In the centre of Vietnam sits a small city with immense historic significance. Here collide the defining ingredients of Vietnam’s contemporary character, those engendered by its rich and chaotic history. The romantic Imperial past, the influence of French colonialism, the devastation of a generation-long war, Marxist ideology, and capitalist pragmatism have all played their part in writing this tale. In Hue, this tale is rendered concrete in the conflicting narratives of the city’s urban infrastructure.
Hue's principal industry is tourism, and the Forbidden City is the jewel in the crown of its many historic attractions. Historically, admittance was reserved only for the Emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, their family, servants, and the hundreds of eunuchs entrusted to guard them. Now, access can be purchased. For the princely sum of 200,000 VND (about $10 USD) foreign and Vietnamese tourists alike are granted admittance to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
The strong geometry of the city's ancient citadel extends into its immediate environment, but only as far as the massive, ten-meter thick wall securing the site’s 8 kilometer (about 5 miles) perimeter. Homes, restaurants, gardens and schools fill in the gaps in the grid. There is an abundance of lush vegetation and stately trees, which drink from the heavy rains and the waters of the Sông Hương (the Perfume River) as it runs along the length of the south-eastern perimeter wall.
The geography of Hue is strongly connected to the river that runs through it. The unique character of Hue's historic quarter is dictated by how this organic, serpentine element interacts with the seemingly arbitrary grid imposed by Hue's Forbidden City, but the origins of the grid are somewhat esoteric. What is striking about the master plan of the site is the planners’ decision to offset this grid from the cardinal points by about forty-five degrees. This is in stark contrast to the Forbidden City in China (the architectural inspiration for Hue), which is oriented on a more traditional north-south axis. The site was selected by geomancers, in accordance with their beliefs concerning the flow of elements and chi— essentially, feng shui. Their beliefs were particularly concerned with the citadel's relationship to the Perfume River.
Magical thinking informed the orientation of the citadel, the walls that surrounded it, and the grid that was extrapolated from it. It seems incredible that the street layout was dictated by such caprice, but then again this was an absolute monarch, and apparently a romantic one. Indeed, romanticism is a stereotype of Hue citizens to this day, many of whom claim royal descent.
Barely two centuries after this decision was made I found myself tramping along those grid lines, wondering if I weren’t going around in circles. It has a dislocating effect similar to Barcelona’s Eixample, except by day the citadel provides a vague way marker. By night the story is very different, and it’s easy to get lost. Local legend attributes the grid’s regularity to a defensive strategy, designed to delay and confuse potential invaders. Whether that’s true or based upon the inability of the US forces to ferret out rebel forces during the later Tet Offensive is unclear, but the effect if not the intent is manifest. In darkness, cold and damp, I felt demoralized, stopping to catch my bearings and a ca phê sua. The patron caught sight of me staring at the rain pounding the dimly lit street, and offered some his own insight:
“It’s why the Nguyen dynasty lost the empire, you know? This weather makes people stare out of the window and write poetry, they forget about everything else. Forget about what’s happening in their kingdom.”
And so the city sits within a city, some weird puzzle for meditative contemplation, looking in on itself, a city of introverts. But it is one that relies on a constant stream of visitors from the external world in order to thrive, to continue, to survive. Whilst an army of workers work diligently within the citadel’s sanctum, faithfully restoring an almost forgotten past, the outside world hammers at its walls, waiting to be admitted.
How has history informed the master plan of your city? What stories does the master plan of your city have to tell? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by author. Data linked to sources.