Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Citadel and The Imperial City at Hue

Often referred to as ‘ancient’, Hue’s Citadel is not all that old. Built over thirty years in the early part of the 1800s, the Citadel encompasses three ‘courts’ covering approximately 2 square miles. The outer court is surrounded by massive brick walls, ten meters thick in places. The outer court is mainly open green spaces. There are ten 'gates' built into the massive brick walls. The gates are arched openings through the walls covering narrow roads entering the Citadel. The Citadel complex is located on the northern side of the Perfume River at the old city of Hue. In front of the Citadel is a very large high flat stone structure which is called a flag tower. Not sure why it is called a tower because it is much larger in horizontal directions than vertical.

The buildings comprising the three inner courts are in varying degrees of decay. In 2007 a Korean company was contracted to oversee the refurbishing of the decaying buildings. We were unable to determine if this agreement was with a South Korean company or a North Korean company. We were also unable to find out why this restoration is something that could not have been handled by the Vietnamese themselves.

Whatever the contractual details involving this restoration project, it is massive and appearances indicate that it is being conducted very well. We saw how damaged the buildings are in their decayed state and we saw a few buildings that were beautifully restored. The colorful detailed facades are incredible. On the left is shown a wall panel pre-restoration. On the right is another wall panel post-restoration.

The old wooden doors and ceilings and walls are in the process of being meticulously refinished. Some long halls are in the process of having new gold leaf or silver leaf applied to all the carved designs. These workers are true craftsmen.

The Imperial City, built along the same lines as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, was the country's administrative center. Senior mandarins, court officers and civil servants would have entered by the ‘Ngo Mon’ (noon gate). Directly behind are the Dai Trieu Nghi (great rites courtyard) and the Thai Hoa Palace (throne hall) where the Emperor would meet foreign rulers and emissaries, high-ranking ministers and other dignitaries.

At the heart of the Imperial City was the ‘Tu Cam Thanh’ (Forbidden Purple City). Only members of the royal family, the Emperor’s concubines, and trusted senior mandarins and officers such as the royal doctor were allowed through the sole entry gate to the Forbidden Purple City. Inside were various palaces and the Emperor’s private apartments. Photo at right is the library building.

Less than a third of the structures originally built inside the citadel remain today. The French army shelled the buildings, and removed or destroyed nearly all the treasures. Later, most of the buildings in the Forbidden City were destroyed by fire in 1947.

Further destruction occurred when Hue’s Citadel became the symbolic epicenter of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Major artillery battles were fought when the Viet Cong overran Hue and when the US forces finally recaptured the citadel 25 days later. The Citadel was the site of the infamous Massacre at Hue committed by the communists. After the war's conclusion, many of the historic features of Hue (including the Citadel) were neglected, being seen by the victorious regime as 'relics from the feudal regime.' The Vietnamese Communist Party doctrine officially describes the Nguyen Dynasty as 'feudal and reactionary.' But there has since been a change of policy and some parts of the historic city of Hue have been restored. Maybe the government today realizes the potential significant benefits of blossoming tourism to the economy of this country.

Despite more than fifty years of decay and attrition, the Citadel is still imposing. The recent renovation work has restored several of its buildings to their previous glory. In front of the Hien Cam Lac, an elegant three-level pavilion, are nine large bronze urns, each dedicated to one of the Nguyen Emperors. The largest urn being that of Emperor Gia Long, who was the builder of the citadel and founder of the empire. Construction of the Citadel was begun by Emperor Gia Long in 1805 and completed in 1832.

Nearby is the Thé Temple. It contains altars commemorating ten of the Nguyen rulers. The other three Nguyen rulers are not commemorated because two were considered too friendly with the French during their colonial rule of Vietnam. The third non-commemorated Nguyen ruler died in exile in France.

The day we visited the Citadel on our motorcycle tour there was much hustle and bustle as the local population prepared for an annual festival to be held on March 28. In front of the flag tower were large groups of people practicing for their participation in the upcoming festival. I strongly suspect that this festival is some sort of military exhibition for the local population. There were several large groups of what appeared to be teenagers practicing marching and group formation movements. Another large group of women were in formation and marching and drilling with guns. A large group of men were behind the women and also in formation but had no guns. Whatever this festival is all about, I am glad we won't be here that day. This is not something that appeals to me on any level.

One thing that did appeal was watching 2 little girls standing on the sidewalk inside the Citadel between the Imperial City walls and the Flag Tower. They were watching the groups of people drilling for the upcoming festival and were eating ice creams. They could have been 2 little girls anywhere in the world. Some things don't change regardless of which country you are in.

Also, all around Hue we have seen these bicycle rickshaws...for lack of a better descriptive term. These supposedly seat 2 people. Well....maybe 2 Vietnamese might fit into that seat, but no way would Bill and I fit. We have politely declined each time someone has tried to sell us a bicycle rickshaw ride. Seems like they would realize that we can't fit that seat. And they must be nuts for wanting to peddle around 2 people as heavy as we are!

Today we are lounging around the hotel all morning. Check-out time is noon. We will check luggage and head out for a lunch, possibly of the local soup called Bun Bo Hue as it sounds tasty. By the way, because of the angle of the central coast of Vietnam to the prevailing winds Hue receives most of its rainfall during the northeast monsoon season between October and December, but rain does fall year heavily round. Average annual rainfall in Hue is 120 inches, which makes Hue one of the very wettest of all Asian cities. We lucked out that our plans brought us to Hue during the driest time of year. Our flight to Hanoi is later this afternoon. Time to move on!

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