My Can-Miss Experience in Vietnam’s Cultural Center

Hue was the last capital of Imperial Vietnam before it became communist Vietnam. It is a staple on the very well-trodden backpacker trail.  I can see why it is included, but it really isn’t a place I would have been torn up about missing.  

The main attractions are the Imperial Citadel (fortress or castle) and Imperial tombs.  The Citadel is fashioned after the forbidden city in Beijing.  Personally, I felt it lacked the grandeur and intimidating magnitude of the Forbidden City. Part of what made it feel like a cheap knock off is that it had been bombed to hell during the war.  There are entire areas reduced to their foundations.  Yet, for the areas still in tact, you get the notion that if Vietnam’s Imperial Citadel were placed next to China’s Forbidden city, you’d easily know which one is the genuine article.  

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That may sound harsh, but that is the risk you take when you imitate another countries architecture.  

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The tombs are much better. I did a half day tour where I visited three tombs.  Each tomb is designed and built by the individual emperors antemortem. For Emperor Tu Doc, he even built half as his summer palace before his death, while the other half acted as his tomb. 

The first tomb I visited belonged to Minh Mang. it was nice, but not incredibly memorable.  This imperial tomb is a reflection of the Chinese architectural concepts. The grave of Emperor Minh Mang was built by his successor and son Thieu Tri during the years 1840 to 1843, although Minh Mang designed the imperial tomb complex, he died in 1841. 

The Minh Mang tomb has an area of 18 hectares, surrounded by a wall enclosing 40 monuments, including palaces, temples and pavilions.The structure of the tomb is a symmetrical central axis by way of road, where the different monuments line up. This axis runs through a Lake of lotus flowers.

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The main entrance to the tomb is the Dai Hong Mon gate, from there we walked half a kilometer to reach the central courtyard. Once in the central courtyard, we climb a staircase of granite that lead us to the Pavilion of steles. From there, we crossed a bridge over a Lake of lotus flowers, the new Moon Lake, until reaching the temple where the sarcophagus of Emperor Minh Mang sits. 

After writing all that, I suddenly feel ridiculous for calling the place unimpressive, but it just didn’t leave me in awe. 

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The task of awe-inspiration was left to the second tomb I visited.  This tomb housed Khai Dinh. The scale was impressive.  When royals build monuments to themselves, I imagine they want to inspire the awe I felt at this particular tomb.  Ascending those massive steps only to be confronted with even greater, intimidating stone walls is an experience.

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The attention paid to every stone, carving, stele (an upright stone monument with inscriptions) and statue is a testament that Vietnamese architecture can amount to more than second-rate copies of Chinese buildings.  However, this tomb has a lot of western influences. 

 

The tomb took 11 years to build and is so elaborate with so many details that Khai Dinh  had to go to the French to buy steel, iron, cement and tiles. During a time of French occupation, this did not endear him to the Vietnamese people. The emperor also sent ships to China and Japan to obtain the ceramics and stained glass needed for the Tomb. Sadly, the cost of construction of the Imperial Khai Dinh tomb was such that the Emperor raised taxes to the Vietnamese village by 30%.

Upon crossing the gateway to the imperial Tomb, there are 37 steps whose railings have been carved in the shape of dragons, these dragons are the largest of all Vietnam. 

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At the top of the steps there is a small courtyard with mandarins on both sides. Then we have to climb another 29 steps to see the courtyard of ceremonies, with stone statues, which unlike the rest of the Hue imperial tombs, has 2 rows of statues where the second row are the bodyguards to the emperor.

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The last part of the complex of Khai Dinh, at the top of the Imperial Tomb, is the Thien Dinh Palace, there we can see the sarcophagus of the Emperor. The main hall contains a statue of the seated Emperor Khai Dinh upon his throne and at his feet, his sarcophagus. The decoration is made with stained glass and ceramic based mosaics broken into pieces.

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In the room next to the sarcophagus, there is a statue of Emperor Khai Dinh, scale, made of bronze. It is hard to tell from the photo but he was a tiny, little man. 

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Maybe it was his small stature that lead him to think so large when building his tomb.  Though, in comparison with the rest of imperial tombs, this imperial tomb is small, little more than 5600 square meters. Nevertheless, it is still the one to beat in my mind and as this is the final imperial tomb constructed in Hue, no one will ever get a chance to beat it. 

The third tomb, belonging to Tu Duc, was beautiful, but I had been so entranced by the gray stone walls of Khai Dinh’s tomb that I was a bit let down by Tu Duc. The tomb is an architectural complex which covers 12 hectares of surface and in its interior there are 50 buildings including palaces and pavilions. The Tomb took 3 years to build. Emperor Tu Duc designed the imperial tomb and, once finished, used in life for years as a Summer Palace and retreat. 

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Next to the stele Pavilion, there is the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc. While this tomb was not as impressive, this tomb had the most interesting story to tell. The body of Emperor Tu Duc is not actually in the tomb and no one knows where he was truly laid to rest. For fear of his enemies desecrating his body or simple looting, he was buried in a secret location. The unfortunate 200 souls that buried him were then beheaded when they returned from the secret route just to make sure no one would ever really know where he was buried. To this day, the location of Tu Duc’s body is still unknown. 

 

(the place that doesn’t actually hold the emperor’s body)Image

 

 

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(the dragons symbolize the emperor’s power, but they always rest below to sun which has ultimate power)

 

 

 

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(at the time of his living there, this was filled with rain water, and was the bathtub for the Emperor, he believed it was important to bathe in water from heaven)

Altogether, these are the major sites to see in Hue. There is a cave that is a day trip away, which I did not make it to visit.  However, should you be in Vietnam and find yourself with a real time shortage, you can cover the tombs and citadel within a day easily. Hue was not a can’t miss considering that the architecture is derivative of either China or western Europe.  If you’ve spent time in either of those places, you’ll probably just find yourself wishing you could see what traditional Vietnamese architecture looks like instead of a best of tour. In my most humble opinion, Hue is worth a stop, just make it a short stop.

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