A Citadel within a Citadel
Imagine a citadel within a citadel and you will find yourself in the Imperial Enclosure of the former cultural and political Vietnamese capital, Hue. The vast palace complex is surrounded by a moat and protected by a fortified wall, reminiscent of Japanese castles, so it is a fascinating place to visit with kids. Once home to the emperor’s temples and other palaces it was badly destroyed in the Vietnam war, however, recent restoration efforts have turned parts of the Imperial Enclosure back to its former glory.
We had cycled into town from our hotel and made our way towards the entrance gate (there is only one!), the Ngo Mon Gate, where we found the ticket office. There are two types of tickets available, one for the Imperial Closure and a combined ticket that covers some of the larger, more popular tombs outside of the city along the Perfume River. Our plan was to visit some of the tombs the following day and therefore purchased the combined ticket. Taking the bridge across the moat we stood in front of the impressive Ngo Mon Gate that somehow reminded Jerome of the castles we have seen during our travels in Japan. The central passageway used to be reserved solely for the emperor and even today visitors have to take one of the side entrance to set foot inside the Imperial Enclosure. The gate is topped with a belvedere of phoenixes and a huge drum and bell. Sadly we were not allowed to make our way to the top of the gate.
Thai Hoa Palace
A short stroll between the koi ponds led us straight to the Thai Hoa Palace. This hall was used for the emperor’s official receptions and ceremonies. The building is adorned with colourful tiles and dragons on the roof, the red lacquered doors showed the wear of time but the rows of yellow lanterns made up for the rough beauty of the structure. Inside the walls were covered in red and yellow walls and golden ornaments on the ceilings.
War Damage of the Imperial Enclosure
Most people take an anti-clockwise route through the grounds. Instead we turned left towards to the Mieu Temple Complex. On the way we passed a sight that was still in a state of utter disrepair, obviously not considered as important as other parts of the Imperial Enclosure. It was interesting to see the devastation caused by war, the destructed masonry, rubble and nature taking over with weeds and trees growing from cracks and holes in the ruins.
The Mieu Temple Complex
On the other hand, the Mieu Temple Complex was less damaged and has been beautifully restored and houses two large temples, plus a smaller one, all built in similar styles. To be honest only certain features stick in my mind, like the cold concrete tiles, that were pleasant to walk across in bare feet (shoes need to be taken off to enter) and the glossy, scarlet doors…The rest is all jumbled into one memory. Jerome was fascinated by the large bronze bell and two dragons that appeared to be trapped in giant London phone boxes. The urns of the Ngyuen rulers seemed to be another clear memory from this area of the Enclosure.
The Dien Tho Residence
Next up was one of my favourite sections of the complex, the apartments and hall of the Queen Mother, the Dien Tho Residence. Inside the hall we found an exhibition of photos and intricately embroidered dresses, but the lotus pond with its pleasure pavilion stole my heart. I could well imagine sitting there for hours, book in hand, sipping a cool jasmine tea and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.
The Co Ha Gardens
Jerome instead liked the Co Ha Gardens, adjacent to the residence. These delightful gardens were almost deserted and we enjoyed wandering across the bridge and along its paths. Grateful for the shade the weeping willows provided on our short circle of the ground, past pretty pavilions and picturesque ponds.
The Forbidden Purple City
At the centre of the Imperial Enclosure we stumbled onto the Forbidden Purple City or I should say, what is left of it today. Long ago it was another magnificent citadel, within the citadel and only the emperor was allowed to use the site, served by eunuchs that would not pose a threat to the royal courtesans.
The Hall of the Mandarins
The Hall of the Mandarins is another part that sticks in my mind from our visit to the palace. Walking along the long passage that led us to the heart of the hall were historical documents, paintings and fascinating photos of the 200 years of history of the Imperial Enclosure and the Nguyen dynasty. I could see though that Jerome was getting weary of the documentation of a bygone era and he rushed us through the remaining structures. Somehow I still managed to get some photos of the atmospheric halls, with the sunlight streaming through the openings in the red and golden doors.
The Royal Theatre
A peek into the Royal Theatre was enough for us to satisfy our curiosity. It serves as a performance and exhibition hall and performances are regularly held and can be enjoyed against additional fees but seemed a little bit too modernised.
Discarded Ornaments and Decorations
We jointly agreed that it was time to finish our tour, the heat was getting to our heads and we were desperate for a cool, refreshing drink. Near the exit gate we discovered a discarded pile of roof ornaments, dragons and other figures among them. They must have been deemed unfit for further display on the roofs and left to decay. I somehow felt sad that they had been replaced by copies and not kept in place despite the missing shine.
Souvenirs to Take Home
Shortly after, near the exit gate, we reached a section with souvenir shops and an area where visitors could get hands on and create their own memorabilia. This was undoubtedly Jerome’s favourite part of the entire time in the Imperial Enclosure. He got to paint his own non la (cone hat) against a very reasonable fee of 70.000 VND, he even had two locals help him with the paints. Dragons have always been a special animal to him and considering the status of the mystical animal in Vietnamese culture, he decided to decorate his hat with a red dragon. It turned out to be a small masterpiece and everyone involved was impressed and Jerome was very happy. We were surprised to find that he would wear the hat during the rest of our stay in Vietnam, almost daily.
Exiting the Imperial Enclosure
Leaving the complex through the rustic exit gate we headed straight to Café Gac Man Re, where we had been able to park our bicycles against purchasing some drinks earlier that day. We chose one of the low tables next to the pavement and had a small, but tasty lunch of Vietnamese style pizza and noodle soup. Over food we chose to take a different route to return to our hotel, through the outskirts of Hue. You can read all about our adventurous bike ride in the following post…
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