Hue has inherited a host of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage values, with all eyes now on the difficult task of their conservation.

By Story: Song Phuoc on October 17,2017 02:14 PM


Photos: Song Phuoc & Nguyen Van Loi

Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the era of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the country’s last monarchy, and has inherited a host of royal monuments.

Such monuments have deteriorated over the years and some were damaged by war. Conservation is always a leading concern among local people, who desire to retain the inheritance from their ancestors.

Hue has spent almost three decades on conservation efforts, with major assistance coming from countries such as Poland, Japan, and Germany, since its buildings were recognised by UNESCO in 1993. During that period, the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre, the local government body authorised to manage all monument-related tasks, has won applause for its efforts but has also exhibited shortcomings relating to capacity as well as the inherent conflict between administrative management and conservation targets.

Hue is not just the land of emperors. The coastal stretch of land in the central region has a rich history and local authorities have eyed the conservation of other sites and items that reflect the city’s culture and history.



A night program allowing visiting into the former Imperial Palace of the Nguyen Dynasty during the evening has been introduced to attract more tourists.

The ‘Imperial Palace by Night’ program reflects the confidence the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre has gained from its activities. The palace has now come out from the shadows of the night more than seven decades after the Dynasty’s century-plus reign ended. Visitors both local and foreign are able to admire the impressive structure and gain a feel for life during the glory days of the Dynasty thanks to local authorities’ decision to turn it into a night time attraction.

Re-enactments of royal rituals and royal music performances are held. According to centre Director Phan Thanh Hai, the night program offers visitors a great opportunity to review its conservation work and improve upon it, so that the heritage system will attract even more tourists and contribute more to the local economy.

The night program includes a re-enactment of a Royal Patrol, with people dressed as mandarins and soldiers taking part in a patrol. They act out scenes, accompanied by authentic traditional music performed by musicians also dressed in royal costumes.

Visitors can step in to the front yard of the palace, which was where emperors and leading mandarins worked in the mornings, to enjoy live performances of royal court music, an art form UNESCO listed as a world intangible cultural heritage in 2003.

Behind the palace, visitors can listen to ‘Hue tunes’, which are a variation of royal music featuring songs with lyrics, including folk songs and others composed by royal family members and poets of the time. These performances, with traditional Vietnamese instruments like the dan tranh (16-string zither), dan nhi (two-string fiddle), dan nguyet (moon-shaped lute), and sanh tien (wooden clappers), are truly authentic.

Before UNESCO recognised the complex of royal monuments as a world tangible heritage in 1993, the palace was left uncontrolled and intruders had free run of the place. Long after, the palace began allowing tourists to visit during the daytime, as they are now at night.

This represents a successful conservation effort by local authorities, but conservationists have expressed concern about overloading the ancient buildings with visitors, adding considerably to wear and tear.


Authorities have begun repairing some of the city’s typical garden houses in an attempt to preserve part of its architectural legacy. Pham Thi Quynh Dao, Deputy Head of the city’s unit overseeing the management and protection of garden houses, said there is a list of 25 in urgent need of repair.

The plan involves retaining their authenticity both in size and structure, with a completion deadline set for 2020.


Hue-style garden houses dotted around the city and in the suburbs are at risk of continuing deterioration due to the ravages of time as well as the rapid pace of urban development. Local authorities consider the garden houses part of the city’s architectural legacy. Experts say that people in the city are known to be calm and deeply connected to nature and the structure of the garden houses is therefore a reflection of their character and possess an ambiance in which people can maintain a certain peace of mind.

A traditional garden house comprises two sections: the house itself and the garden. Their structure is described as nha ruong, meaning a wooden structure with many beams and pillars and two earthen tile roofs meeting at the peak. Steel nails aren’t used, and the whole edifice can stand on a flat surface without being anchored on concrete foundations.

Meanwhile, the garden includes features found in regular yards, with an ornamental artificial hill or a single rectangular wall built to shield the dwelling from the wind, a fish or lotus pond, perhaps an artificial stream, and areas for perennial trees and flowering plants and bonsai. All elements must strictly adhere to the Oriental concept of ‘feng shui’.

City planners recognised the garden houses’ value and wished to preserve them decades ago, but projects put forward by house owners were blocked, preventing them from repairing the houses despite assurances that any repairs would not affect their authenticity.

Actual work began last year, when the city formed a garden house protection unit and encouraged house owners to become involved in the proposals, with a fund of around VND700 million set aside for renovations.

Authorities also banned the construction of tall buildings in close proximity to the garden houses and detailed regulations for rural development in nearby areas. New dwellings built nearby must be under eleven metres tall and have a maximum of two storeys. Each is allowed to occupy 20% of a 1,000 sq m plot, 25% of a 2,000 sq m plot, or 30% of a 3,000 sq m plot.

No modern structures are permitted. Houses must be built with wooden frames and covered by two tile roofs meeting at a peak. Dark, multi-coloured glass or stone walls are also prohibited. Fencing is limited to 2.1 metres, with plant-based fencing preferred. Business establishments such as restaurants or shops must be under 7.5 metres tall and must ensure they do not disrupt the ‘feng shui’ of the garden houses.

Such actions have been met with applause from the public, who are thankful that authorities are working to preserve the city’s cultural legacy.


The tea once served to emperors was not simply tea. For royal family members it was a treat, with various herbal ingredients added.


According to herbal physician Phan Tan To, the tea prepared for emperors was a mixture of many ingredients that created a harmonious whole, as the herbs do not counter the effects of each other.

The tea for the emperors had a number of benefits, lowering body heat, cooling the liver, curbing blood pressure, and curing insomnia, Mr To said, adding that the dishes served were always nutritious, while the tea and wine included herbal ingredients and were served like medicine.

The monarchy set up an agency specifically compiling tea recipes, which were sent to another agency that gathered the country’s leading herbal physicians to conduct careful checks of the benefits and any possible side effects of every substance to be used.

The recipes were documented, signed, and sealed by at least two royal herbal physicians, and the fortunate Mr To located these recipes in the dynasty’s royal records. In 2013, he worked with the conservation centre to revive some of the tea recipes. Almost all key ingredients are still available today.

Thuong Vien Ngu Tra is the first royal tea to be revived. It’s made from eleven ingredients: jasmine flower, longan, goji berry, dry tangerine peel, liquorice root, jujube, pagoda tree leaf, daisy flower, lotus plumule, dry senna seed, and, of course the key ingredient - tea.

All are also used as ingredients in herbal medicine. While jasmine and lotus plumule are used to lower the body temperature, goji berry and jujube are said to alleviate stress and pain and are used to treat ulcers, among other things. Liquorice root, meanwhile, is said to boost the immune system.

Longan is a herbal remedy for stomach aches and insomnia. The pagoda tree leaves serve to counter bacteria and lower cholesterol levels, and tangerine peels are beneficial in lowering cholesterol as well as fighting cancer.

Another type of tea is Tinh Tam Lien Hoa Ngu Tra, or royal lotus tea. Tinh Tam was a pond build inside the citadel’s territory for the royal family’s recreation. The lotus that grew in the pond was considered to have the nicest fragrance of all lotus species. Tea leaves were placed in the middle of each lotus flower in the early morning and the petals held the tea through its aromatising process. After the tea absorbed the lotus fragrance, it was dried in a mixture of lotus stamens to make royal lotus tea.

According to the Mr To, today’s version has the same benefits, which are to reduce cholesterol levels, prevent cancer, and boost the immune system of frequent drinkers. Organic farms in northern Thai Nguyen province are the sole suppliers of such tea.



On June 21, residents living near the mausoleums of Emperors Tu Duc and Dong Khanh attempted to stop a bulldozer from tearing down a royal tomb, but the driver ignored their pleas.

The tomb was identified as belonging to an emperor’s wife and it was being razed as part of site clearance for the construction of a parking lot. This sparked anger among local people. Local researchers and residents had the feeling that authorities had devalued heritage for economic growth, as the parking lot generates fees.

At the time, Mr Hai from the conservation centre denied the existence of an emperor’s wife’s tomb at the site, saying a report listed two royal tombs in the area, including one built for a wife of Emperor Tu Duc and another for the common burial of his 15 other wives.

Excavation work later unearthed a tombstone and proved Mr Hai’s claims to be incorrect. There was indeed a tomb built for an emperor’s wife at the site, which was razed by the bulldozer. A transcription of the name on the tombstone matched a plate inside the worshipping building set up for Emperor Tu Duc’s wives inside his mausoleum.

Local people and the Nguyen Family Committee, who represent the descendants of the emperors, questioned the management of the conservation centre, as it had clearly overlooked the emperor’s wife’s tomb and allowed bulldozing inside the protected corridors surrounding the two mausoleums.

Archaeologists also demanded permission to conduct excavations at the site of the razed tomb to preserve whatever was undamaged. The royal family committee requested the rebuilding of the tomb on the exact site of the original.

Local authorities ignored both the archaeologist’s demand and the royal family committee’s request. They decided to move the bulldozed tomb to another site, providing the cleared site to the builders of the parking lot.

Public opinion reached its own conclusion: the razing of the tomb was intentional and local authorities placed economic growth before heritage.

Worshipping the ancestors is the most important custom among Vietnamese and graves and tombs are part of this custom. Through this case, local authorities ruined their reputation regarding conservation, after allowing a key heritage site to be destroyed.

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