Friday, 09/06/2017 16:34

Shining lights on a royal past

Royal space: The backyard of Thai Hoa Palace, lit up at night. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Viet Nam News

Authorities have turned the famous Hue citadel into a night attraction, with the former palace hosting programmes reflecting life during the heydays of the Nguyen Dynasty.

by Phuoc Buu

It might not be an original move, but one of the most famous historical monuments in the country, the imperial palace of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), can be seen in a new light now.

More than seven decades after the dynasty’s century plus reign ended, the palace has come out of the shadows of the night with local authorities turning into a night attraction, inviting visitors from within and outside the country to admire the impressive structure and get a feel for life in the glory days of the dynasty, with programmes featuring re-enactment of some royal rituals and royal music performances.

The latest initiative of the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre has been welcomed by locals, visitors and tour operators.

The centre’s director, Phan Thanh Hai, said they were encouraged by the fact that almost 500 people visited the citadel to enjoy the night programme on the day it opened in late April.

“We think the night programme has been successful so far. This is encouraging and we are going to review it and improve upon it so that we can have more tourists visiting the citadel at night,” said Hai.

Inspired by the show "Imperial Palace at Night" that is held during the biennial Hue Festival, the night programme is a daily version which does not include the royal banquet. Every night, visitors get a chance to watch multiple shows at different places around the former imperial palace.

A re-enactment of the Royal Patrol is the first event to greet visitors when they enter the main gate at Ngu Phung Pavilion at 7pm every evening. People dressed as mandarins and soldiers, just as they used to under the Nguyen Dynasty, take part in the patrol. They act out scenes, accompanied by authentic traditional music performed by musicians also dressed in royal costumes.

Behind the Ngu Phung Pavilion, visitors can step up to the front yard of the Thai Hoa Palace, which was where kings and leading mandarins worked in the morning. The yard now hosts live performances of nha nhac, or royal court music, an art form that the UN cultural agency UNESCO has listed as a world intangible cultural heritage.

Those who linger in the yard will be able to watch rehearsals by the imperial palace’s inner guards who practise martial arts.

Near the Kien Trung Palace, behind the Thai Hoa Palace, visitors can listen to ca Hue, also known as "the Hue tune". This is a variation of royal music that includes songs with lyrics, including some folk songs and others were composed by royal family members and yesteryear poets.

These performances, featuring 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 more authentic and of a higher quality than the more casual ones visitors get to enjoy on boats plying the Huong River. A particularly attractive feature of this music is the teacup clappers who provide rhythmic accompaniment, creating a unique sound akin to the clapping of hands.

A dance-play that used to be performed for the royal family is staged every night at the Truong Sanh Palace. This might be difficult for foreigners to understand. Furthermore, the venue is a long walk away from the entrance, so only the keenest cultural aficionado is likely to make it there.

Interactive culture

Those who are interested in doing something more than listening and watching the cultural programmes have the option of joining royal games. This is likely to instill an appreciation of how hard some of these games were to play.

Dau ho, for example, involves throwing bamboo arrows into vases with narrow necks. Players stand about 5m in front of the vases and throw the arrows. Different vases are used, depending on the difficulty level.

With the three hours that visitors have inside the citadel, one of the best things to do is to reserve some time for walking and looking at the buildings from the outside. It could end up being the best part of the night, watching the imposing monuments lit up at night, because it lends an aura of mystery to the whole place.

“It was a really good experience. The shows were interesting and the ambience was something we could not have imagined some decades ago,” said Pham Thi Thuy Trinh, a 71-year-old local resident.

Trinh used to live inside the former Imperial Palace at a time when the Hue College of Arts was located there. Many college staff used the royal buildings for their lodgings.

Before UNESCO recognized 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.

Hai said that his office had planned the night programme at the citadel a long time ago, but they only got the go ahead from provincial authorities recently.

Nguyen Van Phuc, deputy head of the Thua Thien- Hue Province Tourism Department, said the show would benefit the province’s tourism industry, and make the city a key national heritage landmark.

“The ’Citadel by Night’ programme has proved to be the most striking tour. Visitors have enjoyed it,” Phuc said.

According to a survey conducted by the department, travel agencies in Hue and around the country in connection with the  ’Citadel by Night’ programme have considered it a good one to hold back tourists in Hue.

Officials feel the programme can help turn the spotlight on all tourism attractions in Hue, its monuments, mountains, pagodas, monasteries, Southeast Asia’s biggest lagoon system and areas where ethnic minorities reside.

For years, the province has lagged behind neighbouring localities like Da Nang, Hoi An and Phong Nha in exploiting its large tourism potential, and the night programme could help change that.

While it is too early to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of the programme, the conservation centre is happy with the good start it has seen.

Some people, however, have expressed concerns about overloading the ancient buildings with visitors, adding considerably to its wear and tear. For now most people are content to let the monuments bask in the night light. VNS

On guard: The Royal Patrol is enacted every night at the Hue Citadel. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Traditional music: A ca Hue performance. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Glowing in the dark: Inside the Imperial Palace at night. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Reflection: The Thai Hoa Palace. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Throwback: The Royal Patrol enacted in front of the Ngu Phung Pavillion. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum
Glittering: The Noon Gate and Thai Hoa Palace at night. — VNS Nguyen Van Sum

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