1816 translated letter from England’s King George III to Gia Long.

HUE 30 4.13.46 PM

Unfortunately, once again in the name of religion, conflict brewed culminating in a battle on April 15 between the French (wanting to protect some missionaries who had defied the emperor’s ban on their living and working there) and the Vietnamese. Not only was trade with the west affected, but the persecution of the Christians provided France with the pretext to attack and colonize the area ten years later.

Included in the exhibit were doctoral laureates or certificates promoting those who passed stringent examinations. The monarchical education system recruited talent seemingly regardless of one’s social or economic status. Not that this period in Vietnam’s history meant everyone was treated equally. During the Nguyen Dynasty rule the elite grew richer and the peasants, poorer (sound familiar?). But, country-wide examinations at least gave many the opportunity to participate and advance through the ranks of civil service.

The focus on education continued through the centuries with one sign quoting “Uncle Ho” who, in 1945 on the first day of school, encouraged the Vietnamese to follow their forefather’s tradition of striving for excellence in knowledge. Throughout our time in Vietnam we witnessed this passion for improving one’s mind, one perfect example being Duyen in Hanoi.

After scanning the display covering the Nguyen Dynasty and its 13 emperors I left for Dien Tho Residence, the apartments and audience hall of the Queen Mothers.

On the way I  I passed by a tennis court installed in 1933 by the last emperor, Bao Dai (1913-97).

IMG_0021Curious about this last Nguyen ruler I subsequently read about this king.

bao dai boy

Born in 1913, Prince Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy attended school in Paris starting at age nine. With his father death in 1925 he succeeded to the throne taking the name Bao Dai or ‘Keeper of Greatness’. He went back to France to continue his studies leaving the country under a regent’s rule until returning in 1932 at age 19.

Considering he was awash in French culture it’s no surprise he was a French puppet and cultivated western pleasures becoming known as a bon vivant and playboy.

bao dai smoking

Tragically Bao Dai never escaped the yoke of foreign domination with first the French, then the Japanese, overseeing his governing, or lack thereof.


Reaching the imperial women’s compound I stepped into a bit of a wonderland containing smaller versions of other royal pavilions. In addition to the main house and a temple there was a charming ‘pleasure house’  built for the residents’ use.


Photographs of the more recent Nguyen queens and children adorned the walls inside the main apartments, and I peered at black and white portraits of the last emperor’s queen, Nam Phuong…

HUE 20

and her husband’s concubine and second wife, Bui Mong Diep. She only recently passed away five years ago in France, a sanctuary for many of the last of the Nguyen line including Bao Dai who died there in 1997.

HUE 19


One of the last complexes was the To Mieu Temples with its magnificent entrance gate.

HUE 25

Miraculously the famous dynastic urns, nine of them, had survived destruction. They dominated the temples’ courtyard, weighty reminders of the early Nguyen emperors’ strength.

HUE 26

Cast in bronze and representing the nine emperors up to the time of casting in 1836, each urn is decorated with 17 traditional Vietnamese patterns ranging from stars to vessels to valuable forest products.


Covered in 153 illustrations these urns collectively serve as a history of Vietnam during the early years of the Nguyen Dynasty.

Large signs in the Hien Lam Pavilion explain the significance of some of these illustrations. What captured my attention were the depictions of all the boats relating to the emperors’ dominion over the waterways. For instance, the following is a Le Thuyen, a sailboat with 12 oars designed for high winds and fast-running water. Whenever the emperor patrolled the seas, this smaller boat escorted his ship.

HUE 27

Another one carved into one of the urn’s was the black pirate boat. Used by pirates in the north, this black-sail-black-hull boat was equipped with oars as well, providing it with excellent maneuverability and speed. They were later used for coastal patrols by the emperors.


Claiming liquid as well as land territories, the emperors carved their ownership of the seas on the urns, such as the 1836 illustration below. According to the accompanying explanation, “The east part of the sea belongs to Vietnam’s sovereignty. In the East sea there are the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagoes…”.


This display also showcased one of the country’s oldest maps:  a 1490 depiction of Hoang Sa Archipelago (aka Paracel Islands, currently claimed by China and Japan as well as Vietnam).

HUE 16


With a parting glance of this complex,


I finished my structure-touring.

Yet, there was one last area I wanted to roam. I had read about the garden of bonsais and I really wanted to see those. Some friends of mine in Portland use to grow them, and I remembered being enchanted by these horticultural sculptures.

Walking to the other side of the Citadel I finally found them displayed in pots spread throughout a large deserted garden.


In spite of looking a little unkempt, the bonsais were still magical and Tolkien in appearance. And overwhelming in their multitude, purported to be up to 400 (I didn’t count them).



With the phone running out of battery I passed by the Capital Citadel’s eastern gate set in the outermost wall…


and headed towards another favorite site of mine:  a cafe with hot coffee and a dry seat.