Discovering Indochina–Huế, Vietnam


Next on our adventure of discovery was Huế in central Vietnam. The only thing I knew about Huế was of a Tet offensive during the Vietnamese War. Huế was the major city of South Vietnam that was closest to North Vietnam, and so was the scene of many horrific conflicts. Our visit to Huế had nothing to do with this, though. Rather it was focused on Huế as the capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty, which dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. 

In 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh succeeded in establishing his control over the whole of Vietnam, thereby making Huế the national capital. Huế remained as the national capital until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dại abdicated and a communist government was established in Hanoi, in the north, with Ho Chi Minh as its leader. The national capital had previously been located in Huế, since it was about at the center of the nation formed of North, Central and South Vietnam. Being in the center, during this era in which the fastest communication was by riders on horses, meant that this location was the best place for command and control of the far-flung territories.

There are a number of notable sites from this period of the Nguyen dynasty. We are to visit three of these today: the Imperial City, the tomb of Emperor Tự Đức, and the Thien Mu Pagoda. Then tonight we are to have a “Royal Dinner,” whatever that is.

We got off the overnight train from Hanoi. I think most of the group was tired, since sleeping on the train, with regular stops, was interrupted, and not so good. I found it better than the one Indian overnight train I have been on; I got at least a few hours sleep.


We walked out of the station, through a parking lot …


to a nice private bus that was waiting for us. This would be our transport for today.


We were first taken to our hotel to freshen up.


The room was nice, well appointed, clean and cool. All you could ask for. After a bit of rest and a change of clothes, we got back on the bus for today’s touring.


The Imperial City

First up was ‘The Citadel,’ – a local name – better known as The Imperial City. The Imperial City of Huế is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Approaching it, first we see the Flag Tower. 


Other people coming to tour this site came in Vietnamese cyclos, a one-seater bicycle-powered rickshaw. These bicycle rickshaws take different forms in different places. In Vietnam they are mainly these type shown below with the driver pushing a single rider.


We first come to the Ngọ Môn Gate, also known as the Gate of Noon, the main gate to the Imperial City. It was used by the sovereign as an observation point for troop movements and ceremonies.

The Imperial City was also called ‘The Forbidden City’ or ‘Purple Forbidden City’ since only the emperor, his family, selected mandarins, palace guards, and palace staff were allowed inside. Where we will go today was forbidden for most of the history of this site.


The gate is divided into two levels: the stone and brick fortress-like base structure, and the more elaborate, palace-like upper level.

The ground level has five entrances, of which the center one was always reserved for the monarch’s use only. The two, slightly smaller, side entrances were reserved for mandarins (Imperial administrators, advisors and bureaucrats, usually selected by imperial examination, as in China), soldiers and horses. The two small arched entrances on either side were for elephants, and commoners.

The upper level consists of a grand pavilion, called the Lầu Ngũ Phụng (“Five-Phoenix Pavilion.” The phoenix is called by the Chinese – and thus the Vietnamese–the "immortal bird.” It is one of the most-respected legendary creatures and the feminine counterpart to the dragon.) From the main hall, the emperor would watch troop movements and his subjects paying homage. The pavilion’s roof is covered with yellow glazed ceramic tiles. On the roof tiles are various animals and creatures to ward off evil. The main hall is flanked by two side pavilions, which were reserved for members of the court.

These buildings and grounds are very much in the Chinese style. This shows how thoroughly the Chinese ideas had overwhelmed the original Vietnamese ones; when building the highest set of buildings in the land, the style was clearly Chinese.  


Above the area where the emperor would have stood is now a picture of Ho Chi Minh.

The emperor’s gate, and the two mandarin gates, are seen on the ground level.


A moat surrounds the Imperial City. The city is square, 2 Km to a side.


One of the side pavilions, seen from ground level.


In one side pavilion is this giant drum, in the other side is a similarly-sized bell. They must have been used to ‘drum in’ some kind of important people.


From the Emperor’s Pavilion on the Ngọ Mon Gate, looking inside the Imperial City towards the Thái Hòa palace.


A small procession goes by, featuring an elephant. From the yellow clothes being worn, the people must represent the emperor. Only he was allowed to wear yellow. Only his buildings were allowed yellow walls or roofs.


One of the figures on the Ngọ Mon Gate roof. I think this is a dragon, from the serpentine body.


Crossing the bridge over the moat, going towards the Thái Hòa palace. This is also known as the “Hall of Supreme Harmony.”


There are many brightly colored carp in the water.


A lovely bonsai tree. This looks pretty old.


Dragons on the roof of the Thái Hòa palace. These are Vietnamese dragons, so they emit water, not fire. They help instead of hurt.


Outside the entrance to the palace are these stones. They were gathering points for mandarins. When the emperor held audiences, mandarins would queue up here, in order of their rank. High ranked ones would stand at the stone closest to the palace, and lower ranked ones would stand at stones further away, in descending order.


Inside the palace, the emperor’s throne.


Outside the palace, deeper into the grounds. The central buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam war.

I think this is another dragon, given the long serpentine tail.  But there’s no water coming out of his mouth.


Palace buildings surround the now-empty square.


In one of the buildings is a museum of palace objects, like dinner ware, tea services, wine jars, etc.




Next to the museum was an art gallery, with paintings for sale.


Many had Buddhist themes. Many were typical Vietnamese scenes.


Buddha heads are also seen in many paintings.


The central area was surrounded by long covered walkways, brightly painted with red lacquer.


There are many pleasant places to sit.


These walkways surround another open square where there once was a major imperial building, destroyed in the Vietnamese war.




In the back part of the grounds there are gardens, and structures like this small pavilion.


Grassy areas, with walkways going through.


Reconstruction work is going on in many places.


Another long covered walkway leads to Dien Tho, the Queen Mother’s Residence.


Inside the front gate of the Queen Mother’s residence.


On the grounds of the Queen Mother’s residence.


On the grounds, many places are marked by plaques, giving the name for the specific building, and providing some history of it.

Here is the story of the Dien Tho Palace, with its two palaces, several pavilions, and covered corridor system.


The sign in front of Ta Tra Building, the Queen Mother’s Waiting Hall.


The inside of Ta Tra, with beautiful wood construction, cooling dark wood. Tables and chairs at which to sit while waiting. I am sure you would be served tea, etc.


Furnishings within Ta Tra Building.


Another view within the grounds of the Queen Mother’s residence.


A dragon is on the roof, and ornamentation on the end of the building.


Walking in one of the covered corridors of Dien Tho Palace.


Within the grounds of Dien Tho Palace, there is the Phuoc Tho Temple.


The temple is being reconstructed.


Yellow ceramic tiles for the roof lay around in piles.


It is midday. The worker needs a rest.


The Queen Mother had such a nice palace! On her grounds was also the Truong Du Pavilion, her ‘Pleasure Pavilion’.


The Pleasure Pavilion features this nice building, surrounded on three side by water, lily pads, and brightly colored fish.


This landscaped island is one of the features of the pond.


The view from within the pavilion.


Ornamentation on a roof top. This is a drain spout.


Below is Richard, in front of the main gate into the Queen Mother’s residence.

Though this was a wonderful residence, when the old emperor died, and the new one started to rule, the old Queen Mother is supplanted by the mother of the new emperor. A new queen rules this palace and enjoys the Pleasure Pavilion. The old queen is no more in a position of great privilege.


We are leaving the Queen Mother’s residence by the main gate. Note again that the center gate is only for the Emperor. I wonder, did his mother get to use it, too?


Outside the gates, high walls enclose palace grounds, and a pleasant tree-lined road stretches out in front of us.


This is, I think, one of the gates out of the Imperial City. I think it is one of the main gates, because of the three openings going through it. I think this was only done for the main gates.


We visit more parts of the Forbidden City grounds. There seem to be many gates. I think they like these gates. These need to be repainted.

Carol is in a pink saree, taking a photo.


The same gate from the other side. The light is better, so the colors stand out more.


There are a number of temples (Confucian) within the Purple Forbidden City. The To Mieu Temple is perhaps the foremost one. It pays respect to each of the Nguyen Emperors.


Here is the front of the To Mieu Temple. To enter you must remove your shoes.


Altars are set up for each emperor. Each altar has a picture of him. Recent ones were photographs, older ones were drawings. I think some personal effects of the emperor may have been included, too.



Nearby there is another pavilion that features nine cauldrons, one for each emperor.

The Hien Lam Cac Pavilion (“Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity”) was built in 1821-22 in memory of the mandarins who served the Nguyen dynasty. At 13m in height, this is the tallest building in the Citadel. It is interesting to me that the tallest building in the Imperial City was built to honor the mandarins.

ScreenHunter_01 Mar. 14 15.47

In front of the pavilion stand the nine dynastic urns, which were cast in bronze in 1835-37 and which each weigh between 2 and 2.5 tons. Each urn is dedicated to an emperor, symbolizing one of his qualities.


This is the gateway to the Hien Lam Cac Pavilion.


Here is a Vietnamese water-spewing dragon that decorates the gate.


A wall, held up by supports. Reconstruction is a big effort here.


Finished with the morning tour, we stop for lunch, at the Golden Rice Restaurant.


These meals with the group are fun, and we are always taken to interesting places to eat.


Next is a visit to one of the Imperial Tombs in Huế, the Tu Duc Tomb.


One thing different about the set of tombs in Huế is that they were built by the emperor himself, not after his death. Not only were they built during his reign, but Emperor Tự Đức used it as his primary residence for many years.

History of Emperor Tự Đức

Emperor Tự Đức (22 September 1829 – 17 July 1883) (full name: Nguyễn Phúc Hồng Nhậm, also Nguyễn Phúc Thì) was the fourth emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam and reigned from 1847–1883.

Tự Đức is considered by many the last emperor of Vietnam. Tự Đức  was selected by his father, emperor Thiệu Trị, over his oldest brother, who normally, per Confucius’ teachings, should have been selected. Thiệu Trị had passed over his more moderate eldest son, Hồng Bảo, to give the throne to Tự Đức, known for his staunch Confucianism, dislike of foreigners, and innovation. There was much opposition to this, and during the reign of Tự Đức there were many small rebellions, over succession and over taxes.

Emperor Tự Đức continued the policies of his predecessors, shutting Vietnam off from the outside world and refusing all efforts to modernize the country. Accounts of his personal life show a gentle and educated man, but his policies brought on conflict with Europe that Vietnam could not win. He oppressed all foreigners in Vietnam, especially the Christian community, who had frequently tried to overthrow his ancestors, such as in the Le Van Khoi revolt. He called their religion a "perverse doctrine.” The Christian mandarin Nguyen Truong To, tried to convince Tự Đức that this was a suicidal policy, but he did not listen, confident that France was too involved with the chaos in Europe in 1848 to respond. But he was mistaken.

France responded with a large military expeditionary force and attacked up from southern Vietnam. The Nguyễn army fought bravely for some time, but their antiquated weapons and tactics were no match for the French, who suffered more from the climate and disease than from enemy resistance. With French forces moving closer against him, Tự Đức called upon his Chinese over-lord, the Qing Emperor, for help, and so ensued the Sino-French War. The fighting around Hanoi against China ended with France victorious and China gave up their position as feudal master of Vietnam and recognized France as the ruling power over the region.

In the end, Emperor Tự Đức, fearing revolt and his likely execution, sided with the French, gave them a colony in South Vietnam, Cochinchina, to be a French colony and accepted the status of a French protectorate for his country. He was denounced by some in Vietnam for this, and I think regretted the decision. At his death in 1883 it is said that he died cursing the French.

Emperor Tự Đức  enjoyed the longest reign of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty. Tu Duc began planning his tomb long before his death in 1883. The major portions of the tomb complex were completed from 1864-67, along with future temple buildings that served as a palatial retreat for Tu Duc and his many wives during his lifetime. Construction of the tomb demanded so much corvee labor (unpaid work from the lower classes, ordered by the emperor) and extra taxation that there was an abortive coup against Tu Duc in 1866. This was put down, and for the remainder of his life, Tu Duc continued to use the tomb’s palace buildings as his place of residence.

Visiting the tomb of Emperor Tự Đức

After walking a bit, the grounds open into a peaceful body of water, Luu Khiem Lake, a man-made lake created for the emperor. There are two structures on the near shore of Luu Khiem Lake – Du Khiem boat landing and Xung Khiem pavilion, both of which are partially visible in the image below. (Du Khiem is the structure closer; Xung Khiem is the pavilion some distance off)


The water is at the front of the grounds, but it does not seem to be a moat, surrounding all sides.


The first area we head for is the Stele Pavilion. We are now in the “Honor Courtyard” (Bai Dinh).


In the Honor Courtyard are life-sized stone figures, high-ranked mandarins. Though life-sized, none is taller than the emperor.


Trees, ancient with convoluted roots, line the entrance.


Here is the Stele Pavilion. Although he had over a hundred wives and concubines, Emperor Tu Doc was unable to father a son (possibly he became sterile after contracting smallpox). Thus, it fell to him to write his own epitaph (biography) on the deeds of his reign. He felt this was a bad omen, but the 4000 Chinese characters that make up his epitaph can still be found inscribed on the stele in the pavilion just to the east of the Emperor’s tomb. This stele is the largest of its type in Vietnam, and had to be brought here from a quarry over 500 kilometers away–a trip that took four years. The autobiography takes pains to be modest, recalling his life and his illnesses, and admitting the possibility that The Emperor may have erred along the way.


Near the stele, there are obelisks. These represent the emperor’s power. 


The Tomb of Tu Duc

Behind the stele is the actual tomb. The odd thing about the tomb is that even after the time and expense to build it, his actual body is not buried there.

Instead, when Tu Duc passed away, he was buried secretly somewhere in Huế. Nobody knows where, as the mandarins beheaded the 200 workers who buried the emperor, and the treasure that would be expected to accompany imperial funeral rites. Nobody knows where Emperor Tu Duc is really buried – perhaps someday it will be discovered.

Here is the emperor’s sepulcher.


We noticed, on close inspection, that the blue areas were made from broken pottery pieces, white with blue glaze.


The next area was the Hoa Khiem Palace, where the emperor lived.

This is inside the palace.


The emperor’s throne.


Walking on the grounds was very pleasant. I can see why the emperor liked it.


Another mosaic on a wall. Now that we noticed the white and blue pottery shards, we see them everywhere.


The Thien Mu Pagoda

The final part of the day’s agenda was to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda. To get there we are going to take a dragon boat across the Perfume River.

Carol is boarding the dragon boat. These dragon boats are a feature of Huế. Huế is bisected by the Perfume River, and one tour of the city and the royal tombs is by dragon boat. We are just taking a short trip across and down the river.


The dragon heads that give the boat its name.


The river is pretty wide.


Drinks are offered (for sale) on the boat. Beer is offered, as are some local drinks, like this one, a tea made from some kind of melon. Carol had this, and thought it tasted a little unpleasant.


Many dragon boats were moored at the landing for the pagoda.


We walked a short time and arrived at the Thien Mu Pagoda, set atop Ha Khe Hill.

The Thien Mu Pagoda (“Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady”) dates back to the early days of the Nguyen Dynasty; in 1601, under Lord Nguyen Hoang, construction began.

The Thien Mu Pagoda has its roots in a local legend: an old woman once appeared on the hill and said that a Lord would come and build a Buddhist pagoda for the country’s prosperity. Hearing of this legend, Lord Nguyen Hoang ordered the construction of the pagoda of the "Heavenly Lady" (Thien Mu). Since then the site has expanded and now includes a Buddhist shrine, housing for the monks who live and train here, a second pagoda, and a shrine in reverence to a Buddhist monk from Thien Mu Pagoda, Thich Quang Duc, who, in 1963, burned himself to death in Saigon to protest the Diem regime in South Vietnam. 


The Perfume River can be seen from the pagoda. Below, two working boats carrying cargos pass each other.


Going to the Dai Hung Shrine, first we pass through these gates.


The gates are guarded by giant Chinese warriors.


Looking back towards the Thien Mu Pagoda.


We enter into the Die Hung Shrine sanctuary. The sanctuary hall is divided into two separate segments – the front hall is separated from the main sanctuary by a number of folding wooden doors with glass. The sanctuary hall enshrines three statues of the Buddha (which symbolize past, present, and future lives), as well as several other important relics.


Local people come to worship. It was interesting that many came with formal Chinese-style garments to wear over their normal clothes. This was clearly special dress for a special shrine. I saw this nowhere else.


The three Buddhas: past, present and future. 


Close up of the “present” Buddha.


A monk rings a brass bell during meditation.


On the grounds nearby is a relic of the monk Thich Quang Duc, whose self-immolation in Saigon was filmed and viewed all over the world, and for which he is now considered a national hero.


Here is the car.


The Phuoc Duyen Pagoda, constructed in 1844, is a 68-foot-high octagonal structure, stepped into seven levels. Each level is devoted to one Buddha who came to Earth in human form. This pagoda has become the symbol of Huế.


Back to the dragon boats to cross the Perfume River.


Mishap while eating cashew nuts

We returned to our nice cool hotel room after the day’s outing, to rest and get ready to go out to dinner with the group. The hotel had wi-fi in all the rooms (as did all the places that Gecko Tours put us in). I sat at my computer checking email (I could not check Facebook, since Communist Vietnam has it blocked throughout the country). Carol found our tin of cashew nuts, and gave me a few to munch on. I sat them on the desk near the computer. Earlier I had also set down one of my hearing aids. They get uncomfortable, and I remove them when not needed. As I was reading email and eating cashews, one of them was very hard and had a different crunch when I bit into it. I removed it, and it was the hearing aid, smashed to pieces.

Here is a photo I took at home. The hearing aid kind of looks like a cashew, huh?


The Royal Dinner

An optional activity set up by Gecko for the evening was a Royal Dinner. We were not sure what this was, but signed up for it anyway; when is the next time we will have this kind of chance?

We walked to a restaurant, pretty close to the hotel.



Royal, or Imperial, dinners are done here for tourists. They feature food that might have been served to the Emperor Tu Duc. In some places they are costume affairs.

We were given outfits to put on over our clothes. These were like those worn in the imperial days, we were told.

Our guide, Quan, appointed me to be emperor. I got to wear the royal yellow outfit, the only one so attired. 


Carol got to wear the empress’ dress.  She got to wear some yellow, but not the vast expanse of yellow that I got to wear.

I started to think, “It is about time I was recognized for who I am.”  Either my ego was running away with me, or I was getting into character for the night.


Here were two of our group, dressed in their mandarin outfits.


More of the group. We all travelled together for 11 days. Everyone else in the group was from Australia.


The Royal Table.


The Emperor and Empress, Richard and Carol.

richard carol

The Royal court.


We had entertainers playing traditional Vietnamese instruments.



As they sang, these woman played rhythm with ceramic teacups.


The presentation of the food was fantastic.

Here are fried spring rolls, presented in a (I think) Phoenix Bird.


This was some kind cooked roll that was sliced and served. From the sculpture, I would guess that it was chicken.


This was a dish of grill pork.


Shrimps, with the accompanying shrimp boat.


Finally some kind of dessert sweet, wrapped in banana leaves. The yellow bird decoration looks dead. I hope this wasn’t a warning to the Emperor!


Tomorrow we will go to Hoi An. The day in Huế was very enjoyable. I am getting to know more about the history of Vietnam, and doing it this way is most interesting to me. 

Again I have used wikipedia extensively, and quoted freely from it.

Related Posts

The first two parts of this series can be found here: Hanoi , Day 1, Hanoi, Day 2

If you enjoyed this post, you can find other travel articles here: Touring and Travel in India


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2 Responses to “Discovering Indochina–Huế, Vietnam”

  1. shiggs91 Says:

    Reblogged this on finding development and commented:
    Hue: information and photos!

  2. shiggs91 Says:

    Amazing post. I will be living in Hue next year for school (I’m from Canada) and have been trying to find as much information as possible – often with no luck.
    I hope your trip continues to be wonderful.

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