The vast majority of us have at some point heard of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the sacred imperial walled district reserved exclusively for the emperor and his court. I visited Beijing many years ago and still remember the view of the Forbidden City from kullen outside the palace. So powerful, so big and so beautiful.
Before I started studying for our trip to Vietnam, I had no idea that there was an almost identical forbidden city within the city Hue (pronounced "way"), 12 miles north of Hoi An. Could it really be as cool as Beijing? We went to Huế for the day and discovered not only an imperial city and a world heritage site, but a real little treasure!
However, I must begin by setting the framework for the visit to the Forbidden City in Huế. Unlike the Forbidden City in Beijing, large parts of the palace in Huế are destroyed. The majority of Vietnam's wars have been fought here and left their mark, the most damage caused by the fighting during the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War in January 1968. A total of 10 people died here, including 000 US Marines and 150 Vietnamese soldiers. The rest of the victims were civilians. Since 400, however, Huế has been a world heritage site and today they work hard to preserve and restore the beautiful old palaces and temples.
Like many other countries in Asia, Vietnam was formerly an empire, with grand palaces and generations of imperial families. Huế became an imperial city when the Nguyen family's first emperor Gia Long moved the capital of Vietnam from Hanoi to Huế. For almost 150 years Vietnam was ruled under the leadership of the Nguyen imperial family and during this time they lived here in the imperial city of Huế.
The imperial city is hidden behind a citadel with meter-thick walls and moats. Inside the walls you will find temples, gardens, palaces and residential areas. The walls of the outer citadel stretch through half of the center of Huế, but it is difficult to understand how large the area really is until you start walking for kilometers between the sights inside.
One of the first buildings you encounter behind the walls is the palace Thai Hoa. Once used as the emperor's reception building and a place where the emperor held court twice a month. The palace is held up by 80 red wooden pillars, painted with decorative patterns. It is perfectly possible to visit the inner rooms of the palace and look at all the sculptures, portraits and beautiful wood carvings. Unfortunately, however, photography is not allowed in any of the buildings in the area, so I have no pictures from the inside.
One of the most beautiful places is To Mieu Temple, one of the areas that has been completely restored. Here you will find temples dedicated to each of the Nguyen emperors and the 'Nine Dynasties Urns'. The urns are nearly 2 meters high and weigh almost 2500 kg each, symbols of the stability and security that the emperors thought they were creating for the people.
You don't need a guide to wander around here in the imperial city, but it's good to at least have a detailed guidebook and a map with you to find the sights and understand what you're actually seeing.
Getting around the area with its vast distances can be quite strenuous during the hottest hours of the day, so bring water and walk as much as possible in the shade of the tree-lined avenues. Those in a hurry hire a guide and take a minibus between the buildings, but part of the charm is discovering the area's size on foot.
A good place to sit down and rest your feet is in the café in the Queen Mother's residence Dien Tho Residence, built in the early 19th century. The garden is full of lotuses and beautiful small stone statues and the area has many beautiful gates. We sat here for quite some time sipping cold sodas and watching the carp swim by in the pond next to us before continuing to explore the area.
Once upon a time there were over 160 houses here within the Imperial walls. Today, only a handful of the original buildings remain, but the rest are being carefully rebuilt after war and natural disasters. Because it is not just the war that has destroyed the area's former splendor, typhoons hit the area far too often and lift roofs and uproot trees.
But then what remains of the heart of the imperial city - the so-called "purple forbidden city"? Not much at all unfortunately, but there are some buildings. IN Halls of the Mandarin you can walk the 750-meter-long red corridor that bears witness to the area's former splendor. If you think everything feels very Chinese, you're on the right track. In fact, the entire area was built as a copy of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In the eastern part of the palace grounds, lies the garden Co Ha. This is one of the most charming areas, with small pavilions, bonsai trees, dragonflies and bridges. The whole area has been restored and really shines in places. The dark wooden corridors are incredibly beautiful and one can easily imagine how the concubines and the imperial family walked here between the buildings, sheltered from the sun and monsoon.
How do I get to Huế?
It is possible to take a bus to Huế from Hoi An, but it takes a very long time. We instead hired a driver with a car who drove us to Huế. We could decide the route ourselves and therefore went Hai Van Pass on the way there and the fast tunnel back to Hoi An.
What is the entrance fee to the Forbidden City?
Admission costs 150 dong (approximately SEK 000) per adult.
Is it worth going here, even if a lot of it is ruins?
Yes it is! What remains to be seen is enough for a full day's exploration!
Do you want to read more about Vietnam? Check out my Vietnam page!
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.