The Royal Tombs: The Legacy of the Nguyen Dynasty (Minh Mang and Khai Dinh)

In November 2017, my partner and I decided to travel to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to celebrate our 12th anniversary. The only thing planned was to tour the sites of interest around the city (such as the opera house, the cathedral, independence hall, and the market area). A few weeks before the trip, we were still convincing ourselves to see the remnants of the Vietnam War through the Cu Chi tunnels. I was a bit hesitant. Admittedly, I was not ready for that kind of adventure. I was also so scared that landmines were still very active around the area. In the end, we decided to be a bit spontaneous.

Nonetheless, spontaneous travel is not my thing. Quitely, I was doing my own research a few days before the trip. At the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, I was continuing reading some blog posts and travel sites about interesting things to do in Ho Chi Minh. I came across some commentaries at a popular travel site about two nearby cities that travelers would want to explore when visiting Ho Chi Minh: Hoi An and Hué.  

On a personal note, I find the latter more interesting. My tiny cultural anthropologist self  was interpellated. My partner, however, was still holding on the precept of us being spontaneous for this travel. I believed I was still trying to be very spontaneous when few minutes before boarding, I booked us roundtrip tickets from Ho Chi Minh to Hué.    

In this post, I focus on how Hué left a significant mark on me as a cultural explorer. Beginning with our very friendly private tour guide via Budget Car Rental, we learned that during the unification of Viet Nam (now, Vietnam) in 1802, Hué became the nation’s capital. In various online sources, commentators also suggest that it was not only the political capital of then Viet Nam but also the cultural and religious center under the Nguyen Dynasty until the end of the Second World War.

In 1993, the UNESCO Convention inscribed a series of monuments (a citadel, pagodas, temples, and tombs) within and outside the city as World Heritage Site collectively known as the Complex Hué Monuments. The complex is composed of several historical buildings, cultural assets and other monumental legacies from the Nguyen dynasty, identified as the last feudal dynasty of Vietnam. These monuments include the Hoang Thanh Hue (Imperial City), the Ngo Mon (High Noon Gate), ancient tombs of several Nguyen Emperors such as Gia Long, Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, Tu Duc, Khai Dinh to name a few) and pagodas. As our tour guide proudly exclaimed: a visit to Hué is not complete without appreciating the historical significance of the Nguyen monuments to the city and the entire nation.

The fortress/watch tower, a  famous landmark leading to the entrance of the Hue Imperial City (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

It was unfortunate that we only had to spend one day in Hué because UNESCO listed 14 sites inscribed with World Heritage status. A lot of these sites, especially the tombs are located outside the city. Traveling from one tomb to another, for instance, took us about 20 to 45 minutes. In the largest monument alone, Hoang Thanh Hue (Hue Imperial City), we had to spend about three hours to experience it almost completely. The operative word is almost. I believe we only explored about 75% of the citadel. 

Although the citadel or the Imperial City is considered grandest and largest site in Hué, the Royal Tombs outside the city are also worth mentioning in this post. These tombs are majestic! According to the brochure handed by our guide, each tomb reflects the entombed royalty’s life and characters such Gia Long’s tomb (the farthest of all the Royal tombs) in the mountains and jungles is an analogy of the spirit of a general in a war. The symmetry and majesty of Minh Mang’s tomb surrounded by both man-made and natural landscapes reveal the powerful will and solemn nature of a politician and a poet. Tu Duc’s tomb evokes the elegance and subtlety of a poet. Of the several tombs, we only had a chance to visit three: Minh Mang’s, Kai Dinh’s, and Tu Duc’s. 

An obligatory selfie with my partner in front of what we assumed to be a man-made pond in the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang. 
The main gate (permanently closed) to enter the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang
The burial site of Emperor Minh Mang (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
 A series of animals and human sculptures/monuments on guard at the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The South Gate of the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang as viewed from the burial site (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Our first stop was Minh Mang’s. According to online sources, Minh Mang reigned as Emperor from 1820 to 1840. The construction of his tomb began sometime in 1821 with the intention to see its elegance before his death. However, he died without seeing the completion of the tomb. His son and successor Thieu Tri completed the tomb, with, as our guide exclaimed, the help of about ten thousand workers and artisans. About 40 sculptural and architectural works (monuments) comprise Minh Mang’s tomb.

According to Michael Aquino of Trip Savvy Online, “if the tomb speaks for the Emperor buried within it, we see the representation of an Emperor who sought balance in his reign, ruling his subjects with a firm but fair grip, but rejecting overtures from foreign nations.”

The landscape of this site becomes more marvelous due to the additional layers of aesthetics produced by the man-made lakes fringed with pine trees. 

The first few steps leading to the entrance of the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Details of the staircase leading to the tomb / burial site of Khai Dinh (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
A view from the top of the Royal Tomb (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The Royal Guards (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
Inside the burial site – the centrepiece is the sculpture of himself believed to have been casted in France. (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Our next destination was the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh, located in Chau Chu mountain outside of Hué. The tomb is relatively a new site having been constructed only in 1920 and completed in 1931. We observed that the ornaments and design of the tomb somehow combine Western and Eastern motifs. Perhaps, this is due to Khai Dinh’s close relationship with the French government. Our guide even attested that Khai Dinh’s reign was filled with controversies, especially attributing him as the puppet of France. 

Like a number of Nguyen Dynasty emperors, Khai Dinh desired the preparation of a tomb in anticipation of his death. According to online sources, Khai Dinh visited France sometime in 1925, which could have inspired the design of his mausoleum.

Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb is smaller than those of his predecessors. Nonetheless, the entire complex is far more elaborately designed. What is note-mentioning about his tomb is the presence of twelve stone statues representing his guards on his way to the afterlife. On the top floor of the complex is the Khai Dinh Palace, featuring intricately designed glass and porcelain decorations on the walls. The ceiling of the palace is decorated with intricate dragons. The rear room of the palace is home to a temple containing his burial site. There was also an altar dedicated to him as well as his own sculpture, which is told to have been casted in France.

Khai Dinh is the last Nguyen Dynasty Emperor to be buried in Hué. His successor Bao Dai (who was also responsible for the completion of Khai Dinh’s tomb in 1931) was brought to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh) where he served as the puppet leader of the Japanese government during Japan’s invasion to Vietnam. 


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