Vietnam: Hue – The Emperors Tombs

Incense – a little wood powder, glue, sandalwood or cinnamon rolled into sticks

I am starting to get cranky and tired of sightseeing. It happens. Our pace has been a good mix of taking it all in and letting things unfold. Today my stomach is shaky, I want to be out of the city and be in nature, away from tourists and slow it down. I have loved cycling in Hue (even though a bit busy and crazy) and visiting the Imperial City, achingly beautiful and full of history. Today is also our last day before we travel to Hoi An. We have heard the Emperors’ tombs are amazing and not to be missed. I make the decision to go and as it happens sometimes, I received all that I wanted.

The legacy of the Nguyen dynasty is reflected in the 7 glorious tombs of its 13 emperors scattered around the city. We can only visit three: Minh Mang (reign 1820-1841)), Tu Duc (1848-1883) and Khai Dinh (1916-1925). While the tombs house the emperors remains they are also idyllic places of contemplation, worship and repose as well as romantic and extravagant displays of wealth and architectural style.

Emperor Minh Mang or “bright favor of heaven” was the second emperor in the Nguyen line and well known for his intelligence, devotion to country, Confucianism and staving off imperialist encroachment. At that time, unwelcome French missionaries were inciting rebellions that the emperor’s regime curtailed by expulsion or death. This set the stage for a “justified” French retaliation and ultimately led to increased french exploitation and aggression. Within 85 years the throne was no more than a puppet of the French and the Nguyen dynasty came to end.

Minh Mang died in 1841 and the tomb was completed by his son in 1843. It took 10,000 laborers and artisans to complete the work. The actual crypt is a dramatically austere vault reachable at the end of a wonderful expanse of paths, courtyards and temples with terraced gardens and lakes. As I stroll, I feel immersed in nature, serenity and beauty. The environs of the tomb are indeed a resting place.

Hien Duc Mon entrance gate
Sung An Dien Temple, a Royal place of worship then, a place of remembrance now

Plumeria trees frame the Temple

The garden of Longevity along the Than Dao pathBuu Thanh – Minh Mang’s remains lie deep underground behind iron doors

Emperor Tu Duc, or “inheritance of virtues”, the fourth emperor had the longest reign; 35 years, bloody and troubled. Some stories praise his kindness and education. Others blame him for brutality and poor leadership. He strongly opposed foreign influence both in trade and religion, an isolationist policy that ironically made Vietnam more vulnerable to French and Chinese infiltration. He suppressed an internal rebellion for the throne led by his brother and jailed him for life. He forbade Christianity and executed many missionaries. Ten years into his reign, a Spanish bishop was beheaded which brought invading French forces into Da Nang and Saigon. There were skirmishes with the French and weakness in the monarchy. French expansion, a crumbling empire, the eventual ceding of three southern provinces brought a broken Vietnam reluctantly into the colonial era.

We amble through the gate into his tomb. Tomb is the descriptor for the entire complex which includes entrance “gates” to each area, a “stele”- where the biography is inscribed, a salutation court, honor courtyard, temples, pavilions for pleasure and education and the crypt; all set in a natural setting that highlights Confucian sense of place. It took years to find the exact spot where they wanted to eternally rest and be worshipped. Tu Duc’s tomb, Hoa Khiem (“modest”) Palace is one of the most tranquil and lovely places anywhere. The peaceful atmosphere belies the 4 years, several rebellions, laborer deaths, another coup attempt and monumental expense that brought this memorial into being. He had 104 wives and concubines but no heirs, though he adopted a stepson to continue the line. He designed the tomb and lived long enough to enjoy it as his residence. While his rule was marked by violence and upheaval, (legend says that he is buried elsewhere in Hue and that the 200 laborers who knew the location were beheaded to maintain their silence), he himself was a cultured man and prodigious poet. Many of his 5000 poems are carved into the buildings.

Luu Khiem Lake
The traditional Honor Courtyard of mandarins, military, elephants and war horses

Dragon riding atop the roof of glazed and clay tiles with royal medallions

Exquisite ceramic mosaic craftsmanship adorns many of the buildings

Peacock flower – Caesalpinia Pulcherima

Lastly we visit the tomb of the twelfth Emperor, Khai Dinh, “augur of peace and stability”. We climb many steep steps to the elaborate entrance. There are Chinese tour busses filling the street. We pass a retinue of beautiful Vietnamese women in their traditional ao dai dress, so colorful and regal posing for pictures. How come they all have perfect posture? Then we see the clusters of Chinese tourists with their selfie sticks, posing all over the tomb grounds. Luckily this is the smallest of tombs.

It is also the most decorated mausoleum. Every surface is covered in bas relief of dragon, demon and floral motifs. In stone, in ceramic, in paint, on pillars, walls, ceilings, roofs.

Ceiling mural

The tomb is set upon a mountainside which accentuates its height and breadth. We peel our eyes away from the grandiose concrete structure and take in the view of the mountains across the valley. The mountain adds dimension and highlights the majesty of the tomb. The grey stone of the monuments and lush green of the hillside pull each other into balance. I imagine this was part of the architects dream to unite human and nature, heaven and earth; uplifting and humbling. Just a guess.

Then we behold the interior.

The tomb room covered in ceramic with Khai Dinh’s remains buried 9 meters below

Khai Dinh did not skimp on luxury. His tomb took 11 years to construct. His reign was relatively short and inconsequential. France had control of the country and when Khai Dinh died, his 13 year old son, Bao Dai, became the 13th and last Emperor and it was he who completed the tomb in 1931. Bao Dai spent much of his life in France ( though his mother remained at the An Dinh Palace in Hue) and abdicated the throne to the Viet Minh in 1945. The first Indochina war soon followed and ended 8 years later at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 with the defeat of the French by the Viet Minh. In our travels throughout Vietnam there are banners and billboards celebrating the 65th anniversary of their hard won independence.

Our last stop of the day brings us up a hill to an overlook above the Perfume River. Hue’s famous 7 story pagoda is a sweet end to an historic day.

Linh Mu-Pagoda of the Celestial Lady
Burning incense

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