Three Things Thursday; Nguyen tombs of Hue

I’m reading northern blogs hinting at the signs of the end of the summer and the first signs of autumn with hopeful anticipation. Temperatures have teasingly dropped a little here at the south east corner of the Arabian peninsula, but the ferocious summer shows few signs of letting up just yet. So while I wait for a glorious winter to roll on in and allow me to showcase the best of Oman, I’m reaching back to the archives again for this month’s Three Things in order to share Three Nguyen Tombs…

…you can reach under your own steam in Hue, Vietnam.

I reached Hue in March after a few very relaxing days in Danang and found it to be busy, miserable in the winter gloom, and stressful. Despite the attractively named Perfume river which flows through the centre of the city and into the surrounding countryside, I never found a truly attractive part of the city itself. It’s a busy, industrial town experiencing rapid urbanisation and expansion as well as increasing tourism. Good options for budget travellers were quite limited, and there appeared to be one tourist ‘zone’ of a square block or two, south of the river.

Despite this, Hue is still definitely worth visiting. As the heartland of the Nguyen dynasty which ruled Vietnam from 1802 until the abdication of the last emperor in 1945, it is home to some of Vietnam’s most fascinating cultural heritage. The Imperial City sprawls over such a vast area north of the river that a day wandering its many palaces and gardens can make you forget the hustle and bustle beyond the fortress walls.

And beyond the city centre, the tombs of Nguyen emperors dotted around the hills make for a wonderful day’s excursion, best explored under the power of your own legs! The day I rented a cheap bike and clattered off into the hills was a truly great day exploring.

Thing 1 ~ The tomb of emperor Minh Mang

Knowing my penchant for laziness, I decided to aim for the furthest temple first. That way, the other temples would all be ‘on the way’ as I headed back towards town. The tomb of Minh Mang sits around 12/13km from the central tourist area of Hue and, if you plan the route well, the last few kilometres are along a quiet riverside road where you can cycle with the scent of the trees, the sound of the birds, and the sight of fishermen and small ferries and boats going about their business on the river.

I set out with the location pinned in my trusty Maps app. This helped on the final turn to the river road, or Minh Mang road, at a junction which was not obvious. It also helped navigate the final stretch of road to the tomb entrance, which is not well signposted after you cross the river and leaves you guessing.

The route is only moderately hilly. I’d rented a typical Vietnamese shopping bike (albeit a well-maintained one) from my guesthouse for 30,000VND and although it made the final hill on the way to the tomb’s entrance quite tough going, the entire route was manageable. A mountain bike would have been three times the price, heavier, and unnecessary. You can park your bike just at the entrance gate where there are a couple of trees to chain up to, and a lot of small vendors to keep an eye on it for you. One of these vendors sells the parking chits if / when they’re around.

As I had anticipated, a woman on a bike appearing on her own does not attract the attention of enterprising tour guides, who will probably hold out for a group, so to prepare for the trip I had done a bit of reading around the tombs. On the day, I browsed walking tours of each tomb and loaded up a couple of brief guides to the complex to complement the maps and descriptions at the site and have a better idea of what I was looking at. The Vietnamitas En Madrid have a brief but handy guide to all of the tombs, and I got some more detailed information from the hotel website La Residence.

Mandarins and elephants line the entrance to the temple complex.

The one thing all guides concur on is that Minh Mang, with his heavily Chinese-influenced Confucian ideals, planned a beautifully configured, peaceful tomb complex. A great benefit to going there solo is that you really get to enjoy that tranquility. Tour groups thunder past at speed, stopping only to line up photos, draining out at regular intervals to leave the whole place just for you. I spent ages wondering around the stone mandarins of the central courtyard, stone stele holding the inscription of the biography of the emperor, and the temple where offerings of incense, flowers and boxes of biscuits are left in an ongoing tradition of worship.

Temple of Minh Mang

Temple of Minh Mang

Thing 2 ~ The tomb of emperor Khai Dinh

Back on the bike, down the long hill, and across the river once again and I was off to the next tomb. Going straight over the river and bearing an eventual left along Khai Dinh road put me on the right path. Thankfully the road names in this area are logical and easy to follow! The tomb is under 5km from Minh Mang, so if you’re cycling for much longer than 20 minutes you’ve probably gone off track somewhere. The stairs to the tomb lead straight up from the roadside, so I parked my bike by a handy tree and headed up.

From Minh Mang, the widely admired second Nguyen emperor, to Khai Dinh, the widely despised penultimate emperor, the change in time, style, and atmosphere of the tombs is quite revealing. In contrast to the vast complex of Minh Mang, which blends so perfectly with the surrounding landscape you could easily miss it, there’s no missing the grand and severe stonework that draws the eye upwards, towards both the heavens and the imperiously perched tomb of Khai Dinh. In keeping with the reputation of a leader who was by all accounts a puppet for the French (Wikipedia), and who allowed the colonial overlords to raise taxes on the peasant class in Vietnam which partially paid for his own lavishly planned tomb, there is no visual expense spared.

Carved into a steep hillside with an unparalleled view of the river and surrounding countryside, the total area of the tomb is not that large but it is resplendent, inside and out. Steep stone stairs lead past pillars carved with ferocious dragons which protect the biographical stele of the emperor and upwards again to the throne room at the peak. Inside this room is a video hall showing a short film about the Ngyuen emperors, their times and tombs. Further in there is a reception hall which feels like a step back in time to early 1900s Europe. Casement style windows frame a spectacular semi-tropical hillscape stretching away into the distance. Brightly coloured ceramic tiles depict clocks, tables, flowers and dragons on the walls.

All of this is a prelude to the temple within, where Khai Dinh sits enthroned in his most ceremonial robes in a room decorated with gold, mirrors and glass. I imagine those peasants considered their taxes well spent.

Khai Dinh immortalised in gold

Khai Dinh immortalised in gold

Thing 3 ~ The tomb of emperor Tu Duc

Back on the bike to the final tomb of the day and I was in for a long and at times confusing ride. Only about 7km from Khai Dinh, part of the path shown by my map cut across a field, which I missed, and so I ended up going all the way around the tomb before finding the entrance. It’s a few minutes extra effort, but it does take you past the incense makers on Huyen Tran Cong Chua. A number of houses along the street have their wares spread by the sides of the road, lighting up the journey with a range of colours – and of course delightful scents.

The narrow road leading past the tomb entrance is crowded with souvenir vendors and huge tour buses so you can’t miss it. Handily, this means there’s a designated bike parking area under the watchful eyes of the enterprising vendors, just to the left of the entrance.

Once inside, I was instantly impressed by this vast complex, currently very much under restoration. I had a detailed walking guide from GoSE Asia on my phone to help me around. The lake area with the boat house and pavilion are instantly eye-catching and have been beautifully restored. The temple area, which also housed a theatre among other facilities, is also well-restored. The nearby part of the complex where the emperor’s many concubines lived is currently under restoration and will doubtless be quite stunning when completed although at the moment it is an eerie acre of ruins.

ruins of the concubines' complex

ruins of the concubines’ complex

Having served as a living compound for some time before the emperor’s death, there is a somewhat contemporary air to these parts of the complex. The tomb area itself feels much more ancient and sombre. The climb to the circular plaza of ceremonies takes you into old woodland. In contrast to the ornate workings of the tomb of Khai Dinh (Tu Duc’s grandson), Tu Duc’s tomb is simpler, but impresses with its scale: it’s massive.

Climbing up from the plaza of stone mandarins and elephants you approach the spacious plaza which holds the biographical stele. Beyond this is the final tier. Stepping up into this vast circular clearing in the trees you will see brown earth, a long, circular wall stretching away on either side of a small but elaborate mosaic panel concealing the tomb entrance. Within, in stark and final grandeur, is nothing but the huge stone sarcophagus and some gently burning incense.

Tomb of Tu Duc

Tomb of Tu Duc

Links and logistics

Tickets: The website for the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre had the most up-to-date ticket information while I was there. Hotels are unreliable as they will try to sell you a tour and can be less than forthcoming about real prices.

I opted for the combined ticket which included the Imperial Citadel (150,000VND) and the three main tombs above (100,000VND each) for 360,000VND. It is valid for a couple of days, so you don’t have to see everything the same day. You can buy this from any of the sites included on the ticket and it will be date stamped when you get it.

Bikes: I rented my bike for 30,000VND from my guesthouse. It was a no-gears shopping bike in good condition and I had no trouble completing the 30km round trip on it, despite some hills.

The other place I saw renting bikes was Adventure Discovery Tours on Vo Thi Sau (the heart of the hostelling district) which had good mountain bikes for 100,000VND (about $5) for the day.

Directions: I used Googlemaps on my phone and starred each tomb so I wouldn’t lose it when I lost wifi. To see the maps to these and some of the other Imperial tombs, the lovely bloggers at Maptrotting have written a good guide which includes maps for each location.

The links

The website for the HMCC also has great information about each tomb (inlcuding the other imperial tombs, which I didn’t get to see) and other historical sites around Hue:

I let La Residence show me around Minh Mang’s tomb:

I investigated Khai Dinh’s tomb with Sam and Paul:

And rambled around Tu Duc’s complex in the company of Go SE Asia:

A couple of other good blog guides I read to Hue and the tombs were Maptrotting: and of course my perennial favourite travel blogger, Backpacker Lee:


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. backpackerlee
    Sep 02, 2016 @ 20:56:00

    Wow, you got some great pics. 🙂 Hue is a great place, maybe the highlight of Vietnam for me. The Imperial Tombs are a must on anyone’s itinerary.



    • Pieces of 8
      Sep 03, 2016 @ 06:50:02

      Thank you! I definitely agree that the tombs and the Citadel are not to be missed. I never got on well with the city itself, sadly. Perhaps it was a winter thing.



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