With the morning having been spent at the Imperial City and visiting the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady we completed our cultural and historic cruise excursion in Huế after lunch with a trip to Tomb of Tự Đức.
Our coach parked more-or-less right by the attractive main entrance gateway to the tomb complex and we gathered there as a group while our guide went ahead to purchase tickets for our visit.
The fourth Nguyễn dynasty emperor Tự Đức lived in interesting times, many of them of his own doing. His ascendancy to the throne at his father’s wish immediately caused conflict as by Confucian traditions his elder brother should have inherited the title. This triggered a rebellion in which Tự Đức was victorious but was just one part of the troubles he faced. By continuing and expanding policies that saw Vietnam increasingly shut off from the outside world and intolerant towards foreign influences and non-Confucian religious practitioners (particularly Christians) inner turmoil in the country soon spilled over into the outside world and France stepped in to assert some order. European weaponry and tactics were more than enough to overrun Vietnam and even the Chinese coming to Tự Đức’s aid were only a slowing force. Tự Đức eventually signed away part of southern Vietnam to the French and agreed to become a colonial protectorate, acts that were not well received by others in his country.
Having been largely responsible for mass persecutions, contributing to rebellions, angering his own people, and signing away sovereignty it’s subsequently difficult to decide whether the peaceful, sprawling, yet still modest tomb of the emperor came as a surprise or not when we saw it. The tomb, built between 1864 and 1867, was designed by Tự Đức himself and was made to be a place where he could escape from the problems ravaging his country (even the building of it precipitated an attempted coup as it involved forced labour and increased taxation of locals) and wander the grounds in peace with his wife and concubines. Smallpox when younger had left him impotent so despite having over 100 concubines he fathered no children.
Upon entering the grounds of the tomb the first thing we came to was Luu Khiem Lake. As the sign above explains, the lake and its small island were artificially created. The island was regularly populated with small animals and the emperor would take a boat across in order to hunt them. The emperor himself was a small man, standing only 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall.
Along the left hand side of the lake as we walked further into the tomb complex there was a small boat landing area opposite which was the Khiem Cung Gate. This was the entrance to the Ritual Area which had previously been the palace in which the emperor and his concubines would reside when he was visiting. As a sign near the gate explained, the buildings in the palace were a scaled-down version of the Imperial City.
Passing through the gate took us into a courtyard around which were the buildings of Hoa Khiem Palace. These buildings house many of Tự Đức’s possessions, gifts, and furniture.
The two thrones were used by the emperor and empress. Interestingly, the smaller of the two thrones was the one on which Tự Đức sat. As his wife was somewhat taller than him already this arrangement served to further emphasise his small stature, the reason for that not being known.
Continuing through the palace buildings took us to the Minh Khiem Chamber, a theatre in which Vietnamese cultural plays were put on, many of them sponsored by the emperor. It is possible to pay a small fee, dress up as the emperor, and sit on a throne in the theatre and someone duly did just that while we were there.
We came out back through the Hoa Khiem Palace buildings and through the Khiem Cung Gate then turned northwards towards an entrance that ran parallel to the palace buildings.
This took us to the Necropolis, the first part of which was a forecourt lined with an honour guard of statues – elephants, horses, and mandarins – for the emperor. Just like his throne and the man himself, Tự Đức’s statues were smaller than is usual for this type of memorial.
Up a few steps was the Stele Pavilion which houses – as its name implies – a stele containing a biography of the emperor, written by himself. A self-written stele is an unusual thing in Vietnamese traditions with this typically being undertaken by a son but, of course, Tự Đức didn’t have any of those. The stele weighs over 20 tons and it is the largest stele in Vietnam. The emperor’s biography remarks on his childhood illness and admits mistakes he made during his reign although his dying words were allegedly curses against the French (probably quite common) so it’s not clear how much of that modesty and remorse in the inscription was genuine.
A common architectural addition to imperial tombs in Vietnam are towers which are there to represent the power of the emperor.
Beyond the Stele Pavilion was a small lagoon and a wall with a single entrance into the Sepulchre. In deliberate contrast to the ornate designs on the walls and around the gateways everywhere else the actual tomb of Tự Đức was very plain. Importantly, the tomb was a point of respect and worship but the actual remains of Tự Đức and his most favoured treasures are nowhere near it. Indeed, nobody knows where the emperor’s body was buried; the location and honour of burying the emperor was given over to 200 workers who upon completion of their duty were beheaded to ensure it remained a secret. Not the greatest job in the world then.
The views from the Sepulchre back across the lagoon and towards the Stele Pavilion and its flanking towers made for very pleasant ones.
This concluded our visit to Tự Đức’s Tomb on the outskirts of Huế and, indeed, our full day cruise excursion in the Vietnamese city so all that remained was for us to retrace our steps out of the Necropolis, head back past Luu Khiem Lake, and leave via the exit to our waiting coach for the journey back to Diamond Princess.