Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty lives on in Hue, if only through its Emperors’ Royal Tombs. The last Nguyen Emperor surrendered his authority to Ho Chi Minh in 1945 – a rather sorry end for a dynasty that lived to see the most momentous changes in Vietnam. Some of the best (and the worst) of the line are commemorated through their imposing tombs, scattered through the hills due southeast of the Hue Citadel.
Only seven out of the 13 Nguyen monarchs have tombs in the vicinity of their former imperial capital of Hue. Each tomb began construction during each emperor’s lifetime, and was completed after his death with a stone stele inscribed with the dead emperor’s biography, usually written by his successor.
Hue’s Royal Tombs
There are seven known Royal Tombs in Hue, six to the southeast of the Citadel on the other side of the Perfume River, and a single tomb on the same side. Of these seven tombs, three are significantly more popular compared to the rest, due to their relative good condition and easy accessibility – these are the tombs of Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh.
- Minh Mang. Minh Mang’s royal tomb reflects the emperor’s staunch traditionalism – laid out in a classical Chinese scheme with a symmetry that no other royal tomb approaches.
- Tu Duc. Tu Duc is the only Emperor who moved his household into his own tomb, building a Forbidden City of his own on the grounds, making this tomb the most opulent of all royal tombs.
- Khai Dinh. An unrepentant Francophile, Emperor Khai Dinh ordered a tomb that has heavy French elements within its design. Compared to his predecessors’ tombs, Khai Dinh’s final resting place is more “monumental” in style.
- Gia Long. Despite Gia Long’s status as the first of the Nguyen Emperors, his tomb’s inaccessibility and his own unpopularity in Vietnamese history make his royal tomb one of the least visited and worst maintained in Hue.
- Thieu Tri. The son of Minh Mang and the father of Tu Duc, this emperor ordered a more unprepossessing tomb compared to his more grandiose relations – its most notable architectural element is a covered bridge that resembles the iconic bridge in Hoi An.
- Duc Duc, Thanh Thai, and Duy Tan. The Emperor Duc Duc shares his comparatively modest tomb with two other Emperors, who had fallen foul of the French colonial authorities and as a consequence were denied dignified resting places of their own.
- Dong Khanh. The smallest of the known royal tombs in Hue, Dong Khanh’s tomb is actually a repurposed memorial temple. Dong Khanh’s tomb shows a distinct French influence, with stained glass windows and terra-cotta reliefs mixing with traditional Eastern design influences.
Common Elements of the Royal Tombs
Each royal tomb was designed as a valedictory for the deceased monarch – a representation of the late emperor’s personality and accomplishments. These accomplishments were summed up in a stone stele erected prominently on the grounds (more on that below.)
Royal Tombs were expensive to build and maintain. Strict rules of geomancy were followed in the construction of each tomb. Whole acres of land had to be reshaped to conform to the whims of the geomancers, meaning that hills had to be raised and lakes dug to comply with feng shui conventions. All the Royal Tombs in Hue have certain basic elements in common:
- The surroundings – a walled compound with the stone tomb in the middle, generally set within a raised mound or tumulus. The wall encircling the compound is usually circular in shape. The compound usually contains lakes and manicured gardens.
- The salutation court – entered through an intricate triple gate and precedes a temple built expressly for the veneration of the deceased emperor. The forecourt is often lined with statues of the king’s mandarins and horses.
- The stele – a stone tablet where the king’s accomplishments are inscribed. The text on the stele is usually written by the king’s successor, Tu Duc’s being one prominent exception. The stele is housed in an imposing pavilion.
- The pleasure pavilion – a leisure area for the benefit of visiting emperors and mandarins; sometimes used as the residence of the emperor himself, in the case of the Emperor Tu Duc.
Despite the common elements, no two Royal Tombs are alike; the tombs’ designers worked within the rigid rules of geomancy to create structures that reflected the unique character and accomplishments (real or imagined) of the dead Emperor.
The respective tombs of Tu Duc and Khai Dinh reflect the absolute extremes of tomb design – where Tu Duc’s tomb is expansive and poetically beautiful in its layout, Khai Dinh’s is done in a more monumental style - crafted of concrete, the grayness outside broken on the inside with pieces of broken glass and porcelain.
The guides who escort visitors through the tombs often comment on how particular architectural elements reveal otherwise-hidden aspects of the emperor – the Emperor Khai Dinh, for example, is said to have intended for his tomb to be built at the top of a long series of stairs, so courtiers would have to exert extra effort to pay respect to his memory.
Transportation to the Royal Tombs in Hue
Visiting the Royal Tombs in Hue can be completed in one day, if you’re only seeing the three top tombs – a whole day should be set aside if you’re planning to see all seven tombs.
Many tombs are set out of the way; to save time, visit the tombs as part of a package tour, or make arrangements with a friendly cyclo driver (there are plenty of them in the city proper) to take you to the tombs you want to see.
The Vietnamese government charges an admission fee of VND 55,000 per visit per tomb; these are generally not included in any package tour, and will be collected from each passenger (in the case of package tours) or paid at the gate.