Friday, April 5, 2013


Ngo Mon Gate, entrance to the 'Forbidden' City

When we think of Vietnam’s leaders, the first that come to mind are Ho Chi Minh and the communist party. But that's only recent history. Once upon a time, Vietnam was ruled by emperors. These kings were later conquered by the French, but even under colonialism the monarchy continued to be an integral part of Vietnamese society. There were many kings, queens and dynasties who ruled Vietnam; they often came to power after kicking out the occupying Chinese. Gia Long, the first emperor of the final dynasty, moved Vietnam’s capital to Hue in 1802. I’ve arrived in this imperial city, and I’m on my way into the emperor’s old fortress, the Hue Citadel.

A taxi takes me across the Perfume River, and on the far side I’m dropped at the Citadel gate. This is the first of a series of old fortified walls that I have to pass through, until I reach the more interesting areas within. The original outer wall of the old city stretched for six miles in length.

Crossing an open field I reach a moat, and gaze up at Ngo Mon Gate, the entrance to the Imperial City. It’s an impressive stone gate, three stories tall. With it’s round tiled rooftops, dragon like figures, and triple entrances, the elaborate gate resembles the entrance way to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Vietnamese hated Chinese domination and fought to expel them, but that didn’t stop them from building their palaces and gates with Chinese architecture.

Dragon decor of Ngo Mon Gate
I climb the steps to the second floor viewing area, situated right above the gate’s center. It’s an excellent view, as it should be. This is where the emperor stood for official royal functions, presiding over ceremonies and parades. This also happens to be where Vietnam’s monarchy officially ended. The last emperor Bao Dai, officially abdicated to Ho Chi Minh’s government here in 1945, ending centuries of Vietnamese royal tradition. By that time Bao Dai was just a figurehead king anyway, and his abdication didn’t sit well with the French, who were absent due to Japan’s invasion during World War II. But the French returned to Hue soon after, as they sought to retake their colony.

Looking around at the royal interior, I spot a sign that reads, “NGO MON MONUMENT RESTORED WITH JAPANESE AID VIA UNESCO. The impressive gate appears quite old, but the fact is, not much of what I see is original. That’s because this royal gate was heavily damaged in fighting between the North Vietnamese Army and American forces, during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Hue is only about 40 miles from the former De-Militarized Zone, which used to divide North and South Vietnam. As Vietnam’s old capital, it became a prime target for a surprise offensive. When fighting started most of Hue was guarded by ARVN troops, and the invading North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong (VC) quickly overwhelmed them. Within hours they took most of the city, establishing a base here within the
citadels heavy walls.

A great deal of blood was spilled to fly different flags from the tallest flag pole in Vietnam
Beyond a parade ground across from Ngo Mon Gate, is a three tiered fortress tower made of dark stone. A massive 37 meter tall flagpole rises from the center, the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. Since Hue is the former capital, the flagpole is highly symbolic. When the communists took the citadel, they tore down the yellow and red flag of the Republic of Vietnam, and replaced it with the Viet Cong colors. The fighting in Hue was so heavy, and resistance so fierce, that US troops were not able to remove that flag until 3 1/2 weeks later. 

This flagpole is so tall and heavy, that it was once knocked over by a typhoon. Strong guy wires hold it in place now to keep it from falling over again. The dark stone of the fortress contrasts with the bright red color of the huge flag flying there now, the current flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I can’t walk up the tower, since this part of the citadel is totally blocked off and locked up. Maybe they’re afraid someone will try and tear the flag down again.
Elephant in the old Citadel. Can I have a ride too?
Beyond the gate as I enter the Imperial Enclosure, I read an entrance sign posting rules for visitors. One part reads, “NOT TO BRING IN THE DYNAMITE, POISON AND WEAPON”. I see their signage crew needs help with their English grammar.

Unlike the more crowded streets of Hue, in here is a vast courtyard, and I’m immediately met with an unexpected sight. Walking down a wide sidewalk heading straight towards me, is an elephant! Well, there’s something you don’t see everyday. The handler is sitting behind the elephant’s ears astride the great beast’s neck. He must fancy himself as some kind of Asian cowboy, since he wears a cowboy hat. Behind him, two westerners enjoy the ride on a saddle-like chair.

The points of the great elephant’s tusks have been sawed off, probably for safety. Well, the emperor used to ride elephants here in the Imperial City, so why not visitors? I step aside while the elephant lumbers slowly past me, and I continue on ahead to explore the old citadel.

Where the palaces once stood, there are now green fields
I reach the symbolic center of the Citadel, the Forbidden Purple City. Similar to  the original Forbidden City in Beijing, it's far smaller in size. Here is where the palace residences were for the king, queen and his concubines. It’s neither forbidden, nor purple any longer, since the royal residences are completely gone. In their place there are only two long depressions in the trimmed grass. They ought to change it’s name to the ‘Green City’.

The palaces were totally destroyed long ago, and even the wrecked bricks have been removed. Unlike Ngo Mon Gate, these royal buildings weren’t destroyed by American firepower in 1968. During the colonial years, the royal residences and other Imperial City
buildings were destroyed by the French. This happened first as the French sought to force Vietnam’s emperor under their thumb, then again later to put down independence uprisings. During the days of the Tet Offensive, the media blamed the American military for destroying the heritage of Hue as they retook the Citadel from the NVA and the VC. The fact was, many of the Citadel’s old historical buildings had already been destroyed by the French, decades before.

In the post-war era, what was left of the royal buildings continued to decay,
Restoration work on war damaged buildings continues throughout the Citadel
since the communists had no interest in preserving royal history. But when tourists returned to Hue, they quickly learned that foreign visitors with money would pay to see the royal Citadel, so restorations commenced. 

On a covered walkway adjacent to the residence site, I see restorations in progress. Craftsmen labor up on bamboo scaffolding. Women in blue uniforms and conical hats wheel around carts full of bricks. Hue was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and the long process of rebuilding continues. But I wonder, after being pummeled by artillery from two western armies, over two different centuries, was there really that much left here to preserve? In any case, the glory of Vietnam’s former royals are being restored, though it will never be completely rebuilt in our lifetime.

Atop the back wall of the enclosure, I watched restoration work on a bombed out royal building. The ceiling was gone, along with one entire wall. I watched one laborer as he carried construction materials up to the site. He couldn’t have
Once destroyed by war, the Mieu Temple has been restored
known I was watching, because after he set down his load, he stepped right up to the old royal building, and urinated on the wall. I guess he didn’t take any pride in his work.

I find some finished restoration work at the Mieu Temple, where they honor the memory of all the Nguyen Dynasty’s kings. Looking at the the layered yellow tile work, and mythical creatures on the rooftop, I'm again reminded of China. It’s painted red, the good luck color, and yellow, the color of royalty.

I remove my shoes upon entering, since for Vietnamese Buddhists, this is revered ground. Inside are pictures, shrines and incense for each of the emperors. I wonder why there are no monks here. 

I exit this impressive looking restored temple, to find that the building next to it remains a ruin. Only the front and rear facades are  still standing. Metal supports hold up what’s left, so that they won’t collapse any further. Some impressive restoration work has been completed, but much remains to be done.
This ruin that was wrecked in the war awaits restoration

***CONTINUED IN NEXT POST: More on the Battle in the Hue Citadel*** 

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