Story: Tran Huyen
Photos: Nhat Long

Hue’s phủ đệ (palaces) provide fascinating glimpses into the lifestyles and values of Nguyen Dynasty nobility

Visitors to Hue all wish to visit the once-glorious palaces within the royal citadel’s ancient walls, or visit the solemn tombs of the Nguyen kings hidden beneath shady trees in the hills to the west of the Hue Citadel. Fewer visitors pay attention to the phủ đệ (palaces) of royals and noblemen scattered around the bustling city or hidden in its rural outskirts. These residences later became  places of worship for members of the Nguyen royal family.

Dragon and qilin decorate on the gate of the prince’s palace of Tuy Ly

After marriage, royals and princes lived in a phủ (palace). Based on a nobleman’s royal title, his palace would be called a công phủ (duke’s palace) or a vương phủ (prince’s palace). Đệ is short for đệ trạch, which is where a princess lived after marriage. Later, people often used the word phủ đệ to refer to the residence of married nobles and royals.

All of these palaces have their own names. The palace was usually named after the region where the royal relative or prince received his royal title, such as: the prince’s palace of Tung Thien; the prince’s palace of Tuy Ly; the prince’s palace of Tho Xuan; the prince’s palace of Dinh Vien; the Duke’s palace of Phuoc Long; the Duke’s palace of Thuong Tin, etc. A palace could also be named after the princess to whom it belonged, such as: the palace of the An Thuong princess; the palace of the Ngoc Son princess, and so on.

The prince’s palace of Tung Thien

At the beginning of the Nguyen dynasty, these palaces were all located inside the Hue citadel, following the principle of “male on the left, female on the right”, meaning that the palaces of male royal relatives and princes were on the left, while those of princesses and noblewomen were on the right of the citadel.

In 1846, Mien Tham, the 10th prince of Emperor Thieu Tri, left the citadel and bought a large plot of land by the Loi Nong River. There, he founded Tieu Vien, later renamed Ky Thuong Vien. The first palace of a Nguyen prince located outside of the citadel, this paved the way for other nobles and royals to build palaces in the capital city of Hue. Following in Mien Tham’s footsteps, many royal relatives and noblemen bought land and built their palaces outside the citadel. They often chose fertile ground in the countryside. Famous palaces include the prince’s palace of Tung Thien, the prince’s palace of Kien Thai, the duke’s palace of An Hoa, the palace of princess Ngoc Lam, the Kien Hoa palace, My Hoa palace, etc. by the Loi Nong River; the duke’s palace of Phong Quoc, the prince’s palace of Tuy Ly, the prince’s palace of Dinh Vien, etc. in Vy Da; and the duke’s palace in Duc Quoc, the palace of princess Dien Phuoc, the duke’s palace of Vinh Quoc, the duke’s palace of Khoai Chau, etc. in Kim Long.

Decoration on the gate of the prince’s palace of Tuy Ly

These palaces were private properties that noblemen and lords built with their own salaries and rewards bestowed on them by the imperial court. Depending on their title and the rewards they received, their palace could be grand or modest. However, all shared common characteristics in layout and architecture. A typical palace has an average area of 2,000 square meters on a rectangular plot of land. The palace is surrounded by traditional plastered brick walls or rows of tall, lush, and carefully manicured wild tea trees. Made of bricks, the gate leading to the palace has three arched entrance gates. The name and title of the owner is carved on top in Chinese characters. The palaces of dukes and princesses usually have a single entrance gate made of wood and flat roofs for an elegant and sophisticated look. Inside, the palace has a main wooden-framed hall, built in the style of Hue’s traditional beam and pillar houses. This building has two wings and three compartments, flat roofs, and plastered and painted brick walls. In the center of the main hall stands the altar to worship the owner’s deceased loved ones. The left and right compartments hold either a study or a guest reception area. A wooden partition separates the main house with two wings on each side, to create enclosed living quarters for the owner and residents. In big palaces, besides the main hall, there are supporting structures on both sides. This is where the family cooked, ate, and conducted their daily activities, and is also where the palace’s servants resided.

The prince’s palace of Tuy Ly

A screen typically stands before the main hall to shield the palace from outside bad luck. Behind the screen is a terrarium tank with a miniature landscape in the middle. This miniature landscape was both a refined hobby of the owner and a fengshui element to balance the site’s yin and yang, create good energy, and preserve the finest values of the palace. Overall, each palace is a big garden villa, showcasing the distinctive and distinguished values of Hue’s garden villa architecture.  

In its former glory, Hue had about 150 palaces both within and outside of the citadel. After the fall of the Nguyen dynasty, things were upturned, and the palaces gradually fell into ruin. By the early 1990s, about 85 palaces remained, mostly in the areas to the northeast of the Imperial City, An Cuu, Kim Long, Vy Da, and Gia Hoi. Today, Hue’s palaces remain attractions that many visitors wish to explore. They want to learn more about the distinctive way of life of nobles in Hue and reminisce about the past glory of the former capital.

After ups and downs, the remaining palaces in Hue are exemplary representatives of Hue’s traditional architecture, as well as places that preserve the elegant and virtuous values of Hue’s nobility. Behind closed gates and mossy walls lie parts of the history and culture of Hue.