The imperial tombs of Kings Khai Dinh, Minh Mang or Tu Duc in Thua Thien Hue all possess unique monumental architectural elements that draws visitors here everyday.
Tu Duc Tomb
Tu Duc Tomb is one of the most beautiful buildings of the Nguyen Dynasty. The poetic Tu Duc King (1848-1883) had always wanted to choose a resting place that can equate with his position, his preferences and aspirations as among the most profound and romantic ones in the royal family of Nguyen Dynasty.
Royal tombs are often called summer palaces, as they are not merely the burial place, but a large proportion is devoted to living area of the king. Tu Duc tomb is nestled in a narrow valley in Duong Xuan Thuong village, Cu Chanh general, about 5 km south of Hue (now Thuong Ba village, Thuy Xuan commune, Hue city). More about Tours in Hue.
King Tu Duc’s reign was not a smooth one. His crown was in constant peril – dangers overhung from both outside invaders and inside conflicting brothers all in pursuit of the throne as Tu Duc was without child. To escape that harshness for some time, he built this tomb as a second home to dodge sadness away, and to prepare for his unexpected death.
Interestingly, due to his artistic nature, Tu Duc designed the tomb himself to use before and after his death. As the tomb was completed, King Tu Duc named it Van Nien Co. But after the Chay Voi revolution, the king changed his name to Khiem Cung, after the king died, called Khiem Lang (Humble Tomb in English).
The layout of the royal tomb consists of two main parts, arranged on two vertical axes parallel to each other. It obeys geomancy laws – having its back to the mountain of Duong Xuan – facing the pond of Luu Khiem, and guarded by Giang Khiem mountain in the front.
Overall, Tu Duc Tomb looks like a large park, with streams murmuring, pine trees rustling, birds singing all year round. The element most respected in Tu Duc Tomb is the harmony of lines. There are no straight, angular roads as in other architecture works. Instead it is the smooth Bat-Trang-brick-paved road that starts from Vu Khiem Gate, passes Khiem Cung Gate then curves around the tomb to suddenly hide under large frangipani flower trees near the tomb of Queen Le Thien Anh.
Nearly 50 structures in both the resting place and tomb all have “Khiem” (Humble) in their names. As you go out of the Vu Khiem gate and Son Than shrines, you are heading on the main road that leads to the shrine area, which was formerly the residential palace of the king. On your left is Chi Khiem Duong, where the the king’s wives are worshiped. Coming next are the three stairs of stone leading to Khiem Cung Gate – a two-storey watchtower structure as the counterpoise of Luu Khiem pond.
Inside Khiem Cung Gate is the main living area. In the middle, Hoa Khiem Palace, once the place where the king worked, is now the place for worshipping the king and queen. On the left and right are Phap Khiem Vu and Le Khiem Vu, respectively. These buildings were previously used for the mandarin, or bureaucrat scholars, that accompanied the king. Behind Hoa Khiem Palace is Luong Khiem Palace, formerly the residentjal place of the king, and now the place to worship Tu Du, the mother of King Tu Duc.
Around the lake shore is the Honour Courtyard. You will pass two guard lines of elephants, horses and diminutive mandarins before reaching the Stele Pavilion, which shelters a 20-tonne stone tablet. Tu Duc drafted the inscriptions himself. He freely admitted he’d made mistakes and named his tomb Khiem (Modest). The tomb, enclosed by a wall, is on the far side of a tiny lagoon. It’s a drab monument and the emperor was never interred here; where his remains were buried (along with great treasure) is not known. To keep it secret from grave robbers, all 200 servants who buried the king were beheaded. Tu Duc lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess: he had 104 wives and countless concubines, though no offspring.
On Luong Khiem’s right is On Khiem building – the place where royal kitchenware were stored. Notably, on the left side of Luong Khiem palace is Minh Khiem Theater, which is considered one of Vietnam’s oldest theaters.
There is a corridor from the On Khiem outbuilding that leads to the Tri Khiem Vien and Y Khiem Vien where the royal concubines lived, when the king was alive as well as when he died. Next to that is Tung Khiem Vien, Dung Khiem Vien and the king’s deer garden.
With 36 years of reign, Tu Duc had the longest reign among the 13 Nguyen kings.
Minh Mang Tomb
In February 1820, as King Gia Long died, his fourth prince Nguyen Phuc Dam ascended to the throne, getting Minh Mang as his title. King Minh Mang was a great contributor to the land expansion of Dai Nam (Vietnam), the strongest country in Southeast Asian nations at that time.
Being on the throne for 7 years, Minh Mang ordered his people to build his tomb. Geographer Le Van Duc chose a good land in Cam Ky Mountain region, near Bang Lang confluence, where two rivers of Ta Trach and Huu Trach came together to form the romantic Perfume River. But not until 14 years later did the king decide to build his tomb there.
In the area covered by the 1,750-meter encircling wall, an architectural complex of palaces, castles, and pavilions was laid out symmetrically along 700-meter “Than dao” line (the central north-south axis) from Dai Hong Mon, the main gate, till the end of the king’s sepulchre. The overall shape of the royal tomb looks like a person resting comfortably, knees up on Kim Phung mountain, legs stretching to the confluence of three rivers, and arms falling naturally as two sides of Trung Minh Lake.
From the outside, the buildings are distributed on three parallel axes, with “Than dao” as the central one.
Amidst the architectural works are lotus lake and hills covered in pine trees, creating a landscape both charming and spectacular.
The beginning of “Than dao” is Dai Hong Mon, the main entrance to the tomb, built of brick and lime, over 9m high and 12m wide. The gate has three entrances with 24 rows of roof tiles and a lot of from-carp-to-dragon*, dragon-and-clouds**, etc… carving designs, typical design of the Nguyen three entrance gate. The largest gate in the middle is opened only once to bring the king’s coffin into the sepulchre, then closed for eternity. Those who wish to enter have to go through two side gates, Ta Hong Gate and Huu Hong Gate. Comin next is Bai Dinh (Honour Courtyard) of 45m each side, paved with Bat Trang bricks, guarded by two lines of mandarins, horse and elephant stone statues. At the other end of the courtyard is Bi Dinh with “Thanh duc than cong” (The King’s accomplishments) stone stele. Inscripted on the stele were the writings from King Thieu Tri, Minh Mang’s son about his father’s biography and achievements.
The temple is dedicated to worship the King and his mother, Queen Ta Thien Nhan. Hoang Trach Gate is the end of the living area, opening a harmonious space of flowers and water behind.
17 stone steps will lead you to the open space shaded by trees and fragrance of wild flowers. Three bridges: Ta Phu (left), Middle Way (middle), Huu Bat (right) spanning Trung Minh Lake (Lake of Impeccable Clarity) look like strips of blue silk, allowing visitors to get to Minh Lau Pavilion (Pavilion of Light) on the hill named Tam Tai Son (Mountain of Three Powers).
Minh Lau Pavilion, the square, two-storey building with eight sloping roofs, is a classic symbol of Confucianism. Behind Minh Lau Pavilion are two majestic pillars named Binh Mountain and Thanh Mountain, with meaning that the king had “binh thanh cong duc” (bring peace and merits to the country) before returning to eternity.
Going on the Bridge of Brightness and Integrity across the Tan Nguyet Lake (Lake of the New Moon), you are going to pass 33-steps staircase that leads to the final resting place of the king. His sepulchre is located in the heart of the hill named Khai Trach Mountain (Gateway to Heaven).
Symmetrically located along the central axis are numerous pairs of matching buildings. Unfortunately, time and rain have washed away most of them, and so today visitors can no longer admire beautiful palaces and pavilions dangling between the trees and shining down the lake.
Khai Dinh Tomb
King Khai Dinh (1916-1925) was the 12th king of the Nguyen Dynasty and the last one to build his own tomb to preparing for his “departure” in the withering feudal society of Nguyen Dynasty.
Ascending to the throne at the age of 31, Khai Dinh was engrossed in building palaces, tomb for himself and his royal family, such as Kien Trung Palace, An Dinh Palace, Truong An Gate, Hien Nhon Gate, Chuong Duc Gate, and particularly Ung Tomb. These buildings cost a lot manpower and wealth of the people, but they were also works of outstanding cultural and artistic values.
After consulting recommendations from various geographers, Khai Dinh chose Chau Chu mountain as the location to build his tomb. The geographical characteristics of the tomb followed the rule of geomancy as Land of Four Divinities. Chop Vung and Kim Son Mountains serve as “Tiger Hill” and “Dragon Hill. The tomb has its back rested on Ung Mountain, its front guarded by a low hill, and balanced by Chau E – a gentle meandering water flow. The tomb was named after the sheltering Ung mountain, Ung tomb.
The construction started on September 4, 1920, taking 11 years until completion.
In constructing the tomb, Khai Dinh ordered his people to set sail to France to buy iron, steel, cement and Ardoise tiles, etc.., and to China and Japan to buy porcelain, colored glass and the alike. Compared to tombs of predecessor emperors, Khai Dinh Tomb covered a very modest area: 117m x 48.5m, yet, it was acutely elaborate and time-consuming in the making.
Many schools of architecture: Hindu, Buddhist, Romanesque, Gothic … have interwoven in numerous aspects of the tomb: tower-like pillars influenced by Hindu architecture; stupas of the Buddhist architecture, cross-shaped fence, stele house with octagonal pillars and fusioned arches from Roman style. This was the result of two factors: the East-West cultural intermingling in the turn of history and the unique character of Khai Dinh himself.
The one accountable for creating several masterpieces in Khai Dinh tomb was Phan Van Tanh. He was the artist behind three mural paintings “Cửu long ẩn vân” (Nine dragons in the middle of clouds) on the ceiling of main room of Thien Dinh palace, among the best mural paintings in Vietnam till the present. Thanks to his contribution and that of various talented folk artists of Vietnam, Khai Dinh Tomb has become the symbol, the pinnacle of porcelain and glass art.
* The tale of Carp transforming into Dragon.
This is an idiom that originates from Chinese story of Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate. The dragon’s gate is located at the top of a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. Among carps swimming upstream, only a few brave can pass the final leap and is transformed into a powerful dragon. The dragon is the symbol of benevolent, strong power, hence this expression embraces the meaning that with courage, perseverance, one day, one can achieve success
**Dragon and clouds.
In Vietnamese culture and many Oriental alike, the dragon is a mythical, potent creature that symbolizes control of over natural phenomenon like rainfall, typhoons, floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck, and imperial authority.