Among the scenic attractions of Hue are the tombs of the Nguyen Emperors. Seven of the 13 rulers between 1802 and 1945 were given the honor of their own mausoleum; the other six supposedly died in exile or disgrace. We visited three of the tombs on a city tour. You can approach living in a place for longer than a drop-in visit in two ways. You can take a basic tour of the city when you arrive and learn which places you might want to see more of. Or, you can wait until the end of your time and then take it. You may see some places you’ve already seen, but a guide may help you appreciate them more. You may also have questions from the visit on your own that a guide can answer. That’s what we did here. The basic tour of the city included the Imperial City and one tomb that we had already visited, but the guide added to what we had learned on our own about those places.
The first tomb we visited was that of Tu Duc, emperor between 1848 and 1883. He was the longest-serving of the Nguyen emperors but was considered a weak ruler. He had 100 concubines (according to the tour guide) and 104 wives (according to one of my guidebooks) but no children; the supposition is that a bout with smallpox left him sterile. Tu Duc’s tomb is different in that he designed it himself. He also wrote his own biography for the tomb, which brings up some elements common to all the tombs. First, each tomb complex has three gates. The emperor’s coffin enters through the middle gate, after which it is closed and never opened again. The government officials, or mandarins, use the gates on each side, with the civil mandarins using the left gate and the military ones using the right gate. See how the middle gate is sealed? It’s been that way since Tu Duc’s coffin went in. Each tomb also includes a biography of the emperor buried there. Usually, the biography is written by the emperor’s son, but since Tu Duc had no children, he wrote his own. The emperor’s biography is engraved on a large wall in a central place. Another thing found at all the tombs are statues symbolic of the emperor’s following. At Tu Duc’s tomb, there were four statues, representing a horse, an elephant, a mandarin, and a servant. Here are the animal ones. When an emperor had no sons, the tradition was for the emperor to adopt one of his nephews. Tu Duc actually adopted three of his younger brother’s sons, all of whom became emperor at one time or another. Remember Tu Duc’s 100 concubines? Well, they had their own palace, in this area. The concubines could not leave their palace after the emperor died. For the rest of their lives, they had contact only with each other and with the eunuchs who served or guarded them. The guide noted that this puts the tradition of killing concubines when the emperor died in a new light; he wondered whether that might have been more humane.
Tu Duc’s tomb is in a large (12 hectares) park, where he spent a lot of time, preferring it to the Imperial City. Included in the park is an island on which Tu Duc hunted small game. Hunting was a common pastime but because of his smallpox, Tu Duc could not go to the mountains to hunt there. The land on the right of the photo below is part of the hunting island. The other interesting thing about Tu Duc is that no one knows for sure just where his body is buried in the tomb building. Rumor has it that Tu Duc was buried with a great treasure and that those involved in his burial were executed to discourage grave-robbing.
Finally, Tu Duc’s tomb had the only blatant tourist-trap thing we’ve seen at any of the official (that is, the ticket you buy comes from the government) tourist sites we’ve visited. For a fee, you could dress up as the royal emperor and/or his wife and have your photo taken sitting on a replica throne. Because we were there on a tour and had limited time, no one pressured us to do this, which is just as well since we wouldn’t.
The second tomb we visited (and the one we had visited before) was that of Khai Dinh who, according to our tour guide, was Vietnam’s first (and, I would say last since he was the penultimate emperor) gay emperor. Khai Dinh ruled between 1916 and 1925. His tomb is built into a hillside with “more than 127” (according to the tour guide) or “130-odd” (according to the guidebook) steps leading up to it. The steps are steep, too, supposedly designed that way to keep you looking up, at the tomb, as you ascend. Khai Dinh built his tomb as a tomb; it was not designed as a place to live as Tu Duc’s was. Khai Dinh’s tomb is also very different from the other royal tombs in that he used both Vietnamese and European architectural styles. Still, it has elements common to all the royal tombs including the sealed middle door, the statuary followers and the biography tablet. Because Khai Dinh had no sons, his biography was written by the head mandarin. Khai Dinh had adopted his nephew, but because the nephew was studying in France when Khai Dinh died, he was unable to write the biography himself. Unlike Tu Duc, the location of Khai Dinh’s body is known precisely. It sits in the tomb chamber underneath a life-sized statue of him. I’d show you a photo but I follow the “no photography inside the buildings” signs.
Khai Dinh was not a popular emperor. It took him 11 years to build his tomb during which time he raised taxes 30 percent to fund the construction. It sounded as though our tour guide wasn’t too fond of Khai Dinh’s sexual orientation, making comments such as “face of king like woman” and “makeup like woman, sitting style like woman.” The mountain setting of Khai Dinh’s tomb is gives it a bit more in-your-face sort of beauty. The views from the different levels of the tomb complex are stunning. The third photo is a bit dark, but that way the giant female Buddha (Quan Am) statue on the far mountain is at least a little bit visible. The third tomb that we visited was that of Minh Mang, the second Nguyen emperor who died in 1841. His tomb, like that of Tu Duc, is in a large (15 hectares), beautiful park-like setting. Minh Mang had 33 wives and 107 concubines who bore him a total of 78 sons and 64 daughters. On any given night, he would supposedly spend an hour per concubine chosen for that night. If an emperor married a concubine, then the son of that union could become emperor, if the wife became queen. It was possible for an emperor to have multiple wives, but only one of them could be queen. On the first level of analysis, this would typically be the wife that bore the first son. If there were multiple wives with multiple sons, then a choice would have to be made as to which son should become emperor. Minh Mang was himself a second son, judged better than his older brother in terms of the knowledge needed to rule the country.
As in the other tombs, the middle door of the tomb complex has been permanently sealed. There is also a building housing a biography tablet. I didn’t photograph the tablet up close, instead concentrating on some of the decorations around its top. There were also the ceremonial statues of animals and persons who might be of assistance to Minh Mang in the afterlife. Minh Mang is buried in a tomb mound at the end of a long walk through the tomb complex. As with Tu Duc, the precise location of the body is not known; there’s no rumor of treasure here, though. Entry is not permitted to the tomb mound; the bridge that leads to it is blocked off at the end.
Finally, one of the interesting stories about Minh Mang concerns his queen, Hua (I’m totally guessing at the spelling here), who died at the age of 17. After her death, it was decreed that no one could bear the queen’s name. In fact, the Dong Ba Market that I’ve written about here was originally named the Dong Hua Market, becoming Dong Ba with the decree. The decree against naming anything Hua did not expire until the monarchy ended in 1945.
The tour also stopped at the Imperial City. Although we’d been there before, we did learn some new facts from our tour guide. I think I’ve mentioned that the Citadel and Imperial City are on the north bank of the Perfume River. The tallest structure in the Imperial City is a pavilion that is 60 meters tall. No structure on the north bank of the river can be taller than this Pagoda, similar to the University of Virginia dictum that no structure be taller than the Rotunda. Outside the walls of the Imperial City are five Holy Cannons, signifying the power of the monarchy. The four to the left of the Imperial City symbolize the four seasons, while the five to the right symbolize the five elements: earth, fire, air, water, and metal. The center entry on the gate pavilion was reserved for the emperor; mandarins used the side gates according to the same protocol seen at the tombs: civil mandarins to the left and military mandarins to the right. Women were not permitted to use the main gate to the Imperial City until the monarchy was dissolved in 1945.
I’ve mentioned “mandarins” several times so far. The mandarins constituted the civil service. A man qualified to be a mandarin by passing examinations at three levels: village, district, and royal. For a man to become a mandarin brought honor to his family, and there was a large festival whenever new mandarins were inducted. There were nine grades of mandarin, and they acted in various spheres of influence—education, defense, etc. The tour guide compared it to the American cabinet. The king and head mandarins would meet together at the beginning and middle of each lunar month. The king would sit inside Thai Hoa Palace while the mandarins (the head of each department and his assistant) would stand in the courtyard outside and listen to the pronouncements of the emperor. The acoustics in the palace are supposedly superb. The emperor could speak in his normal voice, and an intermediary at the door would listen and them repeat what the emperor had said for the mandarins standing outside. There was no discussion at this time; that came later, after the mandarins had considered what the emperor had said.
The Citadel was constructed between 1805 and 1832 and then underwent various renovations. Until 1890, all the construction or changes were done in the Vietnamese style. After 1890, the emperor started to introduce European touches. Only 10 percent of the Imperial City is still standing today. A fire in 1947, during the French occupation, destroyed several buildings. More were damaged or destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The Vietnamese will tell you (as our tour guide did) that the damage during the Tet Offensive was done by American bombs. I have been told by an American who was there during Tet that the damage to the Imperial City was done largely by the Viet Cong who occupied it. I can’t really tell you who’s right in this case.
We did walk around some areas of the Imperial City that we didn’t visit the first time there. An exhibition of photographs from old postcards was hung along this corridor. We also saw some gates we had not seen before. Finally, we got to go inside a worship area in which one could take pictures of the altars dedicated to the various emperors. There were also some interesting objects hanging from the ceiling. Finally, we got to see the Nine Dynastic Urns. These bronze urns were cast during Minh Mang’s reign, and are considered to be the epitome of Hue craftsmanship. They are ornamented with landscape scenes along with, according to one of my guidebooks, “one or two stray bullet marks.” Each urn is dedicated to a different emperor.
The final stop on our tour was Thien Mu Pagoda. “Thien” means “heavenly” or “celestial,” and “Mu” means “lady,” so this is the Pagoda of the Heavenly Lady. It stands, a bit up the Perfume River from Hue, on the site of an ancient temple. There are differing stories as to the events of the pagoda’s founding, but that event, 1601, makes it the oldest pagoda in the Hue area. In the 1930s and 1940s, Thien Mu was a center of Buddhist opposition to colonialism. It gained world-wide fame, however, in 1963 when one of its monks, Thich Quang Duc, set himself on fire in Saigon to protest the Diem regime. On display today at Thien Mu is the powder-blue Austin in which the monk drove to Saigon. Even today, Thien Mu is a sore spot for the government, since it continues to protest against any form of repression.
We only had about 15 minutes at Thien Mu, but I did manage to get some photos of a tower at the front, as well as of the river view from the pagoda grounds. Finally, there were these figures on walls all around the pagoda grounds, and I have no idea what they were (the guide didn’t take us on this part of the tour, so I couldn’t ask him), but they reminded me of Disney pirates probably, said the husband, because of the real hair used in their beards. We returned to Hue from Thien Mu by dragon boat, which gave us a nice view of what was along the banks of the river. It made for a long, hot day, but it was a very nice way to see and learn a bit more of what I’ve come to think of as home for a while. It will be nice to get back to the real home in a bit more than a month, but it will also be a little bittersweet leaving Hue. I would definitely come back, and I sincerely hope I get the chance to do so.