ATTRACTIONS - Imperial City

This section is on the Imperial City, located within the Citadel

About 2.5km around, this moat-surrounded inner citadel is surrounded by 6m walls. Inside are many walled pavilions and the site of the so-called Forbidden Purple City. It’s well worth seeing. You’ll need at least two hours, depending on how pokey you get.

admission 55,000VND, or US$3.45; open 7am-5pm daily

The following circuit goes straight back from the entrance, then right (east) and criss-crossing to the left (west/south).

The main entrance is the NGO MON GATE (1833), facing the outer citadel’s flag tower at the south end of the imperial city. Above is the lovely gold-tile–topped FIVE PHOENIX PAVILION, an open pavilion where kings watched parades pass and today you can watch motorbike taxi guys outside calling ‘yo’ to exiting visitors.

Behind the Ngo Mon Gate are two small ponds and a walkway leading to the imperial city’s most photographed site, the THAI HOA PALACE (Palace of Supreme Harmony). Somehow spared during the 1968 bombings, the spacious palace has 90 red-and-gold lacquer columns and the king’s golden throne. This is where the biggest ceremonies (the king’s birthday, various coronations) were held.

The back door of Thai Hoa leads out to a courtyard framed by two MANDARIN HALLS (restored in the late 1970s), where civil and military mandarins would ready themselves before events. The colorful, bright ‘Right House’ (to left as you approach; directions are in regards to king’s perspective) gets a little manic, with throngs of Vietnamese visitors going wild over photo opps in the rentable gold and red robes and funny hats you can put on (for 25,000D, or US$1.60). The quieter ‘Left House’ has a few exhibits of lacquer, bronze and silver items from king’s times.

A sad wall stands just beyond, with the bomb-blasted barren remains of the FORBIDDEN PURPLE CITY, once the domain of the emperor. (Only eunuchs, concubines and queens were allowed in.) At the far end of the city’s site stood Kien Trung Palace, which was the residence and key viewing platform for the king. It’s a sad spot to stand and imagine what might have been. It’s been demolished twice – in 1875 and 1968.

Looking back over the site, to the left is the THAI BINH READING ROOM, a lovely wooden two-storey structure surrounded by bonsai and a small lake. The interiors are closed, but there are plenty of ornate details on the rooftop – as added by the over-the-top emperor Khai Dinh – and you may have it to yourself, as few Citadel visitors seem to realize it’s here. The big building just south (back towards the Ngo Mon Gate) is the Royal Theatre, used by a local university.

Don’t leave the imperial city without walking through the string of well-restored, walled ANCESTRAL ALTARS at the southwest corner. Perhaps the most beautiful – reached via the shaded walkway along the wall (west of Ngo Mon Gate) – is lush woodwork of HIEN LAM CAC (Pavilion of Everlasting Clarity), built in 1821-22. Behind it, between Hien Lam Cac and the red-and-gold The Mieu Temple (1822) are NINE DYNASTIC URNS, highly ornamented bronze urns dedicated to nine emperors; the biggest – coming in at a mere 2600kg (5720lb) – is for the first emperor Gia Long.

Keep heading north. The next two walled pavilions make interesting juxtapositions. The first HUNG MIEU (dedicated to Gia Long) is colorfully restored, while the similar design of PHUNG TIEN remains bombed-out and largely untouched. Just north is the last, DIEN THO, once the queen’s mother’s residence. Here you can see the French-style house that briefly served as the last emperor Bao Dai’s residence.

→ If you need food in the area, the legendary LAC THIEN (link) is a couple long blocks east.

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