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The Nguyễn tombs at Huế

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I saw the Top Gear Vietnam special this morning, and it reminded me that I need to add a couple of entries to this blog before finally closing it down. In the eight months since the last entry, the cumulative number of page visits has passed 100,000.

So how about some photos of Huế?


Some explanation first. The last royal dynasty of Vietnam ended in 1945, when emperor Bảo Đại abdicated from the balcony of the Ngo Mon gate, the grandest entrance to his palace in Huế. He had been invited to abdicate by Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. Ho Chi Minh had himself been educated in Huế.

The monarchs of Vietnam lived in imperial splendour consciously modelled on that in Beijing. Within the city was a royal citadel. Within the citadel was a royal city. Within the royal city was the Forbidden City.

Each emperor was buried in his own mausoleum in the countryside around Huế. With the citadel, the mausoleums are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I rented a bike and pedalled around. The first place I reached was the tomb of Emperor Minh Mạng. This is the grandest of the lot. Minh Mạng was emperor from 1820 to 1841 (the tomb was built between 1840 and 1843). He was the son of Gia Long, who founded the Nguyễn dynasty and the Huế citadel. He was profoundly opposed to French engagement in Vietnam, and, as a conservative Confucian, he also discouraged and then banned Christian proselytisation. Following the Le Van Khoi revolt in the south, in which Catholics participated, seven missionaries were sentenced to death between 1833 and 1838. The executions generated strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Europe. Minh Mạng also restricted trade with the west, which was not to Vietnam’s advantage, since country missed the opportunity of acquiring western technology. The Siamese monarchs had a smarter strategy.

Before you get to the temple itself you reach the salutation court, with mandarins, horses and elephants, representing those who accompany and protect the emperor in the afterlife.


Then there is a temple, and behind that a bridge over a lake, which reaches the stele house. Thiệu Tri constructed a 10-foot high stele in praise of his father. The stele pavilion is on a rise, and surrounded by a lake – a lovely spot.


Behind the pavilion is another bridge and a man-made hill, which houses the burial area proper.

Here is Nine the Marseillaise on the last bridge.


Minh Mạng died in 1841 and left the throne to his son, Thiệu Tri, who continued his father’s isolationist policies. He was succeeded by his younger son Tự Ðức, who reigned as the fourth Nguyễn emperor from 1847 to 1883. Thiệu Tri chose Tự Ðức over his oldest son precisely for his keen Confucianism. Tự Ðức duly continued the dynasty’s anti-western policies and persecuted Catholics. The latter policy provoked France to attack from southern Vietnam in 1848. China was dragged in. Thus began the Sino-French War. Inevitably, France won the tie (China had lost the first Opium War against Britain in 1842, and these humiliations contributed to the Taiping Rebellion and still rankle in modern China) and China recognised French overlordship of the entire region of Vietnam. Tự Ðức continued to attack Catholics, ordering them to convert or be branded on the face. He thus managed the miraculous feat of uniting the countries of Europe against him.

Tự Ðức eventually gave away the southern part of the kingdom, Cochinchina, as a French colony, and accepted the overlordship of France over the rest, so he was the last emperor to rule independently.

His tomb was built between 1864 and 1867. While still alive, Tự Ðức used it as a rural retreat. He liked to go there to listen to the wind, enjoy the view and write poetry.


The tomb contains fifty buildings and is divided into two parts: ritual and burial. The ritual area contains many aspects of the emperor’s daily existence. There are the usual mandarins in a courtyard. The eternal houses of the wife and son stand opposite, on the other side of the stream.

The burial area is about the afterlife. Two other members of the royal family are also buried here. The tomb itself is a sarcophagus on four steps, surrounded by a wall. It isn’t constructed to any scale. The scale is in the entire ensemble.


So you start by the edge of a lake. A lovely pavilion with a terrace is across the water.


The third tomb was that of Khải Dịnh, who reigned from 1916 to 1925. He was the father of Bảo Đại, the last emperor. In principle he ruled over Annam; in practice he followed French instructions closely. Ho Chi Minh, quite reasonably, lampooned him as a puppet. He may also have been a drug addict.



The tomb shows a lot of western influence. It attempts to mix Vietnamese and western forms. There is a courtyard of mandarins, horses and elephants. The tomb itself is covered in brightly-coloured glass decorations, creating an almost baroque effect.


Posted by Wardsan 10:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged bicycle

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