The Citadel in the Imperial City of Hue

Inside the Citadel walls was once lavish and opulent, with ornate gardens and intricate pagodas. But the Vietnam War was not kind to the Imperial City. Large parts of it are now nothing more than rubble.

Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ngo Mon Gate and Bridge
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ngo Mon Gate and Bridge
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The thick stone walls of Hue’s Citadel are certainly solid, towering above a moat fed by the Perfume River. For nearly a century and a half, from 1802 to 1945, those walls protected the royal capital of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty. Within the Citadel, the Purple Forbidden City was an inner sanctum reserved exclusively for the royal family. It provided multiple layers of defenses for a supposedly impregnable fortress protecting the royal family from potential invaders from out beyond the walls.

Inside the Citadel walls was once lavish and opulent, with ornate gardens and intricate pagodas. But the Vietnam War was not kind to the Imperial City. Large parts of it are now nothing more than rubble.

Hue’s position was strategic. Just to the north was the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that served as the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. Half a dozen miles to the northeast is the South China Sea. American warplanes and helicopters launched strikes against North Vietnam from Hue’s airbase. And the U.S. Navy controlled the waters of the South China Sea, maintaining the supply lines so crucial to an army at war.

For most of the war, Hue was held by the South and their American allies. But it was also one of the few strongholds in South Vietnam held for any length of time by the North. In 1968, as a major part of the Tet Offensive, the impressive stone walls were breached as a force of about 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers descended on Hue to capture much of the city. Their occupation didn’t last long–they were pushed out by U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese forces in about a month. But they didn’t go quietly. The intense house-to-house fighting and escalating shelling and bombing destroyed much of the city.

About 160 buildings once stood inside the Citadel’s walls. Less than a dozen survived the Battle of Hue.

The flag of modern, united, communist Vietnam is visible for miles around up and down the Perfume River as it now flies on the massive tower on the royal Citadel, a building standing like a drab, stone wedding cake.

To its credit–albeit in part chasing tourist dollars–the Vietnamese government is willing to look beyond the Imperial City’s imperial past and is funding some restoration. Some sections that are beyond repair are getting shiny new structures. Other sections are getting repair work done. But unfortunately, there’s only so much that can be done with rubble.

What’s left of the Citadel is impressive, but it’s clearly but a shadow of what it once was.

Photos of Hue’s Citadel

Imperial City Hue Vietnam Hazy Skyline and Flag
The massive flag at right is at the Citadel. This show was taken from one of the bridges over the Perfume River closer to the downtown area, through the late afternoon’s heavy haze. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Tourist Silhouette
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dragon Statue Head
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ngo Mon Gate and Bridge
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Tourists Feeding Carp
Tourists feeding koi. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Bamboo Painting Blinds
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ngo Mon Gate Detail
Ngo Mon Gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Renovations
Renovation work. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Bridge
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Tourists Silhouetted
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Pagoda and Cannon
This pagoda is outside the main walls, just across the moat. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel Plaza
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Main Entrance
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Gate
An ornate decorated gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Restored Building
A vividly restored building. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Stone Dragons on Stairs
Stone leoglyphs at the base of one of the small pagodas. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Silhouette
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam To Mieu Temple Shoes
Outside one of the temples. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnamese Flag in the Haze
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Red To Mieu Temple
Inside the Red To Mieu Temple. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Restored Pagoda
A restored pagoda. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Garden Path
Path through a manicured garden. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ornate Decorations
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Carved Dragon
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Ngo Mon Gate
The Ngo Mon Gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Colorful Roof
An ornately decorated rooftop. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Tourists and House
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam House
A residential building. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Detail
Tiled rooftop. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Decorations
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Decorations
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dien Tho Residence Gate Detail
Detail on on the Dien Tho Residence Gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dien Tho Residence Door
A wider view of the Dien Tho Residence Gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dien Tho Residence Gate
Wider still. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Tour Guide
A tour guide leading a small tour group. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Tiles
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Pagoda Roof
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Decorations
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Reeds in Moat and Bridge
Looking across the moat. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Stone Dragon
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnamese Flag
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Pagoda and Flag
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel Gate Ngo Mon Gate
The main Ngo Mon Gate. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Moat Man Fishing
One of the side gates, from across the moat. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel with Flag and Moat
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Moat Local Residents
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Guard Tower
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Flag Reflected on Moat
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dien Tho Residence Compound
The Dien Tho Residence compound. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dien Tho Residence Gate
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Weathered Gate
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Painting
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Building Reflected on Moat
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Roof Dragon
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Red Ceiling Rafters
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel Gate from Right
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel and Moat
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Dragon Sculpture
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Imperial City Hue Vietnam Citadel Flag
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com

Things to Know Before You Go

How long does it take to visit Hue’s Citadel? It’s quite a sprawling complex, so allow some time and expect some walking. Unless you specifically arrange a guided tour, you can wander around at your own pace and take as long as you like.

How do you get to the Citadel in Hue? Once you’re in Hue, you can’t miss it. That massive flag you see is right there. It’s on the banks of the Perfume River, so just follow the river around and walk in.

What to wear in Hue’s Citadel? While I’m not aware of any official dress requirements, respectful, climate-appropriate clothing will fit in well. Much of the site is outdoors, so hats or other cover from the sun is a good idea. If you go inside the religious buildings and pagodas you’ll be expected to remove your shoes.

Where to Next?



Travel Advice for Vietnam

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Vietnam (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Vietnam here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Vietnam here.

by David Coleman

I'm a freelance travel photographer based in Washington DC. Seven continents, up mountains, underwater, and a bunch of places in between. My images have appeared in numerous publications, and you can check out some of my gear reviews and tips here. More »