Despite having only about 300,000 residents, Hue (sounds like “way”) is one of the most famous cities in Vietnam. It was the nation’s capital for 143 years—the seat of the 13 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, who ruled Vietnam (with ever-increasing involvement from French colonizers) from 1802 to 1945. It was the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War, following the 1968 Tet Offensive. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993. And it’s widely considered to be the birthplace of some of the best food in Vietnam.
What drew us there, besides the good food, was the chance to see the remains of the emperors’ court. This consisted of a city within a city within a city: the citadel of Hue (a vibrant capital), enclosing the imperial city (where court officials oversaw imperial business and ceremonies), enclosing in turn the “forbidden purple city” (a complex of private buildings, similar to Beijing’s Forbidden City, that only the emperor and his immediate family and servants were allowed to enter). All three of those nested cities were surrounded by walls, though only the first two sets of walls still exist.
Photos from the late 1800s and early 1900s on display in the imperial city show a lavish life like something out of the movie “The Last Emperor.” The court was buzzing with vast numbers of officials, servants, concubines, soldiers, musicians, horses, and elephants, many ornately dressed. We thought some of the emperors at the heart of this hubbub (especially those who ascended the throne as children) looked isolated and lonely. Their lives were highly regulated and rigidly ceremonial. Their lofty position made friendship difficult. And they bore the heavy weight of responsibility, through their religious rites, for the spiritual and material prosperity of their nation.
One important task for every Vietnamese emperor was to choose the site and design of his mausoleum. More than just a tomb, this was a place where future generations could honor the emperor and where his surviving concubines and eunuchs could live out their days in peace and quiet away from the court. The green hills around Hue are dotted with these tombs.
We visited two, which serve almost as bookends for the dynasty: those of the second and the second-to-last Nguyen emperors. The two mausoleums are strikingly different from one another, reflecting the emperors who created them. Minh Mang, who ruled from 1820 to 1841, was an isolationist and a traditionalist. His tomb was built in the same Chinese-Vietnamese style as the imperial city in Hue. Its park-like setting reflects Confucian principles of simplicity, order, and harmony. Khai Dinh, who ruled from 1916 to 1925, was widely considered a puppet of the French colonial regime and was enamored of all things French. His tomb is an ornate exercise in personal glorification that feels like a Vietnamese Versailles.
The last Nguyen emperor (Khai Dinh’s son Bao Dai) was ousted after World War II. The wars that swept Vietnam in the following decades left much of Hue in ruins. When the French, the northern Vietnamese communists, and the Americans were done, only about 10 of the original 160 buildings in the imperial citadel were intact. The site lay in ruins for many years, in part because the communist rulers of the newly united Vietnam considered it a relic from a feudal regime, whose ideology they opposed. Policies have changed since then, however, and parts of the citadel and other imperial buildings are slowly being restored.
Nevertheless, tourism isn’t as well developed in Hue as in some other parts of Vietnam. We got the impression that it’s because many Vietnamese are ambivalent about the historic city—uncomfortable that foreigners are drawn to what they consider symbols of a painful, misguided, unenlightened past that they struggled so hard to overcome.