|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|
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|
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?|
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|
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|
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|
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***