Hue – The Ancient Capital of Vietnam

by | Jun 30, 2017 | Travel, Travel history, Travel reviews, Travelling w children, Vietnam | 0 comments

Hue – The imperial capital of Vietnam from the early 19th Century to 1945. The city predates this to the Nguyen Lords when, in 1600, Hue became the capital of Dai Viet or ‘Great Viet‘. The name ‘Viet’, originating from the Chinese ‘Yue’, meaning non-Chinese people from the South/Vietnam.
Reading the history of the Vietnamese people illustrates how long and impressive this country is. I recall in high school the introduction to the medieval ages, the Renaissance, Reformation, Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution related to England and the United Kingdom. I presumed we (English) were so advanced alongside other Western economies surrounding its empire. Little did I realise how much longer a history many Asian countries, such as Vietnam had.
In 1902, the first Nguyen emperor, born Nguyen Phuc Anh, renamed himself Gia Long after reuniting Vietnam and overthrowing the Trinh Lords from the North. Gia Long changed his name from ‘Gia Dinh’ (present-day Saigon) and ‘Thang Long’ (present-day Hanoi) to represent the joining of the country.
The Nguyen Lords (often unrelated and known as the Vietnamese Shogun) de facto ruled the lower 2/3rds of Vietnam (known as ‘Dang Trong’) from 1558 until 1770. Gia Long was a nephew of the last of the Shoguns.
About 40% of Vietnamese are named Nguyen (pronounced Ng, with a guttural sound, similar to the ending of -ing, then Wee’yun) as it’s the most popular family name in Vietnam due to the trait of changing names to that of the current ruler to prevent earlier dynastic reprisals.

Entrance to the Citadel Hue
Vietnam flag at Hue Citadel - Largest in Vietnam
Mandarin corridors Hue

Gia Long renamed the country, Viet Nam, (Nam meaning South), while Hue had a new citadel built with French assistance.
The Citadel was built surrounded by a moat with walls 2km by 2km long.
Inside is the imperial city and within this lies the Purple Forbidden City, which was restricted only to those of the Emperor and his immediate family.
A visit to the Citadel is a must if you’re in Hue and if you’re a history buff, will easily take a full day of your time.

Hue Women

Hue appears different in many ways to the remainder of Vietnam as the layout, culture and food seemed different. Many of the foods available were developed to suit the more delicate tastes of the Emperor’s concubines & in keeping with royal tradition, had to be of a much higher standard than the rest of the country.

Most of the food has travelled across Vietnam now, but you can sense the influence, with foods such as Nem Lui (Spiced Pork/Beef on Lemongrass Skewers), Banh Beo (steamed rice cakes), Banh Khoai (Fried rice flour pancake with vegetables) amongst others.
If you travel to Hue, be sure to search out some of the food establishments. We went to different places & was impressed even with many of the open fronted, street food restaurants, especially for the prices and the quality.

The first thing to strike me about the layout is the first time we’ve been able to walk along the pavement with the buggy/stroller, without the pathways used as parking for mopeds – everything seems better planned & laid out.

Emperor’s Burial Tombs

The Emperor’s upon their death were buried in ornate tombs surrounded by an altar amidst beautiful scenery. We visited two – Minh Mang (born 1791-reigned 1820-1841), who ruled after Gia Long (Gia Long’s tomb is very simple and in ruins since the Vietnam war) and Khai Dinh (born 1895-reign 1916-1925).

The Nguyen Emperor’s nearing the end of their reign weren’t particularly liked for reasons such as their continued abuse of power and allowing the French to invade and become a colony state. Some were more popular than others.

Minh Mang was a good example. There was a revolt against Khai Dinh due to him increasing taxes to pay for his elaborate tomb. He ordered the arrest of many nationalist leaders such as Phan Boi Chau and being described (by Ho Chi Minh in his play ‘The Bamboo Dragon’) as a powerless puppet of the French regime.

Vietnamese Ao Dai
Minh Mang (born 1791, reign 1820-1841)

Minh Mang was the second Emperor who effectively closed off Vietnam, especially to the French Jesuit priests and embraced Confucian Buddhism. He banned all French missionaries from entering Vietnam and had all French vessels searched. Christianity was a ‘perverse European’ practice, which ‘corrupted the hearts of men’, as stated in a Royal edict.

After numerous US, British and French vessels unsuccessfully attempted to bridge relations and trade with Minh Mang he was drawn into a battle with Siam (Thailand) over the rule of Vietnam’s vassal state Cambodia (Gia Long had annexed Cambodia & installed his own ruler for Cambodia). This occurred at the same time as a Catholic civil uprising in Saigon, supported by the Siamese. This expensive uprising and the neighbouring Opium wars of China left Vietnam feeling under threat, leading Minh Mang to reversing his earlier decision of isolationism and seeking partners and support from the West.

He was known as a progressive ruler who got rid of many of the Fiefdoms run by the Mandarins of the royal court and set-up a more efficient government. His treatment of French priests and isolationism led to the French, particularly Napoleon, who had their eyes on Vietnam for some time, to invade Tourane (Da Nang) after his death to ‘teach the Vietnamese an overdue lesson’.

Minh Mang image
Minh Mang Tomb
Khai Dinh Tomb
Khai Dinh's burial place
Khai Dinh (born 1885 reign 1916-1925)

Khai Dinh came to power as a result of his two predecessors, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan being removed from office by the French because of their anti-French sentiment and exiled to Reunion Island.

Considering the first Nguyen Emperor sought and received help from the French Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine, in 1802, it seems over 200 years later what he had sown had surely come to be reaped.

It’s therefore arguable that Khai Dinh had any choice in the matter other than to be a puppet monarch of the French colonial powers in place. He was hugely unpopular although his only son, Bao Dai was to succeed him as the last Emperor.

Bao Dai Public domain image
Bao Dai's home at the Citadel
Bao Dai (born 1913 reign 1926 – 1945)

A special mention goes to the inauspicious thirteenth and last emperor Bao Dai, again a French puppet at a turbulent time in European and Asian times between 1926 and 1955.

After WWII he finally abdicated to Ho Chi Minh in 1945 and became Chief of State for South Vietnam, finally being overthrown in a fraudulent political coup by President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955.

He spent the remainder of his days in exile in France and died in 1997. If nothing else he will probably be remembered for abdicating his position and therefore conferring his role and royal ‘Mandate from Heaven’ to Uncle Ho providing even greater legitimacy to Ho Chi Minh’s role.

Thien Mu Pagoda – tallest Pagoda in Vietnam

Also known as Temple of the Celestial Lady, after one of the Nguyen Lords built it after a local legend of a woman who sat on the hill where it was originally built. She foresaw events of the time and the temple is an unofficial symbol of Hue.
In 1963 it was an organising post for the Buddhist marches against President Diem’s discrimination against Buddhists.
The car which drove the monk Thich Quang Duc to his self-immolation is exhibited here.
In the 80’s there were also anti-communist protests after a death and some monks arrested for public disorder offences.

Temple of the Celestial Lady
11 June 1963 – A Silent Buddhist Protest 

In the early Summer of 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem’s Government passed a law which prevented the flying of the Buddhist flag, amongst other religious flags. The only flag allowed in Southern Vietnam was that of the Vatican state or Catholic church in commemoration of President Diem’s brother (Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc) consecrated as Archbishop of Hue.

On the birth date of the Gautama Buddha, May 8th, known as Phat Dan or Vesak, there was a peaceful Buddhist protest where the Buddhist flag was raised resulting in the shootings and death of nine unarmed Buddhist monks.

On 11th June 1963, a group of Buddhist monks quietly drove Thich Quang Duc to a peaceful protest in Saigon, where he burnt himself alive, in protest at the ongoing Buddhist persecution.
This act led to Worldwide coverage of the plight of Buddhism in Vietnam, where it was an estimated 90% of the population classify themselves as Buddhist.

The ‘Buddhist crisis’ led to the arrest and assassination of President Diem on 2 Nov 1963.

Thich Quang Ducs Car
A Buddhist sacrifice
Forbidden Palace Hue
1968 Tet Offensive
The Tet Offensive 

Hue’s rich heritage was almost destroyed during the Tet offensive of January 1968, when Northern Viet Cong and the Northern Republican Army led some surprise attacks against the Southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the US army and allies.
After invading Hue, the ensuing battles lasting over a month resulted in the destruction of hundreds of years of history.

Little of it remains today in its original state, but as a result of UNESCO heritage status, it has been restored where known. Unfortunately little is known about the forbidden palace and therefore it remains untouched. It is a worthwhile sight when visiting Hue.

Modern History

As you can see this post shows travel isn’t always about sunset dinners and beaches, especially in Southeast Asia, an area with a very conflicted history. For me, this is what makes travel so interesting, although not particularly on a detailed level such as the Tet Offensive above, more about the passage of time and its effect on the norms and culture such as that with the Nguyen Emperors.

As an English language site and coming from Europe we often tend to think of ‘History’ as some old tome to be dusted off, but when visiting other countries and cultures we realise we also live within it, contribute towards and influence modern history.

Next Stop: Hanoi the modern capital of Vietnam. 

We stayed in Vietnam for 3 months and realised travelling too fast didn’t do our finances or stress levels much good. Moving slowly is much better, so we decided to rent an apartment in Hanoi for one month as a base to travel from.



Hanoi North of Hoan Kiem Lake


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *