What is the Imperial Palace and what makes it worth a visit?
Should you ever find yourself with spare time in Hue and not sure what to do with it, then we’re here to tell you why the Imperial Palace is a good place to start.
One of our favorite things to do in Hue is visit the Imperial Palace. These ancient ruins convey a history of power, struggle, courage and culture.
This famous UNESCO World Heritage site should be on your must see list for a Hue one day itinerary!
Things to know before you go
Length of visit
Reviews we read said visits lasted anywhere from two to four hours. Four hours seemed excessive, so we planned for a two-and-a-half-hour visit.
As soon as we walked through the first gate and saw the Nine Holy Canons, we knew it was going to be an epic day. We enjoyed five whole hours there and we weren’t disappointed!
If you love taking photos, then prepare to spend some time here. I couldn’t pick what to point my lens at first. Leon too struggled to work out how to fit the whole citadel visit into our vlog.
Best time to go
Hue weather is typical for central Vietnam. Hot and humid in summer and wet and cloudy in the wet season.
We visited Hue in June, at the beginning of summer, probably the hottest time of the year. There isn’t much shade but we’ll cover ways to combat that later.
It is cooler from September to March during the wet season. There is also a lot rain during those months, making your visit less pleasant. If any of our readers have been to the Hue Imperial City in winter, please feel free to share your insights.
Tour buses roll in early! A few tour groups went through the main entrance with us and we wondered what the crowd would be like on the inside. Once on the other side, we realized it wouldn’t be an issue. The complex is so big that there’s enough space for everyone. Hooray!
To the best of our knowledge, the park opens at 6:30AM during the summer months and 8:00AM during the winter months.
It pays to get in early during summer to avoid most of the heat.
We walked from our hotel on Chu Văn An in the tourist area and it took us about 20 minutes.
Hue is also home of the cyclo and a good way to see this gorgeous city and all she has to offer. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of taxis and Grab share rides on offer too.
Imperial Palace Hue address: Thành phố Huế, Thua Thien Hue
Imperial Palace dress code
For the heat, wear light, lose clothes and good shoes.
Please take note – To enter some building and all the temples, one has to cover both shoulders and knees. This includes men and women.
I had shorts on but threw a sarong over the top and that got me in. Also, hats are another big no-no when entering these buildings.
They have attendants on guard enforcing a zero tolerance policy. We saw them turn a few people way.
Also, keep an eye out for signs by entrance doors for no cameras. Again, frowned upon and reinforced.
These places have cultural and religious significance to locals. Please try to respect that.
Things to take with you
Water, lots of it! You can buy food and drinks on the grounds but it’s pretty pricey. For example, we bought a couple of Revive drinks that would normally cost VND8,000 (~USD0.30 / ~AUD0.50), each in the city. They charged us VND20,000 (~USD0.90 / ~AUD1.20) each in one of the cafes in the palace. We had our 1L water bottles with us and they lasted all day.
Shade, there isn’t a whole lot of it. A couple of ways to combat this is to
- carry a UV umbrella with you,
- wear a hat (wide brim or even the traditional conical hat is best – don’t laugh, it works!), or
- plan your visit so you hit the indoors a few times more than wandering outside in the heat.
Around the Imperial Palace there are tree lined roads with benches. Not only are they beautiful but a great way to escape the heat for a picnic.
Snacks are a good option too or if you prefer to pack your own lunch, there are plenty of spots to sit down and enjoy it.
There are also plenty of roadside vendors outside the citadel. They sell fresh fruit, beverages and snacks if you want to stock up before you go in.
Imperial Palace Entry Fee
Between the outer wall and the citadel gate is free. If you want to go into the palace grounds you have to pay an entry free.
Entry to the Imperial Palace is VND150,000 (~USD6.00 / ~AUD9.00) per person (same rate for children).
To buy tickets, head to the small wooden kiosk next to the map of the citadel located at outside the Meridian Gate. Tickets are the form of electronic swipe cards.
Also, at the entrance there are two sets of turnstiles. Tourists on the left and Vietnamese visitors on the right (looking at the gate). We’re not sure why that but make note to rock up to the right gate.
Other things to consider
You can hire a tour guide to take you around the citadel and palace for VND300,000 (~USD13.00 / ~AUD18.00). We read plenty of reviews. Some were griping about not getting value for money and other not learning much at all.
Private tour guides are available too. You’ll find them easily by walking the streets of the tourist area around the citadel or in Hue city. Don’t be afraid to shop around though. We didn’t look into these options as we prefer to do our own research and do our own tours most of the time.
Recommended spots for self guided tours
If you’re on a tight schedule then head to these spots first to get the most out of our visit,
- The six Imperial City gates or cua (Chinh Bac, Chinh Dong, Dong BacDong Nam, Tay, The Nan/Ngan)
- The forbidden city main gates or cua (Hoa Binh, Hien Nhon, Ngo Mon, Chuong Duc)
- The Inner and Outer courts
- Temples and Pavilions
- Thai Hoa Palace (perfectly restored)
- Cung Dien Tho (the Queen Mother’s residence)
Let's head inside the Imperial Palace
First off, who knew Vietnam even had royalty?
This Imperial Palace certainly taught us a thing or two! Things like they had an emperor up until 1945! We didn’t even know Vietnam had a monarchy. It wasn’t the only surprise the citadel had in store for us.
We walked across a small bridge over an impressive looking moat towards a hole in an intimidating looking wall. Walking towards the entrance to the Imperial Palace gave us a good idea of just how massive the palace was.
Turns out it wasn’t the entrance to the palace after all but rather a gateway into the whole citadel! The Imperial Palace was still a fair walk away.
How did it become the imperial Palace?
Nguyễn Ánh was the first emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, one that would span 140 years and also be Vietnam’s last dynasty.
Nguyễn Ánh, know as Gai Long took control of Vietnam in 1789.
One of his first acts of state was to use geomancers to find the most auspicious location for the new royal palace. And they delivered!
(Definition of geomancy – a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. Per Wikipedia)
Who built the actual palace?
The exquisite craftsmanship used to build this city is evident everywhere.
For example, the ceramics used as decoration for both the palace and grounds. All pieces designed and made by one family.
Even ceramics used in modern restoration efforts are by the same family!
He’s an 18th generation decedent from the original ceramicist, still creating works of art today. How awesome is that?!
It gets better too! They can make the exact same ceramic piece, using the original palace design specifications from the early 17th century. Right down to the original color. That’s something special.
In fact, there was a family for pretty much each craft, from stone, metal and wood to ceramics. Each a master of their craft. Each intricate craft meticulously handed down to the new generation.
Delivering a Palace fit for a new emperor
Ancient oriental philosophy helped determine the chosen site for the proposed citadel. It also decreed the city had to respect the conditions of the site.
The chosen site sat between mountains and two rivers (Perfume and Sia). The mountains provided protection from malevolent spirits and the rivers from physical attacks.
Even the buildings within the citadel had to cosmologically align with;
- the Five Cardinal Points (center, north, west, south, east),
- the five elements (fire, wood, earth, metal, water) and,
- the Five Colors (yellow, white, blue, black, red).
Construction started in 1802 and completed in 1832. The citadel is 502 ha in size and the Imperial Palace alone made up 12 ha of that!
The geographical location was carefully chosen to ensure effective defenses.
It was the best location to deter their biggest threat at the time, China. It meant that the citadel was out of reach to almost all physical attacks.
The capital at the time, Hanoi was within an easy reach two-day reach. It left the capital venerable and within reach of well stocked enemy forces. They would get there in one day, execute an attack and spend another getting back to base.
Not so great for Vietnam.
Hue however, was far enough out of reach that the enemy had to travel two or more days to get there. Even if they got that far, they wouldn’t have enough provisions to attack a well-protected citadel. Let alone and make it back.
Score for the Emperor and his team of geomancers!
Defending the new Imperial Palace
A 10-kilometer moat protects the entire citadel. A system of slues fed directly from the Perfume river constantly feeds the moat. Very clever for its time indeed.
The inner court, further fortified with a smaller wall that had one gate and three bastions. Protected by a secondary, smaller moat.
A defense structure of a different kind popped up during our explorations.
Each on sat directly behind a palace or temple gate. We found this both odd and interesting.
To get to the building on the inside, we had to walk through the gate and around the wall. Every time.
We later learnt these walls helped stopped malevolent spirits from entering the space. Much like a nice ‘do not enter’ sign for nasty spirits.
How the Imperial Palace and history collided
The citadel and palace survived three major wars.
The last significant event being The Battle of Hue in 1968. Considered one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam/America war.
Eighteen Southern battalions fought ten northern battalions for 33 days straight. Each side suffering significant losses.
Sadly, the battle destroyed most of Hue and lot of her history. The true tragedy is that of the more than 5,000 civilians who lost their lives during that battle too.
Battle scars mar the entire palace grounds. Sadness seeps into your soul when you think of the loss and impact.
In 1993 the citadel became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kicking off efforts to save what remained of the citadel and restoring it as much as possible.
Donations and international auctions have proved invaluable in obtaining historical palace artifacts, many of which are on display today.
What remains of the Imperial Palace today?
Most of it is ruins and what surprises most visitors.
The citadel walls and a small number of original city buildings still stand. It’s hard to fathom the true scale of the citadel based on what you can see today.
Organisations responsible for leading conservation efforts are,
- the Vietnamese Government,
- the Hue Monuments Conservation Center,
- the local Thua Thien Hue Provincial People’s Committee and
- other international organizations lending a hand.
Conservation and restorations efforts look to continue well into the future too. You can read all about them on the info boards around the complex.
What remains of the citadel, can only lead one to day dream about what this city used to looked like. Hopefully restoration can fill in the gaps one day.
Three things we enjoyed most about the Hue Imperial Palace
Cung Dien Tho
Elegant residence of the Queen Mother. Built in 1804, and located in the outer courtyard of the Imperial City. The smaller building overlooking the koi pond used to be the Queen Mother’s hobby and tea room. It was also where she kept all her favorite art pieces. Words has it she was an avid art lover with an impressive collection to boot.
Today you can sit at one of the wooden tables and enjoy a cool beverage, catching your breath. There are still koi’s in the pond and for VND5,000 (~USD0.20 / ~AUD0.30), you can buy a packet of food and feed them. They’re huge too and a lot of fun to feed!
Finding a bullet casing
Seeing bullet holes in the walls was surreal but picking up an actual shell casing is something else! It felt like holding history in our hands! Thing is we weren’t even looking for them. This one just happen to be lying in the dirt by a spot we chose to sit and cool down.
The last emperor of Vietnam
What surprised us the most is that the last emperor of Vietnam was still alive in our lifetime. Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy was the 13th and final emperor, reigning from 1926 to 1945. He abdicated the throne in 1945 and died in 1997.
Not certain why it surprised us so much. Guess it was the fact that we didn’t even know Vietnam had royalty, let alone one a living one in our lifetime. Also, Da Lat also happened to be his favorite summer destination in Vietnam and we went to a couple of his palaces there too.
The Hue Imperial Palace in a nutshell
It’s massive! It’s interesting, it won’t be what you’re expecting and it’s worth the visit. This felt like it was our first real Vietnamese history experience and we loved it.
We relished every nook and cranny we could, wishing for more. If you do come for a visit, we highly recommend you pop into the Imperial Palace in Hue.
More Hue adventures to be had
We have a whole playlist of adventures in Hue for you to enjoy, go check it out.
And if this is your first visit to our site, welcome! Head on over to our Things to do in Vietnam Page where we tell you about more things you should add to your Vietnam itinerary.
Thanks for reading guys and we’ll see you in the next post…