Hue's Imperial Citadel


    The Tay Son Rebellion in Vietnam brought Nguyen Phuc Anh to power in 1802. Declaring himself Emperor Gia Long, he began construction on a grand fortress-palace in Hue in 1804. Today the emperor's construction is known in Hue merely as “the Citadel”, and its inner sanctum, once the home of the emperor and his family, is called “the Purple Forbidden City”. Although the Citadel and its Imperial City were badly damaged during the Vietnam War in 1968, they remain one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations.

    Early History of the Citadel

    Like many of Asia's leaders of the past, the emperor relied upon traditional methods of divination, called geomancy, to choose the location for the Citadel. With a wish to create a sort of mini-Forbidden City like the one in Beijing, tens of thousands of labourers were conscripted to construct his fortress and palace. They dug a ten kilometer moat, along with thick earthen walls, to create the Citadel's perimeter. Copying the French military architect Vauban, these earthen walls were later replaced by two-meter-thick stone walls. Inside the outer perimeter, a smaller moat and smaller brick walls bounded the emperor's Purple Forbidden City. The Purple Forbidden City, besides elaborate residences, also included a network of gates, courtyards, and administrative buildings. The emperor didn't live to see the completion of his architectural masterpiece; dying in 1820, the Citadel was finally completed in 1832 by Gia Long's son, the Emperor Minh Mang.

    The Citadel and the Vietnam War

    The Nguyen Dynasty ended in 1945, when Bao Dai abdicated the throne to the communist leader and founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.

    For centuries, Vietnam had been under the influence of the French, but the Japanese changed that in 1940 when they invaded French Indochina at the start of the Second World War. The Emperor Bao Dai was a pawn of these larger global forces, first acting under the direction of the French, and later coerced by the Japanese to declare Vietnam a member of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The unpopularity of the Japanese made it fairly easy for Ho Chi Minh to convince Bao Dai to abdicate.

    Over the next ten years, the emperor left the Purple Forbidden City, and Vietnam gradually descended into chaos, as French, communist, and imperial forces vied for power. During this time, the Citadel suffered from both typhoon and termite damage, and was generally neglected. In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, communist forces overtook Hue and occupied the Citadel. As part of the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong sneaked into the Citadel, killing the South Vietnamese guards, and opened the way for many Vietcong to enter. In an odd twist of fate, the centuries-old, imperial Citadel proved itself a worthy military fortress in the hands of the anti-imperialist communists. Americans had a difficult time dislodging the North Vietnamese from the Citadel, leading to one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Hue.

    American bombing during the battle destroyed much of the Citadel, especially flattening the inner Imperial City, of which few of the original structures remain today.

    The Citadel Today

    The remaining buildings in the Citadel have been carefully restored, and in 1993 the Citadel and its Imperial City was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Much of the land that used to be the Purple Forbidden City, however, is today just rice fields.

    What remains of Hue's impressive Citadel is still a worthwhile attraction for visitors. Though it will never be able to reclaim its former glory under the Nguyen emperors, the Citadel nonetheless is a beautiful and fascinating historical site. For anyone visiting Hue, visiting the Citadel should be at the top of the to-do-list.