The Tombs of the Emperors

Today it didn’t rain! It’s been overcast all day and sometimes the skies would go dark, but my umbrella stayed safely inside my backpack. Apparently it’s gonna be sunny tomorrow, when I leave… Sigh.

I reserved today for a tour of the tombs of the Nguyen emperors, the same ones that lived in the Imperial Citadel. The tombs are spread apart from each other by a few kilometres, outside of the city, so you can’t just walk to any one of them. You have to rent a car or book a half-day tour. I tried to get my hotel to put me in a group, but it looks like they only work wih their own tours. I could have looked online, but whatever, I let them book me a driver to show me around.
We first visited the tomb of Minh Mang, the second Nguyen emperor. It occupies a vast expanse of land, with a lake, lots of trees, very green and peaceful, all around the actual structure. The tombs weren’t just tombs, but small cities designed to be used by the emperor as a retreat in life before being buried there after death, so there were residences both for him and for his wives and staff. It kind of boggles the mind that in the 1840s people were still building enormous necropolis just for one person.

In this tomb as in others, after crossing the gate and ascending some steps, you arrive at a first courtyard, where there are statues of elephants, horses and mandarins, there to serve the emperor in the afterlife. “Mandarins” were the most direct official of the emperor, working on all aspects of the administration, and it was a rank achieved by merit and accomplishment, not hereditary (although, again, 19th century). 
After the residence, there’s a shrine to the emperor and the empress. Apparently the remaining descendants of the Nguyen dynasty and other people come here every year on the birthday of the emperor to pay their respects. There’s also a small altar displaying a big stone slab with the emperor’s biography written in Chinese characters, written by his son.
Coming out of this structure, you go down a few steps and cross a beautiful bridge over a lake to a big leafy hill, where the emperor’s remains are buried. Apparently nobody knows the exact burial spot inside the hill (or even if it’s in the hill at all) because all the servants who worked on it were executed to maintain the secret. The gate to the hill is opened only once a year, on the anniversary.
The second tomb we visited was emperor Khai Dinh’s, built in the early 20th century (!). He was the penultimate Vietnamese emperor, at a time when emperors were all but symbolic during the French colonial era, and indeed his tomb is a bizarre mix of Asian and European styles. Unlike the other tombs, instead of sprawling over a vast expanse of land this one is carved into the slope of a mountain (I was told the spots were chosen due to their good feng shui). From the top you can see a statue to the goddess Guan Yin (Kannon, compassion) in the distance. 

On the outside, the stone that used to be white is now black, giving the place a rather grim look. As elsewhere in Vietnam, it doesn’t look like there weren’t any restoration efforts until the UNESCO started granting world heritage status to the different historical sites in the country, so many places are in disrepair or only starting to get fixed. It’s understandable, I guess, considering the many terrible wars the country has been through in the last century.

On the outside, as you climb the stairs, there are the usual mandarin statues, stele with the biography, and such. The European influence is only seen outside on the entrance gate, very Western with its iron grill. The real spectacle begins when you walk inside the shrine.

It’s like walking into the king’s chamber in Versailles, except looking through an Asian kaleidoscope. The shrine and the actual tomb are in garishly decorated rooms with ceramics, mosaics, tiles, ceiling frescoes, all done in European materials and colours but depicting Vietnamese and Chinese scenes and motifs. Emperor Khai Dinh is known to be really buried here, for once, 18 m below the surface.
Looking around the place, by far the most crowded of the three tombs I visited, I thought it was one of the most surreal mishmash of cultures I’ve seen, right up there with the Parthenon in Nashville (it’s in here, look it up!). I kept reminding myself that it’s barely 100 years old!

Reading up, it looks like this emperor wasn’t terribly popular at the time, what with being just a figurehead for the French and taxing the people to build this extravagant tomb, but my guide said that now there’s a yin and yang to it, because now that same tomb is a tourist destination and is bringing back the money that the French took out of the country (entry to each tomb costs 100,000 VND, €4,20). I hadn’t looked at it that way!

Our third visit was the tomb of Tu Duc, fourth emperor of Vietnam in the mid 1800s. This one is also set in a tranquil forest, very inviting to contemplation and relaxation. Apparently Tu Duc was a bit of a hedonist and loved the arts, had hundreds of wives and concubines, and his shrine is filled with expensive imported Chinese glazings featuring his own poems. 

This was the only tomb that was built and finished while its intended occupant was still alive -which is the point- so he got to use it as a second home and in fact wrote his own autobiography on his massive, 20 tonne stone stele. According to a sign and against what you’d expect, he was fairly critical in his own assessment, as he failed to repel the French invasion.
After a few colourful buildings, and the two spires with lotus flowers, the tomb itself is very sober, and again it’s not known where exactly the emperor is buried.

Our last visit was to the Thien Mu pagoda, a seven-tiered pagoda built in the 19th century next to a Buddhist temple and monastery. It’s right on the bank of the Perfume River and looks unusual in that it’s made of red bricks.

Inbetween the visitors there were monks, dressed in brown robes, coming and going out of the monastery. Oddly, they have the Austin that drove a famous monk to Ho Chi Minh city, where he set fire to himself to protest against the discrimination of Buddhism. On the back of the grounds is a five-tiered pagoda to the former head of the monastery.
Anf that was it for our programme! I very much enjoyed the tombs, a must-see if you’re in Hue. The ones that look like parks are peaceful and scenic, whereas Khai Dinh’s is so garish that it’s also really an experience. 
This left the afternoon free, and I took the chance to rest in preparation for the trip to Hoi An tomorrow. My ideal plan when booking this place was that I’d rest on the edge of the swimming pool, or write these entries on my veranda or on one of the outdoor couches surrounded by palm trees… The weather kinda threw a wrench on that, but I can still rest inside!

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