The Imperial City in Hue follows the same symmetrical layout as the Forbidden City in Beijing, though oriented northwest-southeast, rather than north-south. The Vietnamese version has four gates, though by far the most impressive is the Ngo Mon Gate in the south, and is actually the Imperial City’s principal entrance. In its heyday, the complex must have been truly awe-inspiring, however many of its buildings were badly neglected, and by the late 20th century, only 20 out of the original 148 were left standing.
In 1833, Emperor Minh Mang replaced an earlier, much less formidable gate with the present dramatic entrance way to the Imperial City, Ngo Mon, which is considered a masterpiece of Nguyen architecture. Ngo Mon has five entrances: the Emperor alone used the central entrance paved with stone; two smaller doorways on either side were for the civil and military servants, while another pair of giant openings in the wings allowed access to the royal elephants. The bulk of Ngo Mon is constructed of massive stone slabs, but perched on top is an elegant pavilion called the Five Phoenix Watchtower as its nine roofs are said to resemble five birds in flight when viewed from above.
Walking north from Ngo Mon along the city’s symmetrical axis, you pass between two square lakes to reach Thai Hoa Palace. Not only is this the most spectacular of Hue’s palaces, its interior glowing with sumptuous red and gold lacquers, but it’s also the most important since this was the throne palace, where major ceremonies such as coronations or royal birthdays took place and foreign ambassadors were received. Behind the throne room a souvenir shop now sells books and tapes of Hue folk songs where once the emperor prepared for his grand entrance. It also contains two large dioramas depicting the Imperial City and flag tower in their heyday.
From Thai Hoa Palace the emperor would have walked north through the Great Golden Gate into the third and last enclosure, the Forbidden Purple City. This area, enclosed by a low wall, was reserved for residential palaces, living quarters of the state physician and nine ranks of royal concubines, plus kitchens and pleasure pavilions. Many of these buildings were destroyed in the 1947 fire, leaving most of the Forbidden Purple City as open ground, a “mood piece”, haunted by fragments of wall and overgrown terraces.
The other main cluster of sights lies a short walk away in the southwest corner of the Imperial City. Aligned on a south-north axis, the procession kicks off with Hien Lam Cac (“Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity”), a graceful, three-storey structure with some notable woodwork, followed by the Nine Dynastic Urns. Considered the epitome of Hue craftsmanship, the bronze urns were cast during the reign of Minh Mang and are ornamented with scenes of mountains, rivers, rain clouds, and wildlife. Each urn is dedicated to an Emperor and they stand proud in front of the pavilion itself and around its courtyard.