The Perfume River gently flows from the nearby Ngu Binh mountain, across the heart of Hue city and past its imperial palace. With its total territory smaller than Hong Kong’s, Hue seems to possess less allure than other cities in Vietnam at first glimpse. However, nowhere else in the country, alongside Hue, is much better to illustrate the royal livings during the dynastic rule ended decades ago. While the contemporary capital of Vietnam is Hanoi, and myriads of us are familiarised with Ho Chi Minh City, the emperors of Nguyen dynasty, who were the last imperial rulers, regarded Hue as their home from 1802 to 1945.
Gone were the turbulent warlord eras when Emperor Gia Long soared to power after Tay Son Rebellion, proclaiming Hue the capital of his newly-founded Nguyen Dynasty amidst 1802, taking the name of the unified nation “Viet Nam” first ever in history. The location of this imperial capital wasn’t merely for natural beauty, but also was compatible with the principles of feng shui (geomacy) during the construction in 1804, with southern mountain acting as a screen to distant inauspicious spirits and the river laying the posture of an undulating dragon and sitting tiger as protectors. As we strolled around the square-shaped capital citadel, we were utterly intrigued by the gorgeous architectural style of this grand fortress-palace, which looks similar to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
Outside, three circles of ramparts and a ten-kilometre moat, along with thick earthen walls, all stretch along the main axis from the south to north symmetrically that are bounded to the palace. Opposite to the flag tower that looms the bright red national flag, Ngo Mon, the main entrance, comprises of five gates, with the central gate being restricted to everyone except the emperor; while the two adjacent ones were exclusively for royal families and court officials at the backdrop of green trees curves and emerald turf. When passing rows of fragrant lilies along the path as the sun drowns itself to the horizon, you will be amazed by such charming beauty of the citadel walls under gold sunbeams and swirls of rosy clouds. It is a splendid place where you could delve to the world of serenity and stillness, a place where you start immersing in the authenticity of the Vietnamese imperial life.
The innermost fort of the royal complex covers a spacious area of 520ha, housing the emperor’s residence with curved eaves and coloured-glaze roofs. An intricate maze of wooden pagodas and palaces with windows of exquisite design and flowery patterns was also seen, as well as elegant courtyards craved with intertwined dreamy clouds and dragons that served as the administrative core of Nguyen Dynasty. One, which was the Thai Hoa Palace that was completed in 1833 under the reign of Emperor Minh Mang, immediately prompted us to wow with amazement. With monolithic ironwood columns painted in 12 brilliant scarlet and gold lacquers, you would barely imagine how stunning the palace was when the emperor standing from his elevated throne just two centuries ago, joyously greeting seas of officials and privileged guests there during the grand ceremony.
Beyond the Thai Hoa Palace lies the Hall of the Mandarins where the officials prepared for the ceremonial occasions in a beautifully restored hall in a light shade of blue. To the next of the Palace is the Thi Duong House, a rectangular-shaped Royal Theatre where the emperor and families were being entertained by the traditional lively dances, royal music and tuong opera performances. While on each column hung an attractive painting of Hue scenery in a golden frame supported by two rows of iron-wood and red lacquered columns. To further explore the royal living quarters, I took pleasure in visiting the partially ruined Dien Tho Residence, once as the apartments and audience hall of the Queen Mothers, is now fruitfully filled with photo exhibitions and multifarious displays of royal garments.
Not only did the palace architecture look alike to the Chinese Forbidden City in Beijing, but also the ruling belief of the emperors during the founding of Nguyen Dynasty. Confucian values, which the Vietnamese have traditionally prescribed to, has been placed great weight into the rule. Emperor was bestowed as the Mandate of Heaven and citizens thereby owed him total allegiance. To cement such traditional belief, Emperor Minh Mang, the successor of Emperor Gia Long, extended his profound antipathy towards the French occupation and the spread of Catholicism, which was regarded as a menace to Confucianism. Aspired to expand the sweeping influence of the Dynasty, he pushed westward to Cambodia, seized Laos’ territory and clashed with the Khmer empire in Thailand, eventually regarding these neighbours as vassal tributary states with Vietnam.
The more prosperous the Nguyen Dynasty was, the more magnificent the imperial palace appeared. Strolling near to three-tiered Hien Lam Pavilion, our eyes gazed with wonder in the Mieu Temple as we meandered near to the sumptuous carpets and fabrics, each richly furnished with an ornamented bed and blanketed with golden glaze and red lacquer, as well as an altar showcasing portraits of emperors for worshipping. Traditional decorations illustrating the local landscapes and classic motifs of sun and moons, were all stamped on the sides of the bronze urns outside. The line of giant Nine Dynastic Urns, each dedicated to a particular emperor, represents the power of Nguyen throne.
The glory of the Nguyen Dynasty, nevertheless, faded after the death of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor and due to the gradual creep of French colonisation. Despite Emperor Tu Duc’s concessions of three eastern provinces to France, France’s ambition for establishing its colonial territories did not waver by conquering the rest of Vietnam in 1867, and the city as well as the entire nation, hence, falling as the French protectorate of Annam until 1945. Equally critical was the occurrence of a succession crisis after the reign of Tu Duc as the murders of three emperors were orchestrated that prompted the French to gain a direct grasp of the monarchy. Although most of the successors continued to live in a lap of extravagance in the palace, their throne was merely symbolic. Yet, instead of indulging themselves to lavish lifestyles while conforming to French governance, some, like Emperor Duy Tan, the 12th emperor, planned a general uprising, albeit unsuccessful to get rid of being a puppet of French colonial rule.
By the time when the last Emperor abdicated the throne in 1945 and transferred power to Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party, the palace was decorated with a labyrinth of aesthetic pavilions and hundreds of plushy rooms. Yet, misfortunes never come alone with a period of turmoil that took a tragic toll on the palace. For one thing, Vietnam’s independence did not dampen France to make a comeback for the control in Vietnam by triggering the First Indochina War, leaving Can Chanh Palace into substantial destruction. For another, the imperial enclosure was, once again, brutally bombed and blasted into rubles and ruins with only a fraction of it survived in 1968, during which the American forces in Vietnam were militarily reacting to the communist takeover of Hue, just miles separating from the Demilitarized Zone.
No matter how the palace being acclaimed as the centerpiece of intellectual and imperial power during the heydays of Nguyen Dynasty, or the gradual creep of French colonization seizing control of Hue, when arrived, all you need to is to open your eyes, have a fascinating glance onto such feudal relics of immense cultural values and classical beauty that survived after the bloody wars. Yet despite such indelible historical experiences, local citizens, and particularly university students, the future pillars of Hue, remain optimistic towards the current development of their beloved place and nation. If there is a city to connect with Vietnam’s complicated past and its bright future, Hue would surely be the one. ♦