Not quite Graceland
Published/Last edited or updated: 22nd July, 2019
Tombs and pagodas dot the landscape surrounding around Hue, and those with an endless appetite for culture could busy themselves every day for a solid week, with still more left on the table, but the majority of travellers are satisfied with just a taster–and the tour menus on offer reflect this.
The tombs were built within little more than the past 200 years, which makes it surprising that most of them are already falling to pieces. This is partly due to poor upkeep over the years, and partly due the original construction techniques, which weren't all that exceptional. Often built by puppet emperors who had little real power, much time was allowed for sitting around contemplating ones own death and building monuments in anticipation of the occasion.
Like Graceland and Neverland, they are monuments to ego, but in this case, the egos involved are much more obscure and probably less interesting to many contemporary visitors. That said, some of the tombs are located on large, beautiful grounds, and the crumbling edifices exude a certain air of aesthetically-pleasing decrepitude.
How to visit the tombs around Hue
Some of the tombs are close enough to town that you could reach them by bicycle. Tu Duc and Dong Khanh for example are fairly close together and both around 4km (one way, depending on route) from downtown Hue. Thieu Tri and Khai Dinh are around 5km and 7km away respectively (again one way and depending on route) from downtown Hue. So, if you like to pedal, these would be doable over a couple of days, though we would recommend a decent mountain bike for the run. Bear in mind there are some hills! All tombs are well signposted.
We visited all the tours by motorbike (with a driver), which was preferable because (a) we didn't need to pedal and (b) it gave us more time at each site. You could just as easily do the exploring on your own hired motorbike without a driver.
Minh Mang and Gia Long are a bit further south and we’d say not a comfortable bicycling distance, though both are certainly approachable by scooter. A popular alternative route is to visit these two by boat on an organised trip from Hue.
Travel agencies in Hue offer a variety of Citadel/Tomb combo trips. A typical tour would take in two or three tours along with the Citadel and Thien Mu Pagoda and perhaps a dragon boat ride and lunch. Expect to pay US$15-20 per person for this kind of tour (not including admission fees).
What follows is a brief overview of each of Hue’s top tier tombs—bear in mind there are many other, more obscure sites scattered around the city and for those (and for the following for that matter) Tim Doling’s Exploring Hue is an invaluable guide.
The tomb of Gia Long
Despite being the tomb of the Nguyen dynasty’s first Emperor, Gia Long, the tomb is the furthest flung from Hue city and little visited by foreign travellers—on the day we visited we spent a good hour wandering and saw just one other foreigner—which isn’t to say the tomb isn’t worth visiting, as it most certainly is.
Work commenced on the tomb in 1814 and from the get go it was designed as a double tomb—to be the permanent residence for both Gia Long and his favourite wife (he had at least three wives and almost 100 concubines), Thua Thien, whom he married when they were both teenagers. She died in 1814, the year work on the tomb commenced, and it took six years to complete—just in time for Gia Long’s death in February of 1820.
While the grounds were in a serious state of disrepair, a restoration was undertaken which finished up in 2007 and the site today is as vast as it is impressive. South-facing, the complex looks across a large, lotus covered pond, with small tree-covered hills in the background and two obelisks which mark the southern boundary of the estate. If you’ve been wiser than we were and avoided the midday heat this can be a very contemplative spot and it easy to imagine the Emperor hanging out here in the shade of a tree, gazing across the pond, contemplating his navel.
The two primary points of interest are Minh Thanh Temple which you’ll reach first, then, a little further around the water’s edge the magnificent tomb itself. The main shrine at Minh Thanh Temple houses the ancestral tablets of Gia Long and Thua Thien, but we loved more the worn red doors, the neatly manicured gardens and the photogenic nature of the temple itself.
The tomb comprises a grand and broad low slung staircase leading up to the main affair, a mustard yellow painted enclosure (though very badly stained now with mould and decay) within which you’ll find the two tombs—Gia Long to the left and Thua Thien to the right. Largely bereft of decoration, they look like small stone warehouses—a bit of a let down after the magnificence of the greater site. Further past the tomb (but within easy walking distance) sits another building within a small grove of trees which contains a stele. Erected by one of Gia Long’s sons, Minh Mang, it recounts the exploits of his father.
The tomb of Minh Mang
The tomb of Minh Mang vies with Tu Duc’s on the must see calculus. With a stunning, lakeside position, the rambling grounds, plentiful shade and a dreamy, other-worldly atmosphere, this is probably our favourite of all the Hue tombs—don’t miss it.
Minh Mang was the eldest son of Emperor Gia Long and his second wife Thua Thien (both of whom are entombed at the tomb of Gia Long). Born in 1791, Minh Mang left this earth in 1841, but, as was often seems to have been the case, he spent an undue amount of time contemplating his death. He had geomancers out scouting tomb locations as early as 1826 (it was probably on his mind as his father had passed away in 1820) but it took the Emperor and his tomb-locaters some 14 years to settle on a final location, and another three years (and 10,000 labourers) to build it. Minh Mang actually died before it was completed, in January 1841, so his son (and successor) Thieu Tri gave the builders a kick up the backside to speed things along. Minh Mang’s body went into the ground in August 1841, but the tomb was not completely finished until early 1843.
Roughly east-west facing and set quite close to the Perfume River, the tomb’s central axis leads from the primary gates (not opened since the Emperor’s body was carted through in 1841), through a Salutation Court (similar to what can be seen at the Imperial City) and then up to a series of temples, after which the stairs take you back down, to a bridge crossing the first of two bodies of water, with another pavilion flanked by two obelisks, and then another bridge over a final body of water, to reach the tomb itself. While the approach is linear, this tomb lends itself to a bit of wandering, and there are a couple of comfortable cafes by the water (do check prices before ordering anything!).
Unlike some later emperors, who veered to pick up on European influences, Minh Mang, a rigid Confucian, was solidly in the Chinese field of influence. His (as it turned out, well founded) suspicions of Europeans—he was to ban missionaries from entering Vietnam—was one of the reasons his father Gia Long selected him as heir. Minh Mang was a busy man—he reportedly fathered 142 kids from 33 or 43 wives (depending on your source) and had over 100 concubines.
Of all the tombs, Minh Mang’s is the one which best lends itself to a lazy slow day. Bring a few banh mi and just relax by the water—there is plenty of shade, and while this site does get busy, at other times it is blissfully devoid of people. Recommended.
The tomb of Thieu Tri
One of the lesser visited tombs, but semi-convenient to a visit to Khai Dinh’s tomb, the tomb of Emperor Thieu Tri hosts the eldest son of Emperor Minh Mang. Thieu Tri died suddenly aged just 40, and as you’ll see, his requests for a simple tomb were disregarded.
Set between two hills (which are said to represent a tiger and a dragon), the tomb was thrown together in just ten months—probably in part due to the occupant’s sudden death. By the standards of some of the grander tombs, this does come across as a fairly minor affair, with a lotus strewn pond, photogenic wooden arched doors and an immaculate interior. When we visited we had the entire site to ourselves. Allow thirty minutes or so.
Hon Chen Temple
While not a tomb, Hon Chen Temple is close to the tomb of Thieu Tri and it makes sense to swing by for a look as you are in the area. From the tomb, continue west until you reach the east bank of the Perfume River. From there you can take a sampan across the river to the temple.
The original temple predates the royal tombs though emperors, particularly Ming Mang and Dong Khanh, paid it particular attention. To the casual visitor the primary interest is probably the pleasing access by boat the the relaxing and shady atmosphere by the water once within the temple grounds. Allow 30 minutes or so. The ferryman charges foreigners 50,000 dong for a return trip.
The tomb of Tu Duc
Rivalling the tomb of Minh Mang, the tomb of Tu Duc is one of the most crowd-pleasing of the tombs surrounding Hue, and if you have the time to visit just the one, this, or Minh Mang’s should be close to the top of your list.
Tu Duc reigned during a tumultuous period of history, and as French encroachment grew, his government closed the ports to international trade and exercised crackdowns against missionaries. A dedicated Confucian, Tu Duc was a renowned poet. As with the ports, during his reign he withdrew from public life, spending many of his later years within what was to become his burial house, penning poetry and hanging out with his many concubines and wives. During his life he wrote over 600 texts and some 4,000 poems, dying in 1883.
The tomb was conceptualised as a vast park (it is some 12 hectares in total area), and while there is a fairly clear route through which to explore the grounds, this is an easy one to lose yourself in. Highlights include the large pond that you’ll see shortly after entering. To your left, partly elevated over the lake’s murky green waters, is a wooden entertainment pavilion (performances are held in the morning), while to your right is a small rocky island where Tu Duc hunted game—given the small size of the island, the game never had much of a chance.
Continuing around to your left you’ll reach the main enclosure, note the lovely reflections in the vast cauldrons before entering to admire a well labelled and interesting collection of Tu Duc’s belongings. This was one of the area’s where Tu Duc dedicated himself to his body of poetry.
Next stop is the tomb area, the approach flanked by a stone honour guard, with the military to one side and academics to the other. At the centre you’ll see an enormous steele, the largest in Vietnam. The writing is a eulogy to Tu Duc—written by himself as he was childless (he had smallpox as a youth). The steele is flanked by a couple of obelisks. Beyond the steele lies the tomb itself, the protecting wall, beautifully decorated with broken ceramics.
Allow at least an hour to explore the site, another point of interest is the harem which is in a ruined state (though there are plans to restore/rebuild some of it).
The tomb of Dong Khanh and the tomb of Kien Thai Vuong
Following the death of Tu Duc (who died suddenly in 1883), Hue entered a period of political instability, seeing four emperors in a single year. Childless, Tu Duc had appointed three mandarins as regents to oversee the succession, but the process went sideways fast.
The first emperor, Duc Duc lasted just three days. He was followed by Hiep Hoa who ruled as the French took control. Subsequently he was forced to commit suicide by eating a ball of opium and, when that didn’t kill him, he was strangled. Next came 14 year old Emperor Kien Phuc who lasted an impressive seven months before he too “died suddenly”. Kien Phuc’s 12 year old younger brother was next in the firing line, ruling as Emperor Ham Nghi and was on the throne for the fall of Hue in 1885 when the French took complete control—the Emperor fled. He was later captured in 1888 and exiled to Algeria. While Ham Nghi was on the lam, his brother was ordered to take the throne, ruling as Emperor Dong Khanh for three years from 1885 to 1888, when he died suddenly aged 24.
When we visited the tomb in 2018 it was under extensive renovation and were not able to enter it. Nearby however lies the very little visited tomb of Dong Khanh’s father, Kien Thai Vuong. While not an emperor, it is a beautiful and shady spot and is well worth the diversion. Look for the inlaid ceramic plates in many of the walls. Allow an hour for the two sites.
The tomb of Khai Dinh
Fast forward a few emperors and you’ll reach the well impressive yet compact tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. A son of Emperor Dong Khanh, Khai Dinh was the penultimate Nguyen emperor and ruled from 1916 to 1925. Set on the side of a hill, even to the novice’s the tomb is differs from the others with clear European influence—it was constructed from reinforced concrete—another departure from the norm. There are no lakes or ponds, but rather a tall set of stairs which lead to an upper platform hosting the more typical Salutation Court, with the brawn to one side and the brains to the other.
Beyond, more stairs lead to the inner sanctum which really needs to be seen to believed. Fantastic ceramic work decorates almost every flat surface and the ceiling, a magnificent scene of twisting dragons and clouds. The centrepiece is a gilded statue of the emperor on his throne. It is extremely photogenic.
This tomb is one of the closest to downtown Hue and gets more than its fair share of tour buses, so choose your moment carefully as the site is compact and it doesn’t absorb the crowds well. It is worth waiting for a quieter time. Allow an hour.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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