Hue’s Imperial Citadel and Antiquities Museum

The Citadel
Often referred to as ‘ancient’, Hue’s Citadel is comparatively modern in European terms. Built over thirty years in the early part of the 19th century, the Citadel encompasses three ‘courts’ covering a total of 6 km.

The outer court within the massive brick walls, ten metres thick in places, is mainly open space and gardens.

The Imperial City, built along the same lines as the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, was the country's administrative centre. Senior mandarins, court officers and civil servants would have entered by the ‘Ngo Mon’ (noon gate). Directly behind were the Dai Trieu Nghi (great rites courtyard) and the Thai Hoa Palace (throne hall) where the Emperor would meet foreign rulers and emissaries, high-ranking ministers and other dignitaries.

At the heart of the Imperial City was the ‘Tu Cam Thanh’ (Forbidden Purple City). Only members of the royal family, the Emperor’s concubines, and trusted senior mandarins and officers such as the royal doctor were allowed through the sole entry gate. Inside were various palaces and the Emperor’s private apartments.

Less than a third of the structures inside the citadel remain. The French army shelled the building, and removed or destroyed nearly all the treasures it contained. Most of the buildings in the Forbidden City were destroyed by fire in 1947.

Further destruction occurred when Hue’s Citadel became the symbolic epicentre of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Major artillery battles were fought when the Viet Cong overran Hue and when the US forces finally recaptured the citadel 25 days later.

Despite more than fifty years of decay and attrition, the Citadel is still imposing, and recent renovation work has restored several of its buildings to their previous glory. In front of the Hien Cam Lac, an elegant three-storey pavilion, are nine large bronze urns, each dedicated to one of the Nguyen Emperors, the largest being that of Gia Long, builder of the citadel and founder of the empire.

Nearby is the Thé Temple. It contains altars commemorating ten of the Nguyen rulers. Of the remaining three, two reigned only briefly and were considered too friendly with the French, and the last Emperor, Bao Dai, was a puppet ruler under the French and died in exile in Paris.

The Museum of Antiquities
Frequently misnamed by guide books as the Fine Arts Museum, the Bao Tang Co Vat (Antiquities Museum) is housed in the ancient Long An temple, once used as a temporary resting place for the body of Emperor Thieu Tri until his tomb was completed.

It contains an interesting collection of assorted memorabilia from the days of Empire. The trivial function and poor quality of many of the exhibits reflects the extent of looting by the French – a few pieces hint to the former opulence of life in the Forbidden City.

Although the building is attractive and spacious, the Museum has a run-down feel. When we last inspected it, admittedly some months ago, the staff seemed bored and indifferent, the display cabinets were dirty, and the lighting was inadequate. There was hardly any attempt to describe the exhibits, let alone interpret their significance, and no-one appeared interested in enlightening us.

Things may have improved by now, so we would welcome feedback from anyone who has visited recently.

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