Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc, Vietnam.
Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc. Hue, Vietnam.
The city of Hue really is a goldmine for those looking to wade deep into Vietnam’s historical waters. At the very least most visitors spend a half day exploring The Imperial City, once home to the country’s Nguyen emperors. If that doesn’t quite quench the thirst, one might consider a day touring The Royal Tombs, the final resting place of Vietnam’s last royal family.
The Nguyens ruled Vietnam independently from 1802 to 1884. Later emperors stood as nominal heads of state under the French colonial government. By 1945, during the Second World War, the country had become a puppet state under French-Japanese occupation. The last Nguyen Emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated the throne in 1945 following Japan’s surrender. Thus ended a 143 year dynasty, signalling the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
There were 13 Nguyen emperors in total. During their reigns, seven of these rulers decided to build tombs for themselves. And we’re not talking about a single chamber. Rather, they were grand garden complexes stuffed full of beautiful trees, plants, ponds and pavilions.
How I wish I’d had the time to visit all seven. However, once again the clock was ticking and when push came to shove I realised I had just a half morning to focus on one. Consequently, I opted to visit what I’d read was the largest and most beautiful mausoleum of all… the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc.
Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc.
Located outside Hue’s city centre, a mere fifteen minute taxi drive, The Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc feels like an escape from civilisation. Jumping out at the main entrance, I paid the 1000.000 VND (roughly $4) entrance fee and ducked under the stone archway into the peaceful green grounds. In fact, it was so wonderfully quiet I took the opportunity to rest on a ledge, open my phone and dig into the backstory of this fascinating Vietnamese ruler.
Tu Duc was the 4th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Aged just 18 years old, he took to the throne in 1847 under controversial circumstances. His father, Emperor Thieu Tri, caused national outrage when he broke tradition by bypassing his eldest son, Hong Bao, to announce his younger son Tu Duc as his successor. He preferred Tu Duc because of his intense dislike of foreign influence and calls for innovation.
As emperor, the first thing Tu Duc had to deal with was a huge rebellion! The furious Hong Bao led the assassination attempt, supported by progressive Roman Catholic missionaries. Confucian scholars also jumped onboard, angry that tradition had been dishonoured with the naming of the new emperor.
Vietnam’s Royal Tombs, Hue.
But Tu Duc swiftly killed off the threat with ruthless military force. Indeed he slaughtered nearly 100 people connected to the rebellion. What’s more, an execution date was soon set for the imprisoned Hong Bao. Eventually, Tu Duc’s mother talked him out of it and his brother remained in prison until his eventual suicide.
Tu Duc was 35 years old when he announced plans to build his own mausoleum. He wanted his tomb to be the grandest in the country’s history, thus it took workers three years to complete his vision. In addition to a sprawling tomb area, the complex included a sizeable residential retreat. Here, the emperor had yet another palatial resort from which he could relax with his wives and concubines.
Much of the compound’s natural beauty remains. There are several lakes, for example, with numerous viewing balconies and gazebos. The main body of water, which serves as the mausoleum’s ambitious centrepiece, is Luu Khiem Lake.
This is definitely the most popular spot in the complex. Therefore I had to bide my time until the foot traffic cleared and I had one of the pavilions to myself.
Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc.
This is where the emperor would spend lazy summer days fishing on the lake. The largest of the lakeside structures (pictured in the background above) is Xung Khiem Pavilion. According to a wooden info board, this was Tu Duc’s favourite spot to recite poetry. And where he even composed some minor works of his own.
In the distance, I zoomed my camera in on the short bridge that leads to a small island in the lake. Tu Duc, a keen hunter, had the island filled with deer, pheasants and other small game.
It was fun getting myself lost in all the ruined courtyards and squares. Much of it is plain rubble and a few dilapidated structures, accompanied by not a word of explanation. One notable building in fine condition is Hoa Khiem Temple (pictured below), which hosted the emperor’s office.
Much more interesting, not to mention amusing, is the house for Tu Duc’s “minor wives”. Apparently the emperor had 104 wives, though only 20-30 joined him at this retreat at any given time.
Furthermore, the randy old dog had around 150 concubines. Those who visited the mausoleum with him stayed in the gorgeous structure pictured below. Despite having over 250 women at his disposal, Tu Duc never actually produced an heir. Unfortunately, he’d become sterile due to a childhood case of smallpox.
Adventures in Vietnam.
Much like The Imperial City, visitors have the chance to dress up in traditional costume. You can do so in Minh Khiem Chamber, which used to be a small theatre. If you’re lucky you may even catch a cultural performance here instead of a kitschy photoshoot.
A of picturesque tiled courtyards leads to the burial area. One of these, Bai Dinh, features several rows of stone sculptures, including Mandarin officials, elephants and horses.
Keenly aware that he wouldn’t have a child to handle his legacy, Tu Duc decided to write his own epitaph. Engraved by hand onto a stone tablet, he wrote candidly about his regrets and self-perceived failures. Over the years the tablet has been displayed in several locations around Hue. Back in 2018 it could be found within the burial area at the mausoleum.
Not that I got to see it. That day I was unable to enter the tomb, as it had been closed for restoration. Initially this really peeved me off. Though I soon felt better about it when I learned that historians say he was not actually buried here!!!
Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc.
In the last years of Tu Duc’s life he became increasingly paranoid and anxious. He believed that evil spirits would come and invade his tomb after he’d passed. And that his mortal enemies would desecrate his remains and steal the treasures buried with him.
Hence he abandoned his plan to be interred in his palatial mausoleum. Instead, he asked his closest advisors to bury him in a secret spot. To this day the location remains unknown, helped in part by the fact that the 200 labourers who buried him were all beheaded when they returned to The Imperial City. Feels a bit harsh.
Before departing, I did at least see the tomb of Tu Duc’s first and most respected wife, Empress Le Thien An. Plus she actually rests right here… or so they say.
I would’ve loved to have seen all the tombs. But something tells me if you only get to do one, the Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc is probably the pick of the bunch. Securing my last photograph of the day, I slung my camera strap over my shoulder and followed the woodland path towards the exit gates.
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