Huế’s secret history: How Thai friendship and hospitality helped create a Vietnamese royal treasure?

Gia LongIn 1785, just three years after King Rama I established Bangkok as the new Thai capital, Nguyễn Ánh, the dethroned feudal ruler of what is now southern Việt Nam was given asylum in the Siamese royal court.

He was fleeing from his political enemies:

The Trịnh lords of Thăng Long (known these days as Hà Nội) that controlled the north, and the Tây Sơn revolution army which was a rising power threatening both Nguyễn and the Trịnhs.

Like the displaced princes and princesses of Cambodia who also took refuge in Bangkok at the time, Nguyễn Ánh, known by Thais as “Ong Chiang Sue”, and his troops were kindly welcomed by King Rama I.

After spending two years in Siam, Nguyễn Ánh realised that the Thais were too busy with their wars with Burma to help him regain his power back home.

He then saw the opportunity to resume the fight for his goal as the Tây Sơn army began their expansion to the Trịnh-controlled areas in the north, thus leaving behind fewer troops in the south, his former stronghold.

Nguyễn Ánh returned to Gia Định (Sài Gòn, or later Hồ Chí Minh City) and sought help from a French missionary Pigneau de Behaine, who managed to gather for him modern firearms and other foreign aid as well as mercenaries and volunteers from France.

And thanks to the knowledge in ship-building and naval warfare that these European men brought along, Nguyễ Ánh’s armed forces became more organised and powerful enough to take on with the Tây Sơn, which by that time had become the dominant power.

To make a long story short, over the next two decades, Nguyễn Ánh and his troops fought their way to victory and finally in 1802 gained control of the entire of Việt Nam.

The triumphant Nguyễn Ánh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long.

The new name is said to be a symbol of the country’s unification – the ”Gia” from Gia Định (Sài Gòn) in the south and the ”Long” from Thăng Long (Hà Nội) in the north.

Unlike the previous Vietnamese imperial dynasties, Gia Long did not use Thăng Long as the country’s capital.

Instead, in 1802 he chose Huế, which is located in the central part, as the political centre of his newly founded Nguyễn Dynasty.

Not surprisingly, there was a good relationship between the courts of Việt Nam and Siam during the times of Gia Long.

However, things turned sour after his son Minh Mạng took to the throne.

During Minh Mạng’s reign, which coincided with that of King Rama III , competition in asserting political influence over Cambodia resulted in a 14-year war between Siam and Việt Nam.

The expensive conflict ended in peace talks in which both sides agreed that Siam maintained the right to elect Cambodian kings and that Cambodia must send tribute to Việt Nam every three years.

Under the Nguyễn Dynasty, the city of Huế prospered both economically and culturally.

Elaborate monuments popped up within the palace walls and outside along the Sông Hương River (better known as Perfume River) which winds through the capital.

However, Việt Nam later fell under the influence of France, one of the colonial powers in this part of the world.

And as is already well known, the country has suffered many wars in recent times, both a civil war and with foreign forces, namely those of France, Japan and the United States of America.

During the notorious Vietnam War (1955-1975), Huế was the scene of one of the war’s fiercest battles.

Despite heavy damage, the remaining legacy of Nguyễn Ánh and the dynasty he established has been enough to earn the city’s historical areas a place on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites.

These days, Huế welcomes thousands of tourists from around the world each year.

The Thai hospitality, which gave Nguyễn Ánh a crucial timeout until he saw the chance to fight back and make all this happen, remains invisible to visitors to his imperial palace.

But now you know.


Source: The Bangkok Post

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