The 4am-alarm call jolts me out of a fitful sleep and within 30 minutes, I'm out of my hotel room and on my way to the airport to catch the first flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue. On this occasion I'm flying with low-cost airline VietJet Air and am taking full advantage of its SkyBoss package, which gives passengers priority in all services at the airport.
It might be only 5am but Tan Son Nhat International Airport is already bustling with hundreds of travellers jostling to get through check-in and security checks. Officials try their best to get them to queue in line but their efforts go largely unnoticed.
As SkyBoss passengers, our group enjoys an exclusive check-in counter. The formalities complete, we are led by a member of the airline's ground staff to the security fast-track lane and are soon sinking gratefully into the deep chairs scattered around the priority lounge, sipping on the complimentary strong coffee and munching on snacks.
Slightly more than an hour later, we are landing at Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled from 1802 to 1945. The last ruling family of Vietnam, they played an important role in Vietnamese culture. Even the design of the modern-day ao dai, the graceful Vietnamese national costume, evolves from an outfit worn at the court of the Nguyen Lords.
Hue Royal Palace, also known as Hue Citadel, was built in 1805 by Emperor Gia Long, the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, and finally completed in 1832 under the sovereignty of Emperor Ming Mang.
Located on the North bank of the Perfume River, the huge complex covers an area of 520 hectares and comprises three circles of ramparts: Hue Capital Citadel, Royal Citadel or Yellow Imperial City and Forbidden Citadel or Purple Forbidden City.
Crossing the stone bridge over the first moat, we come across the Nine Holy Canons, flanking the gates on either side of the Flag Tower.
"The bronze canons represent the Four Seasons and the Five Elements - earth, metal, wood, water and fire. They have never been used for military purposes. They just play a symbolic role as guardian spirits for the Citadel," says Dang Lan, a former English teacher turned tour guide.
A second moat and defensive wall within the Citadel guard the Hoang Thanh or Yellow Imperial City, a replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This inner city has four gates, the most important of which is Cua Ngo Mon or the Noon Gate.
"The Noon Gate is also known as the Meridian Gate. It has five entrances - the central way was reserved for the emperor only. The two entrances flanking the central gate were for mandarins and court officials, while the outermost entrances were for soldiers and war materiel. Above the main gateways is the Five Phoenix Watchtower, the Emperor's private viewing platform during important court ceremonies," Dang Lan explains.
Behind the Noon Gate is the throne room of the Nguyen Kings, which is also known as the Palace of Supreme Harmony.