Tu Duc Tomb, Hue
Located in a narrow valley 8 km from Hue (Duong Xuan Thuong village), Tự Đức Tomb is one of the most beautifully designed complexes among the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. Embedded in a lush pine forest, this tomb is the final resting place of Emperor Tự Đức (1848-83) who had the longest reign of all emperors of the Nguyen dynasty.
As usual at that time, Tự Đức had begun planning and constructing his tomb long before he died in 1883. Thus, the major parts of the tomb complex were built around 1864-67. In his lifetime, the Emperor Tự Đức used the tomb as a palatial retreat together with his many wives and concubines.
The enormous costs, extra taxation and forced labor necessary to build the tomb caused protest among the workers, who attempted a coup in 1866. With the help of his generals Tự Đức was able to suppress the coup and continued enjoying the palace within the tomb for the remainder of his life. The royal amenities available at this tomb are unmatched by any other such structure in Vietnam.
Although the Emperor had over a hundred wives and concubines, he did not have any offspring. Lacking a son to write his biography and merits, which would be part of the stele inscription, the task fell to him, a circumstance he considered to be a bad omen. His modest self-composed epitaph can now be found inscribed on the stele in the pavilion, to the east of the tomb. The stele for Tự Đức Tomb was brought there from a quarry over 500 km away, and it is the largest of its type in Viet Nam.
It took four years to complete the transport. The tomb’s palace area has a lake where the Emperor used to boat, a small game hunting ground on a tiny island inmidst the lake, and the luxurious Xung Khiem Pavilion where Tu Duc is said to have retreated to relax and recite or compose poetry in the company of his concubines.
Inside the complex, which measures 12 ha in surface, there are about 50 gates, buildings, terraces and pavilions. All of the names of the constructions include the word "Khiem" (modesty).
The tomb is divided into two main parts: the temple area and the tomb area itself. The temple area starts with the Vu Khiem entrance and the romantic Luu Khiem Lake. On the lake, there are Xung Khiem Pavilion and Du Khiem Pavilion. The temple part continues with three Thanh stone steps to Khiem Cung Gate leading to Hoa Khiem Palace, which was the Emperor’s working place and is now used as an altar devoted to the Emperor and Empress. On its sides, there are Phap Khiem House and Le Khiem House for the military and civil mandarins.
The tomb area consists of the Honour Courtyard (Bai Dinh), the Stele Pavilion, and the sepulcher. Right behind the Honour Courtyard, after walking past two rows of statues of high-rank military and civil mandarins, which are deliberately made shorter than the emperor, visitors arrive at the Stele Pavilion (Bi Dinh). It is interesting to know that Tự Đức’s self-written inscription includes not only his achievements - like in other tombs - but also mentions his misadventures, mistakes and diseases. On the hillside opposite the semi-circular Tieu Khiem Tri Lake, there is the Buu Thanh brick wall. In the middle, there is a stone house, where the Emperor was to be buried.
The most interesting part about this tomb is that despite the grandeur of the site and the amount of time Tu Duc spent there, he was actually buried in a different, secret location somewhere in Hue. Even today, the mystery of Tự Đức’s hidden, real tomb still keeps many historians busy.
The admission fee to the complex is 55,000 VND.
Khai Dinh Tomb, Hue
Emperor Khải Định, who ruled 1916-1925, has chosen slope of Chau Chu mountain, 10 km from Hue, as the location to build his tomb. The construction of the tomb was started on 1920 and lasted for 11 years. The architecture of this tomb is the most criticized of all the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty.
The structure of the tomb (admission fee: 55.000 Dong) is of concrete elements with cement, a mixture of Vietnamese and Western concepts. It can be seen as an attempt of fusion building style or a symbol of the decline of Vietnamese culture during the colonial era; it depends on your view and mood.
Compared to other emperor tombs in Hue, Khải Định Tomb is much smaller. The overall construction of the tomb is a hill-site emerging rectangular structure with 127 steps. At the entrance, one should climb a 37 steps gate with dragons as side walls. Some 30 steps further one arrives at the imperial audience court, with an octagonal stele monument, again made of reinforced concrete.
On both sides of the courtyard, there are two rows of statues facing towards the center, together with other statues representing bodyguard soldiers. These statues are made of stone, not in concrete, which is rare in Khai Dinh Tomb.
Going up one more level one reaches the altar area. This complex with the Khai Thanh Palace, the main room of the Thien Dinh palace, has many rooms connecting to each other. The walls are densely decorated – almost comparable to Rokkoko style – with inlaid of elaborate glass and porcelain designs. The floor is covered with tile with decent flower design, the ceiling painted with nine dragons in fine fleeting clouds.
The rear room of the Khai Thanh palace hosts the main temple, with a statue of Khai Dinh, his grave and his altar. The most noticeable characteristic of the tomb is the glassy and ceramic mosaics, a masterpiece of Vietnamese artisans early in the 20th century.
Minh Mang Tomb, Hue
The Minh Mang Tomb is one of the most interesting emperor tombs in Hue. It is situated 12 km outside the city, on Cam Ke Hill, on the west bank of the Perfume River and can be reached by car or – much nicer – by boat.
Emperor Minh Mang (1820 - 1841) was the second son of Emperor Gia Long, who founded the last Vietnamese dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). He had been planning to build a tomb for himself as early as 1826. But it was not until September 1840, after fourteen years of looking for a suitable location that the construction of the tomb began.
During the building phase, in January 1841, Minh Mang got ill and passed away at the age of 52. Emperor Thieu Tri, his successor to the throne, continued the task according to his father’s plans. Minh Mang's corpse was buried in Buu Thanh in August 1841. The construction of the tomb, however, was not completed until two years later, in 1843.
The Minh Mang Tomb is renowned for its architecture, which fits harmoniously into the surrounding landscape. Like in other tombs of this period, the general elements of the tomb architecture are: outer-walls, triple gate (Tam Quan Gate), Salutation Court, Stele House, temples, lakes, pavilions, gardens and the tomb itself.
The structure is laid out according to three main parallel axes, the center of which is the Than Dao path. The Dai Hong Mon Gate is the main entrance to the tomb. The gate was opened only once to carry the Emperor's coffin to the tomb, and has been tightly closed since then. The visitors' gates are Ta Hong Mon (on the left) and Huu Hong Mon (on the right).
Adjacent to the main gate, there is the Honors Courtyard, which hosts a number of stone statues: two rows of high-ranking mandarins, elephants and horses. From the courtyard, three granite staircases lead to the Stele Pavilion (Bi Dinh).
The stele "Thanh Duc Than Cong" contains inscriptions (in Chinese character) from Minh Mang's biography written by his son Thieu Tri, praising his merits. About 60 stanzas of inscripted poems can be found in the Stele Pavilion.
The Salutation Court has four main areas. The Hien Duc Gate leads to the worship place. In the centre, there is the Sung An Dien Temple surrounded by Ta Phoi Dien and Huu Phoi Dien (the frontal temples to the left and right) and Ta Tung Phong and Huu Tung Phong (the rooms in the back on the left and right side). The worship site for the Emperor and his wife is the Sung An Temple.
Finally, the Hoang Trach Gate leads to the Minh Lau Bright Pavilion.
It is placed on top of three terraces representing heaven, earth and water. Behind Minh Lau, there are two flower gardens designed as the Chinese character "Longevity". The Minh Lau Pavilion radiates a remarkable, mystical atmosphere; it also features an anthology of selected poems of Vietnam’s early 19th century.
Closer to the tomb area, the New Moon Lake (Ho Tan Nguyet) is crescent-shaped and embraces the circular wall surrounding the grave (Buu Thanh). A monumental staircase with dragon-shaped handrails and consisting of 33 stone steps leads to the sepulcher of the Emperor.
Among the emperor tombs in Hue, the Minh Mang Tomb is the most impressive one and it is certainly worth a visit (admission fee 55,000 Dong). In 1993, it was admitted in the list of world heritages by UNESCO together with some other Hue monument complexes.
Take a boat trip from Hue, join an organized tour or rent your private boat (boat rental office between Truong Tien Bridge and Phu Xuan Bridge, appr. 600,000 VND/ca. 33 US$ for the four hour boat ride, up to six persons). The boat will take you to the Thien Mu pagoda.
Thereafter, you can continue to Dien Hon Chen and then the Minh Mang Tomb before heading back to Hue. On the way back, you could stop at Kim Long village for a bowl of the famous Bun Thit Nuong (grilled meat with rice vermicelli).
Negotiate the fare and the stops you wish to make before departing.
Travel tip shared by by Lanh Nguyen