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Vietnam's Imperial City of Hue

17/11/2017

The second day in Central Vietnam we dedicated to a day-trip to the old imperial city of Hue. The distance from Da Nang is almost 100 km and the option of hiring a taxi or a private car for the trip is always possible, however we opted for the train due to the astonishing views it offered us.

The train goes almost always by the coast and we got to see some heavenly calm and beautiful beaches along it. The only inconvenience this trip had (in direction from Da Nang to Hue) was that we've been stopped for more than hour, at a train station in the middle of nowhere, waiting for another train to pass.

When arriving at Hue railway station we were almost immediately pulled into a some sort of a local tour agency, trying to sell us all kind of tours and guides for the day. Although they were very persistent, we managed to kindly deny their services and left their shop alone, sticking to our original plan. Hue Citadel is not very far from the train station - around 15-20 minutes walking next to the Perfume river's bank. Crossing the Phu Xuan bridge over the river to continue North, we got to see some of the very typical for the area Dragon boats.

Hue's Citadel is just after the bridge. The official entrance is through the Ngo Mon Gate with its Five Phenix watchtower also used by the Emperor at times of state occasions.

Inside the courtyard, after the two lily ponds with golden fish (I've never seen that many golden fish at once in my life!) follows the Thai Hoa Palace (Hall of Supreme Harmony). Originally built in 1805 by Emperor Gia Long it served as the grand throne palace of the Nguyen Emperors, whose symbol was the golden dragon.

Next, we found ourselves surrounded by the warm red and golden colors of the Halls of Mandarins that "open" the entrance to the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh). Built between 1802 and 1833 no other man than the Emperor was allowed within its walls - every man who crossed its threshold would be condemned to death. Unfortunately, the "city within the city" was almost completely destroyed at the bombings during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Within the Forbidden Purple City are also the Royal Library and the Royal Theatre. By the time of our visit the first one was under reconstruction, but our Royal Theatre experience was amazing. It was originally built in 1825 and nowadays it still houses "nha nhac" performances, which we luckily got to attend. After the fall of the monarchy in Vietnam this art performance has been forgotten but in 1996 has been added to the syllabus of Hue College of Art. In 2003 has been recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage. The Royal Theatre's building also serves as a museum, exposing many traditional music instruments.

Leaving Tu Cam Thanh and heading West we reached Dien Tho Palace - the residence of the Queen Mother. Dien Tho means "Residence of Everlasting Longevity" and was built during the reign of Emperor Gia Long in 1803. The interior is gorgeous, wealthy decorated without sparing mother-of-pearl and feather elements. At its gardens there's a lake with a small coffee shop, offering some shadow and fresh drinks in the hot afternoon.

South from Dien Tho Palace are the temples Hung Mieu and The Mieu. The first one was built in 1821 by Emperor Minh Mang to honor his grandparents and the second one is dedicated to the Nguyen Dynasty, also known as Temple of Generations. Lastly we visited the Hiem Lam Pavilion which is located in the centre of The Mieu court. Built in 1824 it's the highest building in the Citadel, officially declared that no other building could rise higher. In front of its entrance are the Nine Dynastic Urns - decorated with traditional patterns and symbolic details, each one of them weights up to 2.75 tons.

It was an exhausting and extremely hot day, but nothing can compare to the amazing experience of being surrounded by so much history. We were ones of the last to leave the Citadel's walls before it closes but we still had some hours until our train back to Da Nang. Checked the Dong Ba market which looked enormous but was already closing, so we went back closer to the Citadel for a delicious banh mi and some comfy couch. Then we went back to the train station. Thankfully we've booked "soft seats" - while the train was stopping I got to see the difference. Apparently, "hard seats" were simply wooden benches in carriages where glass windows and air conditioner did not exist - instead there was only net and on top the tables between the benches, seated children and boxes with chickens were sharing space. The train was completely packed everywhere and local soap operas were passing on screens inside. We got back to the hotel quite late and extremely tired, but happy and ready for more beautiful sites to explore.

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