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Ancient City of Hue

Ancient City of Hue
 
 

THE ANCIENT stone city of Hue stood as Vietnam’s capital between 1804 and 1945 when control was handed over to Hanoi. The centre of the city was a forbidden, accessible only to the royals and their closest servants. Decades of neglect and a war have deteriorated many of the buildings, but much of the vast ruins still stand.

Hue
Hue

Beside the Perfume River from the centre of Hue runs a footpath separating the busy road from a peaceful park at the river’s edge. The park was fenced off, but there were a few stalls along the footpath merged into the trees. Each stall was in the open air and selling either plants or animals. The plants were unusual local species looking very healthy in the tropical climate. The animals were all in small cages apart from the fish which were in clear plastic bags. They were all hanging either from the fence, or from the foliage of the trees above our heads. It seemed very strange to see the branches of trees with plastic bags full of water containing colourful fish swimming inside.

We passed a break in the park, where cobblestone paving created a large courtyard in the trees to the river. A two level pagoda stood in solitude about half way to the river. This was where the king’s boat used to be moored, and where dignitaries would moor their boats to visit the emperor.

Artist painting under a tree
Artist painting under a tree

At this point we crossed the road and followed a side road heading away from the river. It was lined with old fig trees with very thick trunks on either side. Although they weren’t very high, the gnarled trunks indicated they must be at least a couple of hundred years old – perhaps they had been planted when the city was constructed. An artist sat painting under one of these ancient trees. He was painting the scene of the park extending out past him and of the large stone building with the huge Vietnamese flag towering above the building. The artist had numerous paintings he had created displayed on small stands around the tree.

Entrance to the Imperial City
Entrance to the Imperial City

The trees abruptly stopped and the road narrowed and crossed a stone bridge spanning a huge moat, some one hundred metres wide fed by the nearby river and encircling a stone wall. The wall surrounded the imperial city, two kilometres wide and two kilometres back. The road was rather treacherous now with no footpath to cross it. The black water filled the moat, but thick weed covered about half of the water especially on the wall side. Had this moat been completely covered in weed before the flood two weeks ago?

The moat ended in a three tiered tower in the wall with an arched entrance going through it. The road now became even narrower. We had to look behind us to make sure there were no vehicles coming, and then we would pass through the tunnel close to the edge in amongst all the motorbikes and get to the other side hopefully before any large vehicles would come through. Paranoid that may sound, but seconds after we passed through, a small truck barely smaller than the tunnel hurtled through behind us.

We were now inside the imperial city. This used to be the centrepiece of Hue when it became Vietnam’s capital in 1802 until 1945 when Hanoi became the capital under communism. Construction of the imperial city commenced in 1804 under the emperor Gia Long, designed under the guidance of Vietnam’s top geomancers.

Cyclo in the Imperial City
Cyclo in the Imperial City

The road continued in the same direction, now with a wide path on either side made from rectangular pavers. We followed the right hand footpath for a few metres to a corrugated iron roofed gazebo structure sheltering four cannons underneath it. The roof was held up by dark rust circular columns, six wide and three deep. The base of each column was an interesting shaped footing. Each cannon had a low wrought iron fence around it and a frame intricately carved. The cannons themselves were very plain. The shaft of the cannon would have been wide enough for me to have slithered into, but there was no way that I was going to crawl inside it.

A man rode past on a cyclo with numerous large boxes in the passenger seat from the footrest all the way up almost high enough to completely obscure his vision. He was obviously on a mission to deliver these boxes somewhere. The contents of the boxes must have been very light as the cyclo appeared to be massively overloaded.

The Cot Co
The Cot Co

Once we had finished posing in front of the cannons, we crossed the road and walked along a large cobblestone paved area along the wall. We walked until we reached the Cot Co - a large stone building with the Vietnamese flag on top. The four corners of the building had an elaborate five light street lamp. The mast itself could have passed as an elegant ship’s mast with some rigging holding it in place. The flag was gently flapping in the slight breeze. I had never seen such a large flag before. The flag itself had an orange background and a yellow star in the middle. The structure supporting the flagpole was rather plain, a flattened three level pyramid with a row of white and blue glazed pots with trees growing in them.

Outside the Ngo Mon
Outside the Ngo Mon

The construction was very intriguing with beams and framework sticking out of the building as if it were still under construction. The lower level was grey stone – probably marble. The upper two levels were timber. A group of Buddhist monks with shaven heads wearing brown and yellow, characteristic of the Mahayana monks, were entering the building.

Once across the road, we crossed a stone bridge going over a second moat that surrounded the buildings. This moat had dirty greenish brown water and lily pads floating over about half of the surface. Lush vegetation surrounded the buildings and moat. The bridge was solid stone apart from a two metre wide circular culvert connecting the pools of stagnant water on either side.

Monks
Monks

Now we were getting closer to the Ngo Mon building, the detail was showing up a lot clearer. This was the building where the emperor came out onto the balcony to deliver his speeches. The timber of the building was in remarkable condition stained in yellow browns and red browns in intricate patterns. The roof seemed to be made from logs, but had amazing marble carvings on the ridges of the roof.

The tower also marked the entrance into the Purple Forbidden City. This is a square within a square. The city itself had a perimeter wall with a circumference of two and a half kilometres. During the reign of the Nguyen emperors, only the emperors, their concubines and a few close to the emperor were allowed to enter. Anyone else entering the Forbidden City was executed. Those days were long past, so we could freely enter.

Our tour leader talking about the city
Our tour leader talking about the city

We walked through the arched entrance and climbed a wide staircase up the back of the building. There we entered the middle level and saw amazing detail in the carving and staining of the timber beams and columns especially near the ceiling. Some of the columns were supported by three large planks with planks of wood across them holding them together. They were in quite a regular array and I couldn’t work out whether they were there as part of the original design, or whether they had been added later as the structure had weakened over time. That I did not know, but I realised the supports had been there for quite a long time. Old paintings of different views of the palace adorned the dark walls. Actually this level had few walls in it as it was open plan to allow the king to deliver his addresses. There were a number of narrow sliding doors that could close the room in if needed. The level above us was completely walled though.

Detail in the roofing
Detail in the roofing

To the right hand side of the floor was a huge bell hanging from the ceiling and coming down to thigh height. It was pretty plain in structure, cylindrical and domed at the top. It would have weighed a good three hundred kilograms and it was intricately carved on the surface.

The view from the front of the tower showed the large courtyard we had crossed, and the moat not far below us. Three bridges crossed the moat with the spaces in between perfect squares. Beyond that was the road we had passed, but I was pretty sure this was only recently created. Beyond the vast courtyard was the large three level square pyramid with the giant flag flying above it. It looked quite a lot taller from up here. The wind had died though, making the flag hang limp.

Looking inside the forbidden city
Looking inside the forbidden city

A different view greeted us from the back of the tower. From here we could see across the Forbidden City. A few elaborately carved signposts stood about ten metres away holding up an array of small white and yellow boards with flowers, musical instruments and dancers painted on them in pastel colours. Beyond that a broad path of grey stones went straight out from the tower towards another building about two hundred metres away – the Hoa Palace. The building had an orange traditional roof on it, in a style similar to the temples I had seen in Japan a couple of years ago. Between the tower and the temple the path passed between two large square ponds of green water.

Hungry fish
Hungry fish

Upon climbing down the stairs from the tower we stopped at the left hand pond. There were a few people already there feeding large golden carp. There were countless thousands of them. They were jumping out of the water and crowding together so much that they were completely out of water. They certainly wouldn’t survive very long like this. They were hungry though, and the most aggressive fish were getting the most food.

I imagined these fish had lived and bred in the ponds for hundreds of years. They had adapted the aggressiveness through survival of the fittest. The most aggressive ones were the ones that were best fed, and therefore they were the ones that survived in this extremely competitive environment.

Totems
Totems

We reached the end of the ponds where we were greeted by a similar totem of poles that we had passed after descending the tower. Both totems were identical. We passed under the totem and climbed a few stone steps to a paved courtyard. On either side of the courtyard at the top of the steps was a small four sided gazebo with a greenish grey stone carved griffin inside it. The griffins appeared quite thin. They faced towards the building we were heading towards, but their heads were turned to face where I was passing. Beyond each griffin the paving stopped giving way to lush uncut grass with large patches of white flowers. About a hundred metres past the start of the grass was a stone wall.

Bonsai
Bonsai
Gardeners
Gardeners

In front of the building stood four formal wineglass urns with large white and blue glazed pots on top. Each pot had a bonsai tree standing about a metre tall. Now I thought you only find bonsai in Japan, but I was starting to be proved wrong on that one. These trees were even shaped like the small trees in Japanese gardens.

Golden griffins
Golden griffins

We walked closer to the building. The gardens here were immaculate and very beautiful. There were two Vietnamese gardeners with their distinctive conical straw hats busily maintaining the plants with utmost of care as if they were performing a religious ceremony. They worked amongst two gold plated fat griffin statues that blended in well with the lush green foliage amongst which they perpetually stood.

I looked at the building before me. The roof was similar in construction as the tower where the kings of old had delivered their messages. The carvings in the ridges were a lot more elaborate though. They were clearly recognisable as dragons. Each dragon was very beautifully carved from wood and stained several colours to blend in perfectly with the logging on the roof. The roof itself had two levels. The lower level gradually sloped upwards. Above it was a short vertical rise with patterned paintings on it. Above that was the upper level of log roofing, but a lot steeper at about forty degrees.

Garden in the forbidden city
Garden in the forbidden city

The building was the Hoa Palace – the emperor’s throne room otherwise known as the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The throne itself was gold plated and incredibly well carved. There were numerous things positioned around the throne room. I’m sure they would have all represented something very important to the Vietnamese royal culture.

Behind the temple stood a large courtyard. The first thing I saw was a large square concrete block about three square metres standing on its end. It was fenced off for construction work. The front of the block was divided into four with a large Chinese symbol embossed into it. As I walked around the block I could see there was a large statue of a gold plated griffin that had been upended for maintenance. What did those characters on the base mean? There must be some importance to these characters as they are not seen when the status is placed the right way up. I imagined other statues and perhaps pots would have similar symbology under their bases.

Field where buildings were destroyed during the war
Field where buildings were destroyed during the war

A large metal cauldron with engraved patterns carved in the inside of the bowl sat near the middle of the courtyard. A paved garden extended out from either side of the courtyard. Each garden had trees and a lot of well positioned foliage.

From there we left the courtyard heading westward past a fairly small lawn area with squares of very low hedges surrounding flower beds until we passed under another totem to follow a three metre wide paved avenue between fairly young trees. Looking through the trees to our left was a large field of green grass. The grass was unmown and a bit clumpy, but otherwise it was in excellent condition and very lush, certainly not with the scragginess expected from overgrown grass. There were large patches of white flowers sprinkled amongst the grass like snow. This field would have housed more buildings in the Forbidden City, but they had long perished. The French army had bombed most of the city in 1947 and pillaged all the treasures from within. Much of what was left was bombed during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The invasion here was so significant that the Forbidden City became the symbolic epicentre of the war.

Flagpole
Flagpole
Gateway
Gateway

What was left of the Forbidden City was now well looked after and renovated by the locals mainly for tourism, but this field provided a stark reminder that most of the city was lost forever in the war.

Large couldrons
Large cauldrons

A creamy orange wall surrounded the field, with a couple of fancy pagoda archway gates allowing access to whatever lay beyond. We passed a couple of small market stalls under large colourful umbrellas before we reached an intersection. We continued going straight ahead, but there were now walls on either side under the trees. The path and the walls went a long way ahead of us, visually merging to as far as the eye could see.

We walked past a single pagoda gate, with the red arched door closed. The pagoda was brightly coloured yellow, blue and red, and had embossed carvings on the pillars on either side. The small panels holding up each layer of roofing had carvings of birds, dragons and fish.

Gateway
Gateway

There was another old stone pagoda in the wall on the other side of the path. This one had three arched entrances and was showing signs of hundreds of years of erosion from the lichens and black moulds sluggishly eating its way into the rock in the hundreds of years since it had been built. We walked through it and saw a similar path passing between trees and decaying walls for about two hundred metres to a very large two storey pagoda.

Passing through a simple entrance through the wall to our left led us into an intriguing bonsai garden. There were many low hedges and plants laid out in a random array in amongst large pots containing bonsai trees and interesting marble formations eroded into shapes similar to those I’ve seen on Takaka Hill in New Zealand. Perhaps they have marble formations around here too. I had never seen pots containing marble formations with bonsai trees growing over the natural form of the sharp rocks.

Temple
Temple

We walked around to the front of another temple. The pots were all in immaculate condition, each with a very healthy young fan palm in it. These pots must be quite recent given they were in such good condition and the plants were only a couple of years old. Each pot was glazed white with elaborate blue glazed circular dragon designs, with the head in the upper middle of the design. The dragon had a very long body with scales clearly showing, and it had designs around it which seemed to represent tiny clouds. Perhaps this was meant to be a dragon in the sky? Each pot was standing on an elaborate tall concrete base that had signs of erosion. The six pots were aligned in perfect symmetry across the front of the building.

Marble ballustrade
Marble ballustrade

After briefly resting here we crossed the stone courtyard. To each side stood a small metal trough on legs, with an unknown purpose. It had a high handle at one end, and a lot of carving all over the container, legs and handle.

Across the other side was the most elaborate gate entrance I had seen so far. It had three arched entrances, each with a solid timber two way opening door. Only the middle door was open. The roof had four pagoda layers, and it was all carved into the yellow, red and blue painted timber structure.

This gate led out to a narrow one metre wide cobblestone path going off in either direction. This path had fancy traditional lamp posts to illuminate it by night. We walked down this path for a couple of minutes before arriving at another garden with large ceramic bowls on crude stone pedestals. These bowls had large eroded marble blocks in them, positioned to the natural erosion. They were sitting in water with small plants growing on them. They were like miniature island rocks, resembling the solemn monoliths of Halong Bay.

Avenue
Avenue

We walked past the large field we had passed on the other side before arriving arrived back at the huge courtyard with the giant flagpole on top of the stone structure. We walked back to the dangerous tunnel and passed through safely and along the busy street, across the bridge and back towards the hotel.

Although much of the Imperial City had been destroyed in the Vietnam War, what was left had been faithfully restored as a reminder of the capital city that had stood for over a century before communism took over.

Story from today:
Forbidden City of the Nguyen Dynasty

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14 October 2009

 

Hue

Vietnam

 

16°31'N
107°35'E

10m ASL

 

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