Hue's Royal Tombs and Pagodas


    The imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, Hue is filled with beautiful monuments, impressive architecture, and is especially well-known for its royal tombs. Sadly, the city suffered a lot of damage during the Vietnam War, due to its location close to the border of North Vietnam. American bombs damaged many of the historic sites at Hue, and once the war was over, the Vietnamese Communist Party intentionally neglected the remaining historic sites because they were seen as remnants of a “feudal regime”.

    Happily for Vietnam and visitors to Vietnam, recent years have brought a change in policy, and the history of Hue is gradually being restored. Despite the damage done, Hue remains a beautiful, fascinating place to visit.

    The Citadel

    The Nguyen emperors made their home the Citadel, a massive stone fortress that conjures up more scenes of battle than of luxury – the Beijing Forbidden City this is not. Although it's referred to as 'ancient', the Citadel was built in the early 1800s, and covers an area of 6 km. Walls ten metres thick surround the outer edge, but inside are open courtyards filled with beautiful gardens and private apartments.

    Vietnam's version of the Forbidden City was almost totally destroyed by French in the late 1940s. The Citadel became a battle site again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. Today, less than a third of the inner palaces and apartments remain. Renovations are starting to restore some of the Citadel's former glory.

    Royal Tombs of Hue

    Southeast of the Citadel, on both banks of the Perfume River, are seven royal tombs. Monuments to the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, including Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Doc, the tombs are all definitely worth a visit. Each one is built in the traditional Vietnamese style of geomancy, even modifying the surrounding landscape to ensure straight lines, certain directional orientation, and other elements designed to comply with supernatural forces.

    At the tombs, you'll see courtyards filled with stone elephants, horses, and mandarins. You'll find pavilions, temples for worshiping the emperor's soul, and eulogies. Most of the tombs were planned by the emperor himself, so each royal tomb reflects the personality of the deceased ruler. Emperor Minh Mang's tomb, for example, reflects his strict adherence to Confucianism through its Chinese style, its formality, and its clean, symmetrical lines.

    Tu Doc, on the other hand, was known as the 'poet Emperor', so it is not surprising that his tomb rests in an elegant garden near an impressive complex of pavilions and lake. As Tu Doc's reign represented the peak of Nguyen opulence, it's fitting that his elegant, exotic tomb matches this opulence.

    In direct contrast to Tu Doc's tomb is the tomb of Khai Dinh. Khai Dinh, the 12th Nguyen Emperor, reigned from 1916 to 1925. By this time, Europe was exerting its influence over Southeast Asia, and thus Khai Dinh's tomb represents a strange, early fusion of East and West. The courtyard is sombre to the point of being depressing in its concrete drabness, but inside is a golden effigy of the emperor, under an impressive cement canopy decorated with ceramics and glass.

    Pagodas in and Around Hue

    The best-known pagoda in Hue is the Thien Mu Pagoda. A seven-story temple, the Thien Mu Pagoda is the unofficial symbol of Hue. Built at the beginning of the seventeenth century when the governor Hoang had a vision of a fairy woman ('Thien Mu'), the first version of the temple was quite simple. In 1665, the temple was expanded by the early Nguyen ruler, Nguyen Phuc Tan. Thirty years later, a Chinese Zen master was invited to Hue to start a Buddhist community at the temple. Subsequent emperors continued to expand the temple, until in 1844 the octagonal Tu Nhan Tower was erected by Emperor Thieu Tri. This is the tower that today is synonymous with the Thien Mu Pagoda, and the tower that graces the landscape of Hue, rising above the Perfume River.

    Several other pagodas dot the landscape of Hue, such as the Tu Dam Pagoda, the Tu Hieu Pagoda, and the Dieu Du Pagoda, each with its own unique history and architectural features.

    In short, Hue is a city seemingly designed for students of Vietnamese history. Even for those more interested in beaches than the history or culture of Vietnam, these pagodas, tombs, and the Citadel are nonetheless fascinating sites for their architectural beauty and special place in Hue's development.