The grey afternoon that hung heavily over Hue’s imperial city muted its colours but couldn’t dampen the immediate impact of its 300-year legacy.
It was Chinese imperial architecture on a scale I had never seen before that ate up the land alongside the Huong River for miles around. A royally endorsed tribute to Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Immediate impact must have been a mantra for its architects.
Just through the main gate beyond the moat bridge, the complex exploded into a vast array of avenues. Symmetrical planted gardens led outwards towards ornate buildings, walkways and shrine pagodas. Every structure appeared to be fringed by columns that rose upwards, drawing the eye to intricate roofs that connected in lines of tiles like a rhythmical ocean.
The sky’s off white canvass sucked the life out of my photography, so I put my point-and-shoot away and lost myself in reality. Roaming the grounds in no particular order, I dodged organised gaggles of pre-arranged walking tours, quite happy to absorb myself in the quieter slithers of the Emperor’s old home; the palaces of the The Forbidden Purple City.
Wikitravel pages I’d browsed months before in a dreary Welsh office told me that the Nguyen rulers had held court in Hue for the majority of the 1800s. Even after the French arrived in the 1880s and long into the 20th century, they still undertook traditional ceremonies within the citadel walls. Although once it stopped being the imperial seat of power in Vietnam, it was ravaged over the years by a combination of weather, war and even insect infestations.
Despite what I knew, the citadel’s organised aesthetic hid its history of attack incredibly well.
Following a UNESCO listing in 1993, it was still in the midst of a large and sensitive restoration project and I could already tell that this was gradually restoring more of its original grandeur. Although, its most recent scars from the 1968 Battle of Hue were still clearly visible. And on the final stretch of wall I walked, I spotted the unmistakable pock marks of bullets fired.
For a brief moment, I recognised my view as a famous news shot from articles I’d seen in a Ho Chi Ming museum. Soldiers from various sides of the conflict fled, guns slung over their shoulders, from the safety of the citadel’s walls; No longer protected by the imposing structure but outed because of it. So much of the complex was destroyed in that most recent fighting, that it would have taken me weeks, not hours to see everything that once stood.
Is legacy about what is tangibly left or what is inspired by what once was? I questioned myself as I backed away from the citadel’s fringes, giving into a few final mediocre photos.
In one afternoon Hue’s enduring citadel had allowed me to conjure a picture of life and death inside and outside of its walls that had fostered the Vietnam I was travelling through: The site of a ruling dynasty overthrown, a defining invasion by the French and a battle between forces so recent that it was captured for eternity in coloured film.