Hue’s secret history

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How Thai friendship and hospitality helped create a Vietnamese royal treasure

Look at the map and you’ll see that Bangkok and Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, aren’t so far apart. But if you peep into history, you might find that the two cities were once even closer than the map suggests.


In 1785, just three years after King Rama I established Bangkok as the new Thai capital, Nguyen Anh, the dethroned feudal ruler of what is now southern Vietnam was given asylum in the Siamese royal court.

He was fleeing from his political enemies: the Trinh lords of Thang Long (known these days as Hanoi) that controlled the north, and the Tay Son revolution army which was a rising power threatening both Nguyen and the Trinhs.

Like the displaced princes and princesses of Cambodia who also took refuge in Bangkok at the time, Nguyen Anh, known by Thais as “Ong Chiang Sue”, and his troops were kindly welcomed by King Rama I.

After spending two years in Siam, Nguyen Anh realised that the Thais were too busy with their wars with Burma to help him regain his power back home. He then saw the opportunity to resume the fight for his goal as the Tay Son army began their expansion to the Trinh-controlled areas in the north, thus leaving behind fewer troops in the south, his former stronghold.

Nguyen Anh returned to Gia Dinh (Saigon, or later Ho Chi Minh City) and sought help from a French missionary Pigneau de Behaine, who managed to gather for him modern firearms and other foreign aid as well as mercenaries and volunteers from France. And thanks to the knowledge in ship-building and naval warfare that these European men brought along, Nguyen Anh’s armed forces became more organised and powerful enough to take on with the Tay Son, which by that time had become the dominant power.

To make a long story short, over the next two decades, Nguyen Anh and his troops fought their way to victory and finally in 1802 gained control of the entire of Vietnam.

The triumphant Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long. The new name is said to be a symbol of the country’s unification _ the ”Gia” from Gia Dinh (Saigon) in the south and the ”Long” from Thang Long (Hanoi) in the north.

Unlike the previous Vietnamese imperial dynasties, Gia Long did not use Thang Long as the country’s capital. Instead, in 1802 he chose Hue, which is located in the central part, as the political centre of his newly founded Nguyen Dynasty.

Not surprisingly, there was a good relationship between the courts of Vietnam and Siam during the times of Gia Long. However, things turned sour after his son Minh Mang took to the throne.

During Minh Mang’s reign, which coincided with that of King Rama III , competition in asserting political influence over Cambodia resulted in a 14-year war between Siam and Vietnam. The expensive conflict ended in peace talks in which both sides agreed that Siam maintained the right to elect Cambodian kings and that Cambodia must send tribute to Vietnam every three years.

Under the Nguyen Dynasty, the city of Hue prospered both economically and culturally. Elaborate monuments popped up within the palace walls and outside along the Song Houng River (better known as Perfume River) which winds through the capital.

However, Vietnam later fell under the influence of France, one of the colonial powers in this part of the world. And as is already well known, the country has suffered many wars in recent times, both a civil war and with foreign forces, namely those of France, Japan and the United States of America.

During the notorious Vietnam War (1955-1975), Hue was the scene of one of the war’s fiercest battles. Despite heavy damage, the remaining legacy of Nguyen Anh and the dynasty he established has been enough to earn the city’s historical areas a place on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites.

These days, Hue welcomes thousands of tourists from around the world each year. The Thai hospitality, which gave Nguyen Anh a crucial timeout until he saw the chance to fight back and make all this happen, remains invisible to visitors to his imperial palace.

But now you know.


Too bad these days no airline offers flights between Bangkok and Danang, the closest city to Hue with a commercial airport. So, the most popular way to get to Hue now is by bus.

From Thailand, you can take a bus from Mukdahan to Savannakhet in Laos where you can hop on another international bus which will take you through the Lao Bao border checkpoint and all the way to Hue. The total distance of this land route is about 420 kilometres but because of the immigration procedures, you may have to set aside one full day for each leg of travel.

Since late last year, Nok Air has been mulling plans to offer a package that combines air and land transport from Bangkok to Hue.

While the final decision has not yet been announced, for those who wish to avoid a long ride from Bangkok to Mukdahan, the airline offers flights from Don Muang airport to Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon and Ubon Ratcha Thani, from where you can take a local bus to the border town.

During the notorious Battle of Hue in 1968, this flag tower and the rest of the fortified palace complex were the strategic locations that both sides, the American troops and the Vietnamese communist forces, fought hard to control.

Want to know what you would look like in a palace costume? Well, they are available for hire for tourists who want a memorable photographic souvenir.

Fashioned after the Imperial Palace in Beijing, China, this one of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last of its kind in Vietnam, has become a popular symbol of Hue. Seen here is the palace complex's main gate, the Ngo Mon, which is topped with a grand pavilion where in the past the emperor would be seated to preside over important events held at the open ground in front of the gate. It was at this palace, famously known as the Imperial City, that Bao Dai, the country's last emperor, abdicated and handed over the leadership to Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh national independence movement in 1945. A number of important buildings within the Imperial City, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the royal library have been restored close to their former glory. Reconstruction of other destroyed structures is still going on.

Simple yet elegant, Vietnam's aodai is one of the most celebrated traditional costumes in this part of the world. Gracious ladies wearing the aodai is a highly popular subject for artists and there is virtually no art gallery in Hue or other Vietnamese cities that doesn't have one such painting on display. However, it's not every day that you'll be lucky enough to run into a real person on the street who looks as well-dressed as those depicted in the paintings.

While the Thien Mu temple dates back centuries before the advent of the Nguyen Dynasty, this iconic seven-storey, eightsided pagoda was built only in the mid-19th Century by the grandson of Emperor Gia Long. Apart from several monuments and artifacts at this Buddhist temple, you will also find the Austin car which in 1963 took the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc from this temple all the way to Saigon, where he burned himself to death on a busy street to protest against the oppression of Buddhists by South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem administration. His extreme act of self-sacrifice was photographed, brought world attention to the issue and finally led to a coup that ousted the government. PHOTOS: PONGPET MEKLOY

Like other big cities in Vietnam, traffic on the streets of Hue is a nightmare for those who are not residents. Still, bicycles are available for rent and they are a great way to explore the city. You just have to learn to go with the flow. Act like you're part of a big school of fish and, despite the lack of traffic lights, you'll manage to get past all the intersections with relative but a bit thrilling ease.

For centuries, China had been the most important influence on Vietnamese culture. The prominent presence of the Qilin, a Chinese mystical creature which signifies serenity and prosperity, in the decorative design of the Hue's Imperial City is inevitable.

The best place to enjoy authentic Vietnamese food is found nowhere else but on the roadside. It's not hard to tell that this restaurant is one of the locals' favourites. Just across the street, there are two more similar eateries. But their businesses don't seem to be as good. Since a large number of Hue people are vegetarian, both full-time and part-time, you can order non-meat versions of several dishes at many restaurants.

The Dong Ba Market is the largest of its kind in Hue. Here you can find all kinds of goods, from fruits and vegetables to bicycle parts and traditional coneshaped hats. Prices are very good too, if you are blessed with bargaining skills. Motorcycle helmets, for example, can be as cheap as 70 baht. Thai money is generally accepted by most vendors.

The lavishly decorated tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh is the only one of its kind that features a mix of Western and Vietnamese styles of architecture. Father of Bao Dai, the last emperor, Khai Dinh was hated and ridiculed by Ho Chi Minh's supporters for his extravagant lifestyle and submissiveness to the French occupier. While Khai Dinh's time on the throne lasted nine years, it took 11 years to build his tomb.

The vast ground between the outer walls of the citadel and the moat that surrounds the Imperial City serves as a recreation area for the city's residents. As in Thailand, football is the most-played sport here.

The Golden Water Bridge connects the Ngo Mon Gate with the inner part of the Imperial City. The brightly coloured koi give a plausible and vivid explanation of how the bridge got its name.

These dragon boats serve as a convenient mode of transport for tourists visiting monuments located along the Perfume River. A night cruise is not that exciting, as there is not much to see in the dark, but passengers will be entertained with live traditional music.

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