Hear the words ‘Forbidden City’ and you might think of Beijing. But did you know there’s a Forbidden Purple City in Vietnam just waiting to be discovered?
Hue became the capital city of a reunified Vietnam in 1802 until 1945 under the reign of the Nguyễn dynasty. It was the cultural, spiritual and political heart of the country during this time and some big clues of its past glory still remain to be explored today.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site bonanza
In 1993 UNESCO declared the ‘complex of Hue monuments’ a Word Heritage Site which actually includes 14 separate sites in and around the city of Hue.
The tittle covers Imperial City in Hue as well as the Hue Imperial Tombs which are scattered along the banks of the Perfume River. We visited 4 of the tombs on the following day and we would recommend visiting the Imperial City first like we did to get a good grounding in the Imperial history of Hue and indeed Vietnam.
A citadel within a citadel within a citadel
It can be a little confusing when you first encounter Hue and the Imperial City (Kinh thành Huế). This name refers to the walled city which sits inside the huge fortified citadel complex on the banks of the Perfume River.
There’s a large moat running all the way around its perimeter so the citadel area is pretty easy to spot on a map and the modern city still centres around it. There are several bridges linking the citadel to the rest of Hue and are now houses and businesses around both the outside of the fortified walls and inside too.
This can make it slightly unclear where the boundaries are but when you’re close by you can’t miss the massive stone fortification wall which goes right around the entire complex.
Venturing inside the walls of the citadel, it feels very much like a part of regular city but most visitors head to the Imperial City complex on the southern edge of the citadel area.
What is the Forbidden Purple City?
Put simply it was a private complex of buildings reserved exclusively for the ruling emperor, his family, court ladies and urchins housed inside the Imperial City area, the inner sanctum if you like. Being inside the main citadel and moat, plus behind it’s own 3.7m high brick walls it was the safest place to live.
Today, you pay 150,000 VND ($7) to enter the Imperial City complex which is often referred to as the Forbidden Purple City. The ticket box is located very close to the main entrance with tickets being checked as you enter.
You enter the complex through the impressive Noon Gate which has been fully restored in recent years to its former glory. If you stand back and look up you’ll see a stage above the entrance which was used at grand royal ceremonies and the central entrance was reserved for the ruling emperor only.
Once through the Noon Gate the first building you’ll enter is the beautifully named Palace of Supreme Harmony. There are some images and models here to show what the Imperial City complex would have looked like when it was first completed in 1833.
The remaining area has several buildings in differing states of repair with some being restored at the time of our visit.
However anyone expecting to see the actual Forbidden Purple City will be sorely disappointed as this was flattened by heavy fighting and bombing during the Tet Offensive of January 1968.
The ‘battle of Hue’ as it later became known was declared a victory for the American forces but most of the city was destroyed in the fighting. This is said to be the beginning of the end for public and political support for the war in the US.
Is it worth visiting the Forbidden Purple City?
To sum it up the Imperial City isn’t as instantly stunning as some of the Imperial Tombs outside the city. This is mainly due to the lack of surviving structures but it’s still a very interesting place to visit and a ‘must see’ if you are in Hue anyway.
To get the most out of a visit you really need to use your imagination and picture the place as a hive of activity stuffed full of grand architecture. Restoration is under way in several areas on the site but the fact that some parts are still overgrown was part of the charm.
Other plus points are the freedom to wander anywhere around the site and the lack of visitors. It’s a fairly large area so easy to escape any crowds that might appear but we found it to be nice and peaceful overall.
Before you visit we’d suggest watching this 10 minute digital reconstruction video of the the Imperial City to give you a great overview the area in its full glory.
Directions to the Forbidden Purple City, Hue
Visiting hours: 8am to 5pm daily except for official events and celebrations.
Cost: 150,000 VND per person
Google Map of the Forbidden Purple City:
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