Hue, An Urban Poem

In 1636, Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan chose Kim Long to build the fortification for the Southern Land (Dang Trong). Dang Trong then developed into the Capital city of Phu Xuan (under Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat), and later into the national capital of Hue (under Emperor Quang Trung and the Nguyen Dynasty) on the same site as it is situated now.


Today, Hue has existed for nearly three hundred and sixty years, but in terms of architecture, it still preserves almost intact the appearance of a Vietnam’s ancient town built in the early 19th century. Hue has held its historical position for many centuries and enjoys advantages in exchanging and accumulating traditional essences, making it one of the biggest national cultural and historical centers.

Mountain and river; a pair of significant factors representing eternal harmony, was always foremost in the urban planning thoughts of the ancient architects who had constructed the Capital City of Hue. Thanks to this consideration, Hue is now still among very few cities that have survived in the modern society, still dreaming in a deeply poetical nature. Mountains, rivers, lakes and sea collectively contribute to a marvelous panorama that opens a wide vision, as well as encompasses a colorful and illusory picture drawn by nature. This city, having been known for many glorious centuries, is still a precious natural gift for people, and satisfies an irresistible desire of dwellers within modern metropolitan cities.

Nature constantly creates for Hue a comfortable tranquility and shares it with the human spirit. Being different from the past quietness, it is now having an animated inner life with the heroic consonance of mountains, the saltiness of the sea, the reticence of the river, and of fruits and flowers all year round in Hue’s gardens. The nature here is not only a beauty for people to admire, but also the vitality for human beings; it is the eternal poetical inspiration of the former capital city. Iu Murdin, a Russian architect, noted that there are various types of cities in the world, namely cities of workers, cities of science, cities of port, huge and super cities, but, he says, “It is rare to find a city of poem. Fortunately, there is a city of this type in Vietnam. That city is Hue.”

Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan is deserving as the founder of the capital city, when he decided to move his residence from Chau Hoa fortification to Kim Long and chose the Perfume river as a main axis to construct the town. It is really exceptional to have such a river, like a stream of epic carrying with it all the symphonies of an area of specific culture. Flowing through valient poetical inspiration of the Gong culture, the river, the jungles, becomes as meditative as a philosopher, resting at the foot of the hills scattered with royal tombs, ancient pagodas and vestiges. The river then appears as dreamy as a beautiful girl when running through the capital city and at last, happily joins Tam Giang lagoon near the sea. Here, the lagoon will act on behalf of the river to carry the city southwards to the famous resorts of Bach Ma overlooking Cau Hai lagoon. The river then continues its travels through the ideal beaches of Canh Duong and Lang Co at the foot of Hai Van pass, where an old phrase of four words: “The First Majestic Landscape” engraved on the stone is still visible.
Those are the most attractive tourist potentials of Hue; and if one knows how to plant a fruit tree, as said in a French poem, “the fruits would be more than what the flowers promised” (Et les fruits depasseront la promesse des fleurs).

A large number of giant architectural works, created by men, are assembled on that immense poetical ground. The architecture of the Nguyen Dynasty is a perfect heritage that would become a national pride of creative talents and community thinking of the Vietnamese after the nation’s reunification in the early 19th century.

What sometimes first surprises the observer is the high scientific level apparent in Hue vestiges; for example, the golden scale observed on the main entrance of the Noon Gate (Ngo Mon). This skill also appears in the perfect hand-made bronze casting technique of the nine Dynastic Urns, in the marble resonant holes at Nam Giao Esplanade, in the decorative artifacts of Phap Lam. Even more skillfully crafted are the matrix arrangement of words that forms many different poems in Long An Temple or the mysterious arrangement of each poetic phrase on the roofs of the Minh Mang Tomb. All these are an intelligent puzzle that was only interpreted just recently. In 1957, a group of Oriental researchers, headed by the French academician Jean Cocteau, noted Hue in the list of “The World Wonders” (Les Merveilles Du Monde, Paris - 1957).

The garden is a unanimous notion which appears in the space surrounding all types of Hue architecture. Examples of this are House garden, Pagoda garden, Palace garden, Tomb garden, Village garden and as a whole, Hue is considered a Garden city. This style of nature reflects an old concept of the same origin of three traditional religions in the Vietnamese culture during the Ly - Tran Dynasties; that of human beings and the universe being of the same essence, a long lasting friendship with nature and an ambition to liberate the human spirit. The Tombs of Nguyen Kings are majestic architectures, which try to hide in the quietness of mountains and hills. Each tomb is full of its specific architectural features according to the principle: “Architecture should tell different stories to different people” as in the post-modern architectural concept of Charles Moore. At the same time, the tomb should be a flower garden for the living rather than a nihilistic world for the dead. The luxuriant relaxation in passing from this world to the other world is a humanitarian quality of Nguyen Tombs and simultaneously reflects the gentle manners of Hue people when faced with the unavoidable rule of  birth and dead in their life circle.
The oldest relics in Hue are the Thien Mu pagoda, which was constructed in 1600AD, and many other constructions erected in the following centuries. Nevertheless, all are in such perfect harmony with the city complex, that the Director General of UNESCO, Mr. A. M. M’Bow has evaluated Hue as, “A masterpiece of urban poetry”.

Throughout the centuries, Hue people have created their own literary and art traditions, a system of five sounds and five colours, a humanitarian philosophy reflected in behaviour and worshiping customs. They have created their own unique style of cooking and dressing, of festivals and recreation, and their own gods and beliefs. This property of ‘intangible culture’ has been termed ‘a Hue voice’ and for all its good and bad aspects, it creates what is called ‘Hue style’.

 It is well known that ‘the culture of Hue’ is not a product made only by the local people. Being the former Royal residence and the national capital, Hue in the old days attracted many talented people from over the country. Each of these people brought with him or her experience and skills from their homeland to enrich Hue community traditions, and in turn, they themselves became the owners of the property, which has since been enriched daily.

Hence, ‘the Hue culture’ has surpassed the limit of ordinary local traditions and reached a level of cultural legacy of the whole nation. Hue claims not all of these achievements by herself, but that of many parts nationwide. These achievements have been recognized as “The World Cultural Heritage”, (UNESCO, 1993).

 Obviously, the Hue community including its local authorities and people, has been handed the heavy task of managing a precious national legacy. And no one can manage a property only by intensively exploiting it, without preserving and developing. Let’s take care of it for the honor of our ancestors and the rights of future generations.

This is both the conscience and responsibility, and also the ability to enrih our life, facing Hue today and tomorrow.
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