Hue’s Royal Tombs

Six royal tombs are scattered across land to the south east of the citadel on the other side of the Perfume River and one on the same side. They are monuments to nine of the thirteen rulers of the Nguyen Dynasty, mostly built during the Emperor’s lifetime. Although designed individually, sometimes by the intended occupant himself, they share certain design conventions.

All were built according to strict rules of geomancy, which often involved making substantial modifications to the landscape to ensure that the sight lines and orientation of the constituent elements complied with celestial and supernatural forces. These were

  • a courtyard with stone effigies of elephants, horses and mandarins
  • a pavilion containing a massive stele with eulogies to the departed incumbent
  • a temple containing an altar for worshipping the Emperor’s soul
  • a pleasure pavilion, and
  • the tomb itself
  • Each Royal Tomb reflects the personality of the ruler.

    Three of the tombs attract large numbers of visitors:

    Minh Mang
    The most majestic is that of Emperor Minh Mang, a staunch follower of Confucianism with many wives, concubines and a small army of children. Planned by the Emperor and built shortly after his death, it is opulent and exotic, and laid out in formal Chinese style.

    With the possible exception of Khai Dinh’s monument, no other tomb approaches the level of unity of the elements of Minh Mang's tomb. Its layout and symmetry draws the eye naturally towards the main features, and the architectural balance blends the elements into a pleasing whole.

    Tu Duc
    The tomb of Tu Duc, the ‘poet Emperor’, is set in an elegant garden with a magnificent lake and pavilion complex. The centrepiece of the tomb is simplicity itself despite the lavish opulence of his reign (it’s really just a monument – he was buried elsewhere to thwart grave robbers).

    Despite his cultural pursuits and desire to achieve a humble lifestyle, it was under Tu Duc that the Nguyen court reached its zenith of lavish opulence. Tu Duc withdrew into court life, seemingly indifferent to the people he ruled, and the brutal treatment of the three thousand artisans and workers pressed into service to build his tomb.

    Khai Dinh
    In complete contrast to Emperor Tu Duc's stylish creation, the tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh is appears at first to be an unprepossessing concrete construction. Its interest lies within in an uneasy combination of Vietnamese and European features and the use of fragments of ceramics and glass for decoration.

    Nevertheless, Khai Dinh’s tomb is of great interest as an architectural watershed, the cusp between the influences of a Chinese past and a Western oriented future. The lavish embellishments inside the tomb come as a shock after the grimy and rather sombre façade and courtyard. A golden effigy of the Emperor seated on his throne under a magnificent cement canopy extravagantly decorated with ceramic fragments could be regarded as a masterpiece.

    The other four tombs are less-visited, but all have interesting features

    Gia Long
    Gia Long’s tomb is the least visited, the furthest from Hue, the most difficult to get to, but arguably the most significant. The founder of the Nguyen dynasty, his tomb was the template for those that followed. The site is neglected and overgrown. However, the damage it received during the war is not the main reason for its neglect – Gia Long was a cruel tyrant who allied himself with the French and remains a hated figure in Vietnamese history. Nevertheless, it’s worth the trip to visit the tomb if only to enjoy the atmospheric atmosphere and its classic design.

    Thieu Tri
    Uniquely, Thieu Tri's tomb was built by his son, Tu Duc, according to his father’s design. As his reign was comparatively brief and the work did not commence until some time after his accession, his tomb was not completed when he died. Consequently, his body was temporarily interred in the Long An temple, within the outer area of the Citadel and now the home of the Museum of Antiquities. Thieu Tri's design for his tomb was influenced by that of his father, Ming Mang, but his instruction to his son was to make it ‘convenient and economical’. Although it lacks the flamboyance of his father’s tomb, it is well designed with several distinctive features including a covered bridge similar to that in Hoi An.

    Duc Duc, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan
    Although known as Emperor Duc Duc's tomb, it is actually a small complex that includes the tombs of two other Emperors, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan. It is surprising that Duc Duc has a tomb at all, as his reign lasted a mere three days and he starved to death in prison. A nephew of Tu Duc, he was selected by the Emperor to be his successor as he had no son to follow him. However, he was soon deposed by members of the court who were displeased by his closeness to the French.

    Legend has it that he was taken to be buried tied up in a rush mat. However, halfway to the intended burial site, the rope broke and the two men carrying the body decided to bury him there and then. Six years later, his son Thanh Thai built a tomb for his father around the makeshift grave.

    Ironically, both his son and grandson that ruled after Duc Duc, and are buried with him were strongly anti-French and were deported to Africa by the colonialists. Thanh Thai was eventually allowed to return to Vietnam but died shortly afterwards in Vung Tau, a year before the French were finally expelled. His son, Duy Tan, was sent to join his father in exile, but died in an aeroplane crash.

    The tomb complex tomb is only two kilometres from Hue, and is in three parts, the Long An temple, Duc Duc's tomb and the tombs of his son and grandson.

    Dong Khanh
    The tomb of Emperor Dong Khanh is the smallest, but the most individual. He was another adopted son of Tu Duc who usurped the throne shortly after the French gained control of Hue. He ruled as a puppet Emperor protected by the French, but died after three years at the age of 24.

    His successor, Thanh Thai, lacking funds, converted the temple that Dong Khanh has built to worship his father into his tomb. It marks an interesting turning point in the evolution of Vietnam’s architecture as it was built at a time when European culture was entering Vietnam. The interaction between oriental and occidental styles can be seen in the use of stained glass, terra-cotta relief and French artworks among traditional Chinese and Vietnamese features.

    Later, this development would be taken to an extreme in the uneasy fusion of these disparate elements in Emperor Khai Dinh’s bizarre concrete edifice.

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