The Legacy of the Nguyen Dynasty: Hué Imperial City and Thien Mu Pagoda

Earlier, I wrote two posts about our wonderful experience in Hue!

The focus of the earlier posts was the Royal Tombs of the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. In the first post, I talked about Minh Mang’s and Khai Dinh’s. In particular, Minh Mang’s was impressive due to the man-made lake fringed with pine trees. In my opinion, this man-made lake contributed to the overall cultural and artistic landscape of the surroundings. Khai Dinh’s magnificence comes from the intermarriage of Western and Asian motifs in the ornaments of the main tomb.

The second post was dedicated to the Royal Tomb of Tu Duc, which I described implicitly as a performative structure of romantic poetry. 

The tall-standing flag tower (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The afternoon of our Hué tour was predominantly spent at the Hué Imperial City or the Hué Citadel. When we arrived at the citadel gate, the impressive fortress was reminiscent of two familiar walled cities: the Intramuros in Manila and the Forbidden City in Beijing.

I am not saying that Hué walls are directly similar to the Intramuros. I am simply pointing that the ruins caused by different wars, particularly the Vietnam War and the Second World War, somehow made the two fortresses and walls as if siblings (kindred in spirit, so to speak). Intramuros, the eldest and Hué as the youngest: Intramuros was constructed between 1591 – 1594 while Hué’s construction began in 1804. 

Nonetheless, the similarities between Hué and the Forbidden City in Beijing are striking. Gia Long ordered the construction of the citadel. Our guide mentioned that the Gia Long’s inspiration was an imperial palace in China, which by assumption, he was referring to the Imperial Palace in Beijing or the Forbidden City. 

The location of the Nguyen’s Imperial Palace is strategically located at the northern bank of the Perfume River (which served as a natural protection from an intruder). Protected by a high outer walled fortress, the citadel can easily be recognized even if you are standing somewhere on the opposite side of the river because of the tall-standing flag tower.  

Constructed in 1805 and completed in 1832, the complex is composed of six massive gates, the imperial residence complex (also known as the forbidden purple city), four outer gates, six temples and other places of worship, 14 imperial courts, a garden, and two pavilions.  

Ngo Mon Gate, the gateway to the Purple Forbidden City (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Upon entering the outer gates, the journey inside the complex begins in the South Gate of the Purple Forbidden City (popularly called the Ngo Mon Gate). A massive and imposing structure, the gate was used as the royal viewing platform.

The Throne Palace (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Opposite the gate is the Throne Palace which can only be reached by crossing a bridge known as the Trung Dao (Central Path). Immediately after crossing the bridge, is the Great Rites Court.T

The Great Rites Court (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Originally, the Throne Palace was not used for royal ceremonies but over the years, it became the preferred location for the most important imperial ceremonies (i.e.the Coronations of Emperors, receiving foreign ambassadors). 

The Throne Palace was severely damaged during the Vietnam War. While walking along the damaged palace, it felt like walking on a performance space: that I was a royal performer doing a royal ballet before the emperor. 

Inside the Citadel (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Inside the Citadel (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
One of the grand pavilions of the Citadel (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

And speaking of performance, somewhere in the east is The Royal Theater where the ruling elite members were entertained by traditional performances such as the Beijing Opera (well, its an assumption based on the different displays of Chinese Masks used in Chinese operas), Nha Nhac (Royal Court Music), now a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and other court entertainments and performances. The theatre was built in 1826 during the reign of Minh Mang. Again, because of the war, it was also badly damaged but later restored in the early 2000s. Today, Nha Nhac is still performed in the theatre and it is Vietnam’s oldest working theater for traditional performances. 

The pagoda and in the background (behind it) the Perfume River (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The pagoda from another angle (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Ending our tour was a visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda or the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. A seven-story pagoda, Thien Mu is regarded as the symbol of the city. The pagoda is also a favorite subject in many folk writing.  The pagoda sits on the Hà Khê hill, in the ward of Hương Long in Huế. It is approximately 3 kilometers away from the Citadel and it sits on the northern bank of the Perfume River. 

This is us, enjoying every bit of Hué! 

My partner and I definitely had an amazing time in Hué. Until the next Vietnam adventures! 


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