First published December 2022 | Words and photos by Luke Digweed
Luke Digweed is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. He has been living in Vietnam since 2011, mostly in Huế but also in Đà Nẵng & Sài Gòn. While living in Huế, he ran the Huế Grit Tour & co-organized events & small concerts between 2017-2020. His most recent ongoing project is Festivals of Vietnam which documents ceremonies, rituals & processions around the country….read more about Luke
The last feudal emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyễn Dynasty ruled between 1802-1945. Despite their time as leaders of the country being comparatively short, the Nguyễn Dynasty’s reign was influential in cultivating the identity of contemporary Vietnam. The Nguyễn emperors left behind a rich legacy of imperial architecture, cultural attractions and forgotten relics in and around their royal capital at Huế. Scattered about the former imperial city and its environs, many of these Nguyễn Dynasty sites can be visited today: beautiful and elaborate tombs, palaces and pagodas dotting the city and surrounding countryside, echoing with stories of imperial infighting, political intrigue and assassination attempts.
NGUYEN DYNASTY IN HUE
Cultural Sights of Vietnam’s Last Emperors
Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty spanned nearly 150 years and thirteen different emperors. Although there were periods of great prosperity, much of the Nguyễn Dynasty was marked by tumultuous change, particularly the growing presence of French colonial ambitions in the region, ultimately leading to the loss of Vietnamese independence. In this guide, I’ve focused on twelve Nguyễn Dynasty sites in and around Huế. Some are well-known attractions, but others are seldom visited despite their historical and cultural significance. Exploring these Nguyễn Dynasty sites is a great way to get a glimpse of Vietnam’s imperial past.
3. Tự Đức Tomb
Sources & Acknowledgments:
This article borrows heavily from ‘Exploring Huế’ by Tim Doling (2018). For anyone interested in the history of Huế, it’s an essential read & a great point of reference. ‘Exploring Huế’ is available online at the Thế Giới publishers website, the Phú Xuân bookstore in Huế, as well as numerous bookshops in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City. Dr. Lê Nam Trung Hiếu is a lecturer at the International School of Hue University. As a local historian, he kindly took time out of his schedule to check through this article for any factual errors. Thank you, Dr. Hiếu!
Nguyễn Dynasty Sites in Huế
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About the Nguyễn Dynasty:
Dating back to the 10th century, the Nguyễn Phúc family had long been involved with various dynasties in the north of Vietnam. In the 16th century, under the rule of the Trịnh lords, a political power play moved the Nguyễn clan to rule central Vietnam, where they gradually expanded their empire southwards. However, tensions escalated between the Trịnh and Nguyễn families before the peasant revolution of the Tây Sơn eliminated the Trịnh lords towards the end of the 18th century. The Nguyễn clan only just survived the Tây Sơn rebellion after a series of bloody battles, but they eventually suppressed the peasant revolution and became the de facto leaders of what is now known as Vietnam. Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, better known by his imperial name Gia Long, would unite the country and base his rule in Huế.
Despite the Nguyễn’s reign over Vietnam lasting less than 150 years, it saw thirteen different emperors. While its beginning at the start of the 19th century was prosperous, French colonial powers had set their sights set on expanding their empire. From 1860, the dynasty went through a flurry of changes as the country desperately clung to its independence. Power struggles and in-court fighting led to some emperors being poisoned, while those that were uncooperative with the eventual occupying colonial administration would be exiled from Vietnam. By the 20th century, and for the remainder of the dynasty’s reign, the succeeding Nguyễn emperors were limited to roles as ceremonial figureheads for the French colonialists.
Although the Nguyễn Dynasty’s time as heads of the country was fraught with chaos and controversy, their legacy in Huế, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, is undeniable. What makes Huế unique is that local and national authorities have implemented policies to preserve and reinforce Huế’s relics of culture and history. There are heavily funded departments within the local authorities dedicated to the renovation and maintenance of these historical sites. The Vietnam-American war in the 1960s and 1970s led to many sites in Huế being severely damaged and their restoration is a long-term, ongoing project. It is thanks to these projects that Huế is a gateway to Vietnam’s past; a city of pagodas, tombs and historical relics, unlike any other in the nation.
Huế citadel, the designated home for all thirteen emperors of the Nguyễn Dynasty, is one of Vietnam’s most iconic buildings. Built in 1804, it sits on the northern side of the Hương river. The entire complex is made of three sections enclosed by thick red-brick walls: the citadel, the imperial city and the purple forbidden city. It features a complex series of moats, canals and ponds. The citadel covers around 10 kilometres of land, accessed by ten moated gates.
While it might be Vietnam’s most famous citadel, it wasn’t the first to be built in Vietnam, nor the first by the Nguyễn Dynasty. The form of the citadel borrows heavily from European military architecture, yet the execution depended on domestic beliefs of geomancy – the auspicious arrangement and placement of buildings and landmarks.
The citadel today is currently home to a significant portion of Huế’s urban population, meaning that most streets intertwine parts of the old citadel with modern-day Vietnam: coffee shops and street food vendors coexist with the imperial architecture of the last feudal dynasty. This makes for an exciting environment to wander around. The Tịnh Tâm lakes, north of the imperial city, were where emperors would go to escape court matters, write poetry and play music. The citadel walls, where guards once stood, now facilitate low-level farming by people who relocated on top of them during and after the war. The Meridian Gate (Ngọ Môn) and adjacent square, where the last emperor abdicated in 1945, is often populated in the early evening by people enjoying picnics, walking dogs and flying kites. Entrance to the citadel is free and an urban wanderer’s utopia.
The Imperial City:
The Imperial City was the former residence of the Nguyễn Dynasty emperors. It is served by four gates and protected by an external moat. The imperial city can only be accessed by the public via the impressive Ngọ Môn gate for a ticketed fee. The Five Phoenix Pavilion sits atop the Ngọ Môn gate and can be accessed by a staircase from inside the imperial city. Within the imperial city there’s an abundance of palaces and temples that were designated for the emperor and his subservients. The most important of these is the Thái Hòa palace which housed the emperors’ throne.
Behind the Thái Hòa palace is the Forbidden Purple City. Once an area where unauthorised access led to severe punishments, its boundaries are now almost indistinguishable. There is plenty to explore in the Forbidden Purple City and you could spend an entire afternoon visiting the different palaces. The nine Dynastic Urns to the southwest of the Forbidden Purple City represent 9 of the 13 emperors. Each cast in bronze, they are decorated with motifs that pay homage to Vietnam’s landscape and wildlife. The rebuilt Càn Thành Palace is where the emperor’s private residence was designated. The Ngọc Dịch lake and the Thiệu Phương Royal Garden provide a scenic glimpse into the Emperor’s own Huế. The Royal Theatre (Nhà Hát Duyệt Thị Đường) was built in 1826 and is considered the oldest theatre in Vietnam. The two-storey building hosts a range of masks and props used by actors of the past. The theatre still operates performances for visitors to the citadel.
Despite its structures being a great peril during the multiple wars of the 20th century, heavy investment in projects to preserve and restore the citadel have resulted in an exciting and beautiful location for visitors interested in Vietnam’s history, as well as its historical architecture, culture and heritage.
The Royal Tombs:
Huế is a city of tombs. Some of the largest and most elaborate belong to the Nguyễn Dynasty. All of the dynasty’s lords and 11 of 13 succeeding emperors are buried in or around Huế. Often alongside them are the tombs of queens, empresses and other important members of the court. For this guide, I have chosen five tombs that I think people will enjoy visiting, each one contributing a unique story to the Nguyễn Dynasty’s legacy.
Gia Long Tomb:
Gia Long was the first emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, his rule began in 1802. After defeating the peasant revolt (led by the brothers Tây Sơn), Gia Long placed his court in Huế. Every architectural decision made was influenced by geomancy and Confucianism. The construction of his mausoleum was no different: far from the centre of Huế and placed overlooking the surrounding forest and mountain range. Gia Long watched over the construction of his tomb, finally passing away in the year of its completion.
The mausoleum was built as a double tomb, including the resting place of his first wife Thừa Thiên. Maybe a more surprising feature of the complex is the inclusion of Empress Thuận Thiên, who lived through the reign of three emperors and gave birth to emperor Minh Mạng. A revered member of the royal family, Emperor Thiệu Trị placed her tomb in the Gia Long compound, where she was buried in 1846, a quarter of a century after the death of Gia Long.
Minh Mạng Tomb:
On the other side of the Hữu Trạch river is the tomb of emperor Minh Mạng, the second of the Nguyễn Dynasty emperors and the son of Gia Long. A staunch Confucianist and hostile in his foreign policy, his isolationism led to a more united Vietnam but ultimately at the expense of its future as an independent state.
Minh Mạng’s tomb is similar to the tomb of his predecessor but with extended elements of its design. Sitting on an east-west axis, it consists of three areas: a tomb, a temple and a stele house. Experts and hobbyists consider Minh Mạng’s tomb to be one of the most attractive of the Nguyễn Dynasty based on its layout and its cohesion with elements of the surrounding natural environment.
Tự Đức Tomb:
Tự Đức was the fourth emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty and the second son of the short-reigning emperor Thiêu Trị (ruled 1841-1847). Tự Đức continued policies antagonistic towards foreign entities and furthered Vietnam’s isolation from the world. Despite appeals from officials for reformation, Tự Đức’s unwillingness to open the country and cease the crushing suppression of Christianity eventually triggered the French colonial invasion, starting with the loss of parts of Southern Vietnam. Tự Đức died before colonialism took control of the country, but lived to oversee the start of France’s colonisation of Vietnam.
Tự Đức’s imperial policies were possibly a reflection of his personality: as emperor he preferred isolation from the outer world. His tomb, designed as a palace-mausoleum, was completed in 1873 and he spent a large amount of time at the tomb during the latter years of his life, keeping far from the problems of the country. Throughout his life, Tự Đức wrote around 600 prose texts and over 4,000 poems, most of which he composed while at his own tomb. He didn’t die until ten years after his tomb was completed.
Tự Đức’s tomb is the most comprehensive of the tombs on this list. Unlike Gia Long and Minh Mạng’s tombs, Tự Đức separated the temple and tombs to different areas of the complex. The composition of the mausoleum is more akin to a park. A lake and sloping walkways running between buildings add to the mausoleum’s appealing aesthetics. Tự Đức’s tomb also included its own opera house, a small island where the emperor would hunt and a royal harem (later destroyed) where concubines would live and attend to the emperor’s grave after he passed away.
Hiệp Hòa Tomb:
Hiệp Hòa (real name Nguyễn Phúc Hồng Dật) was the sixth emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Although his tenure only lasted 4 months and 10 days, his predecessor Dục Đức’s reign was limited to just 3 days. Both were installed and dethroned in the year 1883.
Local accounts speak of Hiệp Hòa being an honest and gentle man. When he was approached to become the next emperor, he declined, believing he was not suitable to solve the many problems that plagued the country. His response was ignored and Hiệp Hòa was forced to ascend the throne. Only a month later, the French forces would complete their capture of Vietnam by sailing up the Hương River to the citadel and threatening it with bombardment. At that time, the royal court was under the grip of two mandarins who laid the blame of the nation’s surrender upon Hiệp Hòa. High tensions transpired into a series of assassination plots and when an emperor-backed plot was foiled, Hiệp Hòa was forced to abdicate and swiftly assassinated.
Hiệp Hòa’s place of burial was abandoned for a number of years until it was relocated and refurbished in 2013 by a group of his descendants. His modest tomb, which totals 30m2, can be found on the edge of one of Huế’s largest graveyards. I have added Hiệp Hoa’s tomb here due to its unique location and to contrast between the more magnificent tombs of Hue’s more renowned emperors.
Khải Định Tomb:
Emperor Khải Định was the penultimate emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty and the last to be buried in Huế. By the start of his reign in 1916, the French colonial administration had full control over Indochina and the Nguyễn emperors were permitted nothing more than stature. Those that disobeyed the French were exiled. Khải Định was the first emperor to fully accommodate the French’s jurisdiction and in return, he was granted a comfortable term on the throne accompanied by a decadent, Western-influenced lifestyle. It was during Khải Định’s ‘rule’ that civil discontent and nationalist sentiment would spur the first movements of revolution.
The Khải Định mausoleum is on top of Châu Chữ mountain, around 12km from Huế centre. What makes Khải Định’s tomb so unique is its blend of European neo-classical aesthetics with motifs typical of the previous Nguyễn tombs. The various grey tones in the reinforced concrete and cast iron are a metaphor for the court’s consensual approach to foreign influence. Khải Định’s tomb omits the balance with nature and includes no water features. Instead, it is incredibly narrow and spread across six floors that ascend up the Châu Chữ mountain. Once you reach the sixth floor, you are greeted with the front of Khải Định’s tomb house, which looks more like a 19th century European manor. Inside, a gilded-bronze statue of the king sits atop his resting place, decorated with imported glass and porcelain. A stunning contrast from the more austere design of the first Nguyễn emperor, Gia Long.
Royal Arena & Elephant Temple:
During the Nguyễn Dynasty, a popular blood sport pitted elephants against tigers. Elephants were considered noble creatures; obedient to their human owners and loyal when carrying soldiers into battle. Some of Vietnam’s most historically famous leaders and generals are often depicted atop elephants. Tigers on the other hand were considered savage, social outsiders that terrorised civilised society. The duels were often fixed, with tigers’ claws being removed, so elephants would always triumph. The battles were originally organised on the green in front of the citadel, until a tiger escaped and threatened the safety of emperor Minh Mạng. After this, Minh Mạng ordered the construction of the Royal Arena for future fights.
The Royal Arena is located on the south-west side of Huế. A small community surrounds the imposing walls of the arena. Walking around the perimeter, it is easy to identify where the tigers were kept and how the elephants entered the arena. In recent years, public access to the stairs and gallery of the Royal Arena changes frequently: if open, it’s is certainly worth observing the arena from the gallery.
Near the Royal Arena is Long Châu elephant temple. This temple was built by emperor Gia Long during his reign for the burial and prayer of deceased elephants, especially those that had served the emperor and his army. Elephants were considered divine creatures and received very special treatment. The elephant temple complex is made of two small temples and two shrines. There are tablets that honour fifteen war elephants that aided the dynasty to victory in various battles.
An Định Palace:
An Định Palace was built in 1902 for the residence and education of Prince Phúc Bửu Đảo before he would become emperor, taking the royal title Khải Định. At first, it was a three-compartment agricultural house. Shortly after becoming king, Khải Định transformed the premises into a classical mansion, unlike any other building belonging to the dynasty at the time. While Khải Định had accommodation in the citadel, he preferred living in the city and took residence at the palace. An Định Palace survived the wars that succeeded the Nguyễn Dynasty but was in disrepair. The Huế Monuments Conservation Centre restored the palace’s main component with incredible intricacy. Unfortunately, none of the supporting 120 compartmental buildings in the garden have yet been restored.
The palace includes some fascinating murals and architectural design as well as some artefacts that date back to the period of the dynasty. The backyard includes two identical ponds and is dotted with statues in various states of elegant decay.
Nam Giao Park:
Throughout the reigns of several dynasties in Vietnam, emperors built a designated space for prayer, on behalf of the people, to ‘heaven’. Many of these spaces have been lost or are in a state of disrepair from age. The Nam Giao esplanade in Huế is the only such space in Vietnam that remains intact and well-preserved. Built by Huế’s first emperor, Gia Long, in 1806, the Nam Giao esplanade served the prayers of Vietnam’s last lineage of emperors for well over a century.
Each ceremony of prayer lasted several days and was physically and mentally taxing for all involved. Prior to the ceremony, the emperor would start with three days in isolation for ‘purification’ and mental preparation. The emperor would then head towards the Nam Giao esplanade to begin the procession at 2am. The esplanade is triple-tiered, representing people, earth and heaven in ascending order. The emperor and a selection of mandarins would undertake a series of ceremonial rites on each tier, lasting a total of around three hours. The procession was so meticulous that a designated court official would guide the group through the entire process.
Nam Giao’s primary feature is the ceremonial platforms. Today, the site is populated with pine trees and serves more as a park for locals to exercise and escape the city, although a recent addition of an entrance fee may, sadly, put an end to this. Processions have been revived in modern times since the inception of the Huế Festival, in 2010. The ceremonies at Nam Giao are conducted at the very beginning of the Huế Festival programme.
Thiên Mụ Pagoda:
Thiên Mụ is Huế’s oldest pagoda. First built by Lord Nguyễn Hoàng in 1601, long before the country’s capital was relocated to Huế, the construction of the pagoda followed the sighting of an apparition, demanding a pagoda be built in that location for the sake of the land’s prosperity. Thiên Mụ pagoda is named after that apparition, roughly translating to ‘heaven mother’. The spirit certainly chose a great location for the pagoda: situated on raised ground with cinematic views of the Hương River.
The pagoda has been reconstructed a total of eight times, most recently in 1958. It’s characterised by a 21-metre octagonal tower in the front courtyard. Inside the complex, you’ll find several buildings of varying ages, filled with ornaments and statues. Despite its age, Thiên Mụ is still an active pagoda: monks continue to reside and practice Buddhism inside. It’s also a popular pilgrimage destination for people from all over the country.
Within the grounds is a unique and rather conspicuous object: an aged vintage car (1956 Austin A95). This is the vehicle that the monk, Thích Quảng Đức, was driven in before his act of self-immolation on the streets of Saigon in 1963.
Royal Antiquities Museum:
Vietnam’s first museum was founded by emperor Khải Định in 1923. It was originally built inside the royal palace but was later moved to its present location. The museum used to house thousands of artefacts, but multiple lootings during periods of war have depleted the collection.
Nevertheless, the museum today houses a variety of artefacts from the Nguyễn Dynasty era, ranging from clothing, furniture, jewellery, porcelain and ornaments – either crafted locally or given as gifts from foreign diplomatic envoys. The museum regularly holds temporary exhibitions related to the Nguyễn Dynasty. The Huế Royal Antiquities Museum is one of my favourites. It’s free to enter and open between 7:00-17:00.
*Disclosure: All content on Vietnam Coracle is free to read and independently produced. Luke has written this guide because he enjoys the Nguyễn Dynasty sites in Huế and wants readers to know about them. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and About Page