A rich history and faded elegance abound in the former imperial capital of Vietnam.

Bye girl bye!
Bye girl bye!

Back in Hanoi after our two day excursion to Ha Long Bay, we said our fond farewells to our fellow backpacking cohort, The Passive Observer. Leaving her in the literal lap of luxury of her five-star hotel and bourgeois surroundings, we headed to the railway station for our less glamorous overnight train to Da Nang. After a fretful night full of researching how to repel cockroaches in our private compartment, we vowed never to take any kind of overnight transportation ever again in our lives.

The Imperial City

Entrance to the Noon Gate leading to Thai Hoa Palace.
Entrance of the Noon Gate leading to Thai Hoa Palace.

The Imperial City is huge, and I mean huuuge. It took almost two hours just to see half of the grounds so it’s easy to understand how it can take half a day to try and see everything. Entrance fee is 150k dong and once you walk past the gigantic citadel out front (which I lazily forgot to take a photo of– sorry blog!), you are greeted by the fortified walls and surrounding moat of the palace.

Entrance to the Hien Lam Pavillion.
Entrance to the Hien Lam Pavillion.

It’s amazing to see how much has been preserved considering construction of the palace begun in 1804 (by then Emperor Gia Long). One could get lost in the intricate details carved in stone walls or the opulent interiors of the temples. Being one of the bigger attractions in Hue, the bus loads of tourists being ushered in by guides is inevitable but also avoidable thanks to the sheer expanse of the place. If large groups started shuffling toward our general direction, we would simply wander towards quieter environs.

War-torn But Still Standing

Arches lining the Long Corridor.
Arches lining the Long Corridor.

I noticed many workers toiling along pathways to clear debris and outside of buildings working on maintenance throughout our visit. Sadly, the city was bombed during the Battle of Hue in 1968 and out of the 160 structures, only 10 remain. As a result, large clearings where buildings once stood have now been taken over by fields of green and take on an almost otherworldly, post-apocalyptic character. Still, all the hard work going into restoration efforts are to be commended considering how large the complex is.

Same Same but Different

Exterior of the Dien Tho Residence.
Exterior of the Dien Tho Residence.

Similar to the many wats found within the Old City Center of Chiang Mai back in Thailand, one does get a sort of fatigue after a few hours of walking around and seeing familiar looking courtyards and ornate gates. Being the group of video game nerds that we are, we likened the backdrops to cutscenes from Dynasty Warriors, The Last of Us and Tomb Raider. Silly millenials!

The Devil’s in the Details

Ornate detail on a walled exit.
Ornate detail on a walled exit gate.

My favorite parts of the city were the gates leading into the various structures. Many were painted with murals depicting epic scenes and legendary creatures, while some were adorned with simple sea shells and arranged into beautiful designs. I couldn’t tell which parts were original and which were restored, but there’s a sort of reflective quality in the ambiguity of the new and the old coming together. Maybe that’s not too stray of an observation for the country of Vietnam as a whole. So deep!

The peace and calm of Ngoc Dich Lake.
The peace and calm of Ngoc Dich Lake.

Towards the end of our visit, we strolled through the Royal Office located on a small island surrounded by the Ngoch Dich Lake and accessible via small bridges over the water. The scene was a nice, quiet pit stop before reaching the center that contained the austere throne room. It was nearing noon and the humidity began to bear down on us, so we said goodbye to the ancient city and made our way to more modern surroundings.