ARCHITECTURE OF THE ANCIENT CAPITAL OF HUE - VIETNAM NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS AND FOREIGN INFLUENCES

Brief on the history of Hue urban area's establishment.
Architectural appearance of Hue in the old days and at present.
National architectural characteristics of Vietnam and Hue architectural qualities
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Hue used to be the Capital of the Nguyen dynasty, the last royal monarchy in the history of Vietnam.  Although the city had undergone great sufferings in the period of modern time, it still maintains a quite original face of an ancient oriental town, the most visible aspect of which is the complex of royal constructions and traditional monuments built in romantic natural landscapes.   The architecture of the Ancient Capital of Hue reflects a deeply Vietnamese traditional soul.   In 1993, the complex of Hue monuments was included in UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage.  Since then, Hue - a cultural and tourist center of Vietnam - has become much more attractive to not only domestic and international visitors but also historians, architects and cultural researchers.

I - HUE ANCIENT CAPITAL, A TYPICAL URBAN ARCHITECTURE OF VIETNAM.

Today in Vietnam, there are more than 200 cities of different sizes.  In terms of history and culture however, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh city, and Hue are the most important.  Although the Ancient City of Hue is much smaller than the former and the latter,  it has its own historical and architectural qualities.

A.  Brief on the history of Hue urban area's establishment.

The name Hue (resulted from mispronunciation of the term Hoa) came into being in 1307, after the Champa king Jaya Sinhavarman III had given up present day Hue and DaNang to Vietnam to get married to a princess of the Tran dynasty (1225-1400).  However, it was not until 1687 that Hue region was chosen by a Nguyen Lord to be the political center of Dang Trong (south of Vietnam).  This political center was then turned to be the Capital of the whole country by the Tay Son dynasty (1778 - 1801).

At the beginning of the 19th century, Gia Long (1802 - 1819), the first Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty carried out a large scale planning and new construction, making Hue the Capital of the whole country.  His successors, especially Emperor Minh Mang, also played an important part in the completion of Hue royal architectural system.

During colonial period, in 1875, the French set up a "European Quarter" on southern bank of the Huong River, opposite to the Royal Citadel of Hue.  After the abdication of Bao Dai, the last Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty in 1945, the role of national political center of Hue was taken over by Saigon (1945 - 1975) and Hanoi (from 1945 onwards).  Nowadays, the Ancient Capital of Hue has been considered an important tourist and cultural center of Vietnam.
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B.  Architectural appearance of Hue in the old days and at present.

Through more than 3 centuries development, Hue urban construction was carried out in 3 different periods: the period of Monarchy (the Nguyen Lords and the Nguyen Emperors), the colonial period and the period of 1945 - 1997.  Thus the city now consists of a variety of architectural types.   The most exceptional value however, is of the complex of royal architecture
  1. Royal architecture.
    The natural topographical features of Hue region such as Huong River and Ngu Binh Mount played very significant parts in Hue architecture, especially under the monarchy's period.

    During the period of the Nguyen Lords in Dang Trong, the complex of Hue royal construction which consists of walls, palaces, mausoleums, temples.. was carried out on either sides of the Huong River.   It faces south, taking Ngu Binh Mount as the royal Screen (to prevent evil impacts according to "Feng Shui").  However, at that time, this complex was still in small scale and located on only an island which was separate from the Huong River and one of its tributaries - Kim Long River.

    Under the Nguyen Emperors' period (1802 - 1945), together with several new constructions, the urban center of Hue was replanned and enlarged into the large scale and majestic city as we can see today.    At the beginning of the 19th century, the city's collection of buildings was placed coherently in a way much in accordance with oriental philosophies, especially "the Decree of God" of Confucius ideology.
     
    At present, the main architectural types forming the appearance of the Ancient Capital of Hue are:
    Walls: Citadel, Imperial City, Forbidden Purple City.
    Royal palaces: hundreds of buildings where the Nguyen Court worked and lived.
    Both these types of construction were built on northern bank of the Huong River.
    Mausoleums: Emperors' Mausoleums were constructed on a hilly region, west of the city's center.  There are seven main royal tombs: Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Tu Duc, Duc Duc, Dong Khanh, Khai Dinh.
    Temples and shrines: Located scatterly in Hue region are Nam Giao, Esplanade, Temple of Literature, Temple of Military, Hon Chen Temple, Royal Arena.....
     
  2. Religious architecture.
    Most of Hue population is devoted to Buddhism.  In Hue region, there is a large number of celebrated pagodas built 4 centuries ago such as Thien Mu, Quoc An, Tuy Van... The Hue Buddhist pagodas really reflect sublime ideologies of Buddhism.

    Catholicism came into being in Hue many centuries ago.  Presently, the Ancient Capital of Hue still maintains a large number of old catholic churches such as Kim Long, Phu Cam, Phuong Duc.

    In Hue region where there is a huge number of villages, each village has its own communal house, temple worshipping its founder, Buddhist pagodas, family or clan shrines.

    The Hue people always attach importance to showing their respect for spiritual life.  It is for this reason that religious structures and buildings serving traditional belief have been constructed in many palaces in the city.
      
  3. Hue houses with garden.
    The Ancient Capital of Hue is preserving a special type of architecture which is not available in other localities in Vietnam: Garden houses.  They are wooden houses, elaborately carved and decorated, located in the middle of large gardens with beautiful bonsai and old trees' all year round shadow.  In terms of structure, the garden house itself is called "nha roi" (one chamber - house) or "nha ruong" (three chamber - house).  A garden house of Hue usually consists of a main entrance, sub entrances, a screen at front yard, a rockery, a small aquarium... In addition to the main building in the middle of the garden, there are several dwellings and a water well for daily use.

    Hue garden houses used to be the living places of royal relatives, royal officials, elite families, poets, and writers during the time when Hue was serving as the Capital of the whole country.  Today in these houses, former owners are worshiped in the main building while their descendants are living in subordinate parts.  It can be said that these garden houses is a link between royal architecture and folk one of the Ancient Capital of Hue.
     
  4. European Quarter.
    Through more than 80 years present in Hue (1875 - 1954), the French had constructed on southern bank of the Huong River a range of offices and villas of Western style such as French Governor's Residence in An Nam (Central Vietnam), Morin Hotel, Post office, Hospital, Bank, Railway station, Quoc Hoc and Dong Khanh high schools.. In other word, the French set up in Hue in that period a new architectural complex called "European Quarter" (Ville Europeenne).  Also in that period, a commercial center called "Merchandise City" was established by the French.  Additionally in 1880s, due to too much pressure from the colonial rule, the Nguyen dynasty had to make concession of an area inside north-east part of the Citadel to the French.  This area was then called "Concession land to the French" or Mang Ca Lon (Big Gills) Military Post.   The French also erected a system of defensive wall to surround this are.
     
  5. Modern architecture
    Since 1954, many new buildings have been constructed for social and economic life of Hue population such as Huong Giang Hotel, Century Hotel, Da Vien Water Tower, Phu Xuan Bridge, Hue Notre-Dame Cathedral, Huyen Khong Pagoda... On the other hand, some colonial buildings have been restored and renovated to meet the demand of modern life: Dong Ba market, Morin Hotel, Hue Hospital, Hue Financial Department.. The construction and the renovation of these buildings has been carried out according to the common architectural style applied by many countries.  Some buildings however, are not sympathetic to the city's ancient ambience and poetic landscape, particularly those which are located on the Huong River's banks such as Huong Giang Hotel, Century Hotel, Dong Ba Market, Da Vien Water Tower...

    In general, the Ancient Capital of Hue possesses a variety of architectural styles left by different historic times.  It reflects the aesthetic standard and social economic activities of each period and at the same time, bringing out national architectural characteristics of Vietnam and foreign architectural influences.
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II - ARCHITECTURAL CHARACTERISTICS OF VIETNAM AND FOREIGN ARCHITECTURAL INFLUENCES.

Previously, there were some extremist observations on the architecture of the Nguyen dynasty, saying that it was just a copy of Chinese style or French style.  These observations were not right.  In fact, it is normal that mutual architectural influences between different countries occur.   Furthermore, in its history, Vietnam was under the dominion of China for more than 1000 years (111BC - 938AD) and France for 80 years (1875 - 1954), thus the influences of Chinese and French architecture are unavoidable.  However, Vietnamese architecture in general and Hue construction in particular, has its own style and characteristics.

A   National architectural characteristics of Vietnam and Hue architectural qualities

With an area of 329,000 kilometer square and the population of 75 millions, Vietnam has 54 different ethinic groups of which the Vietnamese (also called Kinh ethnic group) is dominant and concentrates in the country's plain.  Vietnam territory consists of a variety of topographical types.  The different housing structure and tomb's construction between ethnic communities are dependant on their geographical features and cultural influences (from China, France).   With reference to Vietnamese architecture, its style differs according to living regions.

  1. Vietnam national architectural characteristics.
    As one of Indochina peninsula countries which is located in the region of tropical climate, architectural characteristics of Vietnam can be pointed out as follows:
    ***** Building material: Light and locally-made such as bamboo, wood, thatch, stone, brick, tile, paint, terrecotta, lime have been used.

    ***** Buildings' direction: Hue historic buildings usually face south, which is in accordance with a famed saying "Get married to a woman, build south-facing house".  In fact, buildings facing south can avoid cold wind from the north east in winter and enjoy fresh wind from the south in summer.

    ***** The harmony between architecture and nature:  Available sceneries are fully utilized to enhance the aesthetic value of constructions, or part of natural landscape would be adjusted in accordance with the architects "demands".   This type of construction has been considered "Landscape Architecture".

    ***** Vietnam architecture tends to represent Eastern philosophy and spiritural life.  It was believed that the construction of both dwellings and graves would always be ruled over by supernatural powers.

  2. Hue architectural qualities.
    4000 years ago, Vietnam was established in its present-day northern part.  During the process of expanding the country's territory further southwards from the 11th century to the 18th century, the Vietnames continously came and settled along the stretch of plain and coast of central and southern Vietnam.  On this newly-created land, Truong Son mountain's branches wich projected to the ocean formed several sub-regions of different climate and topography.  Together with the historic context of many periods, such natural geographical factors resulted in architectural similarity and difference between the regions as well as in Hue architectural qualities.

    The royal town constructed during the Monarchy's period has always been the core in Hue urban planning.  From the 17th to the 19th centuries, it had always been the center part of Hue region.  Although there was an interference between royal and folk architecture in terms of structure, decoration and disposition, the latter is considered secondary to the former.

    It can be said that "the landscape architecture" has reached its highest level in Hue in Vietnam architectural history.  Hue architecture tends to be OPEN.  The construction itself is not big, however, its ambience is likely to be enlarged by a river, a mountain, a plot of grass.  The buildings' surrounding geopraphical entities have been fully utilized, supernaturalized to become their dependent elements.  This has resulted in people awareness for protecting Hue natural poetic environment.

    Hue architecture is a combination of urban construction and countryside basics.  The urban center of Hue was built at Phu Xuan village (1687) and then enlarged in the occupied territory of 7 other villages.   After the citadel's completion in  1832, tens of wards were established spontaneously inside its area.  The administrative system and social activities of these wards were similar to these of rural villages.  Their presence was tolerated by the Nguyen dynasty.  Till now, inside the Citadel's area, there are still several groups relying on argriculture.  They carry out activities such as vegetable planting, rice cultivation, stock farming ... as in past times.

    In terms of architectural struture and deoration fo Hue royal palaces, many improvements can seen in comparison with those of other localities in Vietnam.  The Ancient Capital of Hue is the place where flood and storm occur yearly.  It is for this reason that the palaces' foundation and roof had to be erected properly in order to avoid such natural disasters.  It can be seen that in order to enhance the position of the palaces, an optical illusion in their height was created by dividing their roof into 2 or 3 parts horizontally and building their penthouse's columns into the yard surface, instead of the foundation.  The palaces' roof fringe is straight and the roof corner is not as curved as that of Northern temples and pagodas.  As far as the structure is concerned, the Hue palace is a compound constructuion of which the front and the back chamber are connected by the middle ceiling system, forming spacious and solemn interior space of the palace.  Interior and exterior decorations were done according to "
    Nhat thi nhat hoa" (one picture, one painting) motif.   This decorative motif is not available in other localities in Vietnam.

    Hue, the city of garden:  Unlike other towns of Vietnam, the Ancient Capital of Hue is the unique one that still maintains its natural greenary.  This green environmnet includes a large number of gardens located adjacently to living, religious structures.  In addition to the park system on either sides of the Huong River, Hue has been considered the city of garden owing to its garden houses, garden pagodas, garden palaces and garden mausoleums.

    The above-mentioned qualities have created a special face of Hue architecture in terms of aesthetics.  However, some foreign-integrated architectural elements can be found.

  3. Foreign architectural influences.
    It is natural that Vietnam architecture has absorbed foreign influences, especially under Chinese and French periods.  Hue - the former cultural and political center of Vietnam - is the same.  The city's construction more or less has been subject to many foreign architectural influences, from both China and the West.

    a.   Chinese architectural influences
    In cultural activities in general and in Hue architecture in particular, the influences of Chinese Confucius philosophy can be seen clearly.  The most visible influence from Chinese philosophies is the use of the theory of "Book of Changes", "Feng Shui" and decorative motifs.

    The theory of "Book of Changes" and "Feng Shui"
    :   For both common people and royal elite groups in the old days, when constructing a wall, a palace, a pagoda, a house..., they had to apply theory of "Book of Changes" and "Feng shui" such as the choice of building site, good construction day, directions, the utilization of natural geographical entities...Normally, these were the responsibility of geomancers who would use an instrument called "La Kinh" (geomantic compass).  Many Eastern philosophies and "Feng Shui" practices were applied to the complex of Hue buildings such as theories of "Yin an Yang", "Five Happinesses", "Three Abundances"... This application of ancient philosophies can be seen at the construction of Hue Citadel.  It faces the south, taking Ngu Binh Mount as the Royal Screen.  There are two small islands on the Huong River "Clear House"  playing the roles of Left Dragon and Right Tiger..

    Decorative motifs on Hue traditional architectural structures: Most of Hue historic buildings such as royal palaces, pagodas, mausoleums are decorated with Chinese ancient motifs.  For instance: Four Seasons (represented by apricot, lotus, chrysenthemum, willow), Four Sacred Animals (dragon, griffin, turtle, phoenix), two dragons fighting for a pearl...Such decorative motifs can be seen both on interior and exterior decorations of the buildings and artifacts made of wood, terracotta, metal, cloth, paper...

    b. French Architectural Influences Western culture came to Vietnam in general and to Hue in particular from the 17th century through the Catholic bishops' propagation.  During the period of the Nguyen Lords (1558-1775)  in Hue region, some catholic churches were built.  However, it was until the period of the Nguyen Emperors that many constructions became strongly influenced by Western architectural styles.

    The Hue Citadel was built after the Vauban model: Vauban is the name of a French engineer (1633-1707), owing to his expertise in military architecture, he was appointed to be Marshal and member of the French Academy in 1699.  Under Emperor Louis XIV period, Mr. Vauban was in charge of constructing hundreds of strongholds and fortresses to defend his country.  It was him who created the military construction type called "fortified city" or "inalienable city".  In Vietnam, after winning over the Tay Son dynasty and coming into contact with some French specialist in military construction such as Colonel Oliver de Puymanel, engineer Lebrun...Gia Long was the first Emperor in the Far-East who applied the Vauban model to the construction of the country's strongholds.  For instance: Gia Dinh Citadel (1790), Hue Citadel (1805) which is the most important construction of the Nguyen dynasty.

    The Vauban model is a complex of defensive construction which includes ramparts, bastions, embrasure, walls of shooting, "berme" (the stretch of land running along the citadel's base), moats, "glacis" (the stretch of land linking outher bank of the moat and inner bank of the defesive river).  These can be seen at present Citadel site of Hue.  They also can be seen at Tran Hai Citadel in Thuan An district.

    c.   Other Western architectural influences: Apart from the European Quarter and the French military buildings at "Concession Land of the French", in the first decades of the 20th century, many offices and villas were built by the French.  In Hue, the French architectural influences reached its highest level under the period of Khai Dinh Emperor (1916-1925) who paid a visit to France in 1922 and Bao Dai (1926-1945) who studied in France for 10 years (1922-132).  In "The fine arts of Vietnam", its author - Mr. Louis Bezacier - suggests that under the period of Khai Dinh, fine arts in general and architecture in particular was "new classical".  This observation can be reflected by several typical buildings constructed during that time such as An Dinh Residence, many Western classical decorative styles can be seen.  Furhter more, it is necessary to say that in Khai Dinh Mausoleum, an electricity system, iron gates, a lighting conductor have existed since its completion in 1931.

    Additionally, at some Hue historic buildings, Indian architectural elements are also visible, for example the two obelisks in Khai Dinh Mausoleum and on Buddhist graves...

    In brief, the most basic outlines of Hue urban appearance were established in the 17th century, replanned and enlarged in large scale in the 19th century under the Nguyen Emperors' period.  Vietnamese archtects at that time did combine the inherited tradition arts with Chinese ancient philosophies in the construction of Hue.  At the same time, they also applied the French" fortified city" style harmoniously to Hue region topography.  Since the colonial period, with social-economic and population development of the town, many constructions have been carried out.

    Despite the fact that there are considerable errors in design and position of some new buildings, especially those of which are located along the Huong River's banks and the degrading of some ancient monuments (due to the local climate extremities and former wars), the Hue "landscape architecture" heritage has been well preserved.   The city natural enviornment has not been damaged as seriously as in other localities in Vietnam and the world.  During his trip to Hue in 1981, Mr. A.M.M Bow, Former General Secretary of UNESCO regarded Hus as "a masterpiece of urban poetry".  In 1993, in its Hue monuments... was built at the beginning of the 19th century in line with Eastern philosophies and Vietnamese tradition.  Its melding with the natural environment, the beauty of the exceptional architecture and decorated buildings are a unique reflection of the old Vietnamese Empire at its height".   Thus, it can be said that Hue architecture has its own characteristics and human values.  At present, the architecture heritage of Hue is being financially invested by Vietnamese government and international community to be better preserved and enhanced.


                                                                PHAN THUAN AN
       
                                                 Translated by Nguyen Van Hue

 

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