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Hue — Vietnam’s ancient capital city rises above the ashes of war

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By the time we finished lunch, Long had assembled a fleet of cyclos for our tour of the Citadel and as my driver pedaled slowly over the Phu Xuan Bridge across the Perfume River I saw no sign of war damage to the outer walls. In 1990 the local government finally recognized the tourist potential of Vietnam’s ancient capital. Three years later it was designated a World Heritage Site and since then many of its ancient buildings, walls, and gardens have been fully restored.

From 1802, when a Ngyen Lord proclaimed himself emperor Gai Long, until 1945, Vietnam was ruled by the feudal Ngyen Dynasty and Hue was its capital city. The Citadel, which Gai Long began in 1804 is protected from the outside world by a zig-zag moat and a thick 10-km long wall. With an area of almost five square kilometres the city within the Citadel walls is more than a relic of history – it’s also home to a large part of Hue’s present population.

We crossed the moat, left the cyclos at the Flag Tower, and walked through the Ngan Gate, one of ten fortified passageways through the ramparts. The brass muzzles of Gai Long’s nine holy cannons still provide symbolic protection and, lest anyone forget, the flag of a unified Vietnam, a yellow star on a field of red, now flies from the 37-metre high mast atop the Flag Tower. Facing the flag tower, the massive three-story wood and stone Ngo Mon Gate leads into the Imperial Enclosure.

Surrounded by 6-m high walls this citadel-within-a-citadel houses the emperor’s residence, his reading room, several ornate palaces, and yet another walled citadel-within-a-citadel called the Forbidden Purple City. When the Ngyen Lords were in residence the Purple City was forbidden to everyone except the Emperor himself, his concubines, and a select group of eunuch servants. Not much remains of the original Purple City but, like other bombed-out sections of the Imperial Enclosure, the war damage is now hidden by foliage and reconstruction is forging ahead.

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