In Vietnam’s former royal capital, Hue, both Kings and commoners appreciated their gardens. Dr Trinh Ba Hai reports on this city’s love of greenery
The late Vietnamese studies researcher Dr. Tran Quoc Vuong once said: “If Hanoi is an inland urban center and Saigon is a harbor, Hue is a place of gardens and poetry.”
Blessed with nearby mountains, forests, lagoons, beaches and a legendary river, Hue has long been associated with beauty and art. From the time that the Nguyen Lords chose this site as their capital, Hue was a place where people were in tune with nature. From the start of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, Hue was the capital of a unified Vietnam, and home to the court of the Nguyen Dynasty. It was during this era that much of Hue’s most impressive architecture was built.
In its royal heyday, Hue was a naturally green city with dozens of royal gardens, hundreds of mansions, garden houses, pagodas and temples, and huge tombs located on the upper stretches of the Hương River (Perfume River). The river is like a blue silk band that connects the court in the east and the tombs in the west. Since Phong Thuy, or geomancy, is very important in Hue, this balance between Ying and Yang is essential.
Royal gardens were built both within and beyond the royal palace. Hue’s garden-lovers appreciated fragrant flowers, strange grasses from all over Vietnam, water features, rock formations, garden houses and gates, and bonsai.
Few people are aware that Hue once had over 30 royal gardens with distinctive styles. In the Imperial City and Forbidden Purple City there were five royal gardens called Thiệu Phương, Ngự Viên, Cơ Hạ, Hậu Hổ and Trường Ninh Residence. Together, these five gardens accounted for a quarter of the palace’s total area, and covered 90,000 square meters.
Beyond the Imperial City but within the Hue Citadel lie many once-famous gardens, including Tịnh Tâm Lake, Thư Quang Garden, Thương Mậu Garden, Khánh Ninh Residence, Bao Đinh Residence, and Thường Thanh Residence. Gardens were also found on an island in the River which, according to ancient principles of geomancy, helped to protect the capital. This island was referred to as a “Right White Tiger”.
Most impressive of all are Hue’s royal tombs, which are decorated with large gardens, pools and lakes. The tombs of Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, and Tu Due cover hundreds of acres. Designed to bring vitality to the monarchs’ afterlife, these magnificent garden tombs allow “a mournful place to smile radiantly’’ and delight visitors.
Traditional garden-style mansions, pagoda gardens, temple gardens and garden-houses for commoners dot the city and its outskirts. Whether big or small, Hue’s gardens are rich in character
For generations, people in Hue have grown flowers and bonsai. The practice of planting trees in pots and shaping them arose in China, where it was known as Penjing, Penzhi or Pencai. The Japanese called this art form Bonsai. In Hue, It is known as Kiểng (a variant of Cảnh)
Hundreds of years ago, Western clergymen and businessmen reported being astonished by the popularity of bonsai in Hue. When Hue became Vietnam’s capital it attracted talented artisans from all over Vietnam, including the best garden-designers and bonsai masters.
Bonsai is judged on three key criteria: age; uniqueness; and elegance. The older a tree, the more precious it is likely to be. Uniqueness relates to the tree’s posture, as creativity is highly valued. A tree must be elegant in appearance and style. The more graceful it is, the more valuable.
One other criterion is important: the idea behind the bonsai. A bonsai should have a theme, or a poetic inspiration. This fourth criterion seems to be especially important in Hue, where people are poetic by nature.
For this reason, Hue has become famous for its bonsai, which are very expensive. Hue bonsai artists incorporate the trees’ natural postures into their vision instead of seeking to constrain them. This respect for harmony with nature is probably linked to the strong influence of Bud¬dhism in Hue. The city’s best bonsai trees look old but not depressing, and strange without appearing lonely. They are elegant, aristocratic and poetic.
In terms of geography and climate, Hue is Vietnam’s midpoint. Flora typical to both the North and the South is found around Hue. For this reason, Hue boasts a wide variety of bonsai trees.
The city’s garden architecture, garden designs and bonsai seek to capture the essence of nature and to perfect nature. Gardens are an important element of Hue culture. Part of this city’s unique charm can be attributed to Hue people’s appreciation for flora and landscaping.