Palaces and pagodas, tombs and temples, culture and cuisine, history and heartbreak – there’s no shortage of poetic pairings to describe Hue (pronounced ‘hway’). A Unesco World Heritage site, this deeply evocative capital of the Nguyen emperors still resonates with the glories of imperial Vietnam, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War.
Hue owes its charm partly to its location on the Perfume River – picturesque on a clear day, atmospheric even in less flattering weather. There’s always restoration work going on to recover Hue’s royal splendour, but today the city is very much a blend of new and old as sleek modern hotels tower over crumbling century-old Citadel walls.
The city hosts a huge biennial arts festival, the Festival of Hue, in even-numbered years, featuring local and international artists and performers. Journalist Gavin Young’s 1997 memoir A Wavering Grace is a moving account of his 30-year relationship with a family from Hue and with the city itself, during and beyond the American War. It makes a good literary companion for a stay in the city.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Built on a hill overlooking the Perfume River, 4km southwest of the Citadel, this pagoda is an icon of Vietnam and as potent a symbol of Hue as the Citadel. The 21m-high octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen , was constructed under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri in 1844. Each of its seven storeys is dedicated to a manushi-buddha (a Buddha that appeared in human form).
Thien Mu Pagoda was originally founded in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang, governor of Thuan Hoa province. Over the centuries its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
To the right of the tower is a pavilion containing a stele dating from 1715. It’s set on the back of a massive marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. To the left of the tower is another six-sided pavilion, this one sheltering an enormous bell (1710), which weighs 2052kg and is said to be audible 10km away.
The temple itself is a humble building in the inner courtyard, past the triple-gated entrance where three statues of Buddhist guardians stand at the alert. In the main sanctuary behind the bronze laughing Buddha are three statues: A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past; Thich Ca, the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni); and Di Lac Buddha, the Buddha of the Future.
The best time to visit is early in the morning, before the tour groups show up. For a scenic bicycle ride, head southwest (parallel to the Perfume River) on riverside Ð Tran Hung Dao, which turns into Ð Le Duan after Phu Xuan Bridge. Cross the railway tracks and keep going on Ð Kim Long. Thien Mu Pagoda can also be reached by boat.
The Imperial Enclosure is a citadel-within-a-citadel, housing the emperor’s residence, temples and palaces and the main buildings of state within 6m-high, 2.5km-long walls. Today much of it is in ruins. What’s left is only a fraction of the original – the enclosure was badly bombed during the French and American wars, and only 20 of its 148 buildings survived. Restoration and reconstruction of damaged buildings is ongoing.
This is a fascinating site, worth exploring for half a day. However, as there's only very limited information available (some in English and French) and signage is very poor, it's difficult to know exactly where you are at times.
Expect a lot of broken masonry, rubble, cracked tiling and weeds as you work your way around. Nevertheless it's enjoyable as a leisurely stroll and some of the less-visited areas are highly atmospheric. There are little cafes and souvenir stands dotted around.
To Mieu Temple Complex
Taking up the southwest corner of the Imperial Enclosure, this highly impressive walled complex has been beautifully restored.
The imposing three-tiered Hien Lam Pavilion sits on the south side of the complex, it dates from 1824. On the other side of a courtyard is the solemn To Mieu Temple , housing shrines to each of the emperors, topped by their photos.
Between these two temples are Nine Dynastic Urns (dinh) , cast between 1835 and 1836, each dedicated to one Nguyen sovereign.
About 2m in height and weighing 1900kg to 2600kg each, the urns symbolise the power and stability of the Nguyen throne. The central urn, also the largest and most ornate, is dedicated to dynasty founder Gia Long. Also in the courtyard are two dragons, trapped in what look like red phone boxes.
On the north side of the complex, a gate leads into a small walled enclosure that houses the Hung To Mieu Temple , a reconstruction of the 1804 original, built to honour Gia Long’s parents.
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