Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tombs of the Emperors and Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue

Second day in central Vietnam, we started to explore several emperors' tombs, Thien Mu Pagoda, and Imperial City of Hue (Hue Citadel). We started our tour at 8:30 am, visiting tombs of emperors- Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, and Minh Mang. Then, we visited Thien Mu Pagoda, followed by Imperial City of Hue (Hue Citadel) and the Royal Palace Museum.

We paid VND 40,000 per person for the entrance of the tombs, while VND105,000 per person for the Imperial City of Hue. The entrance of Tien Mu Pagoda was free.

The tour was arranged by our hotel at Hue. We paid USD50 a day for a brand new Mazda sedan and an English speaking driver. Our driver, Mr. Tien, was young, talkative and with "s" and "x" missing-in-action, for example "fast food" as "fat food", "excuse me" as "accuse me", and we took some times to get used to his English. However, he was informative.

Initially, we wish to add in more emperors' tombs into our itinerary, but Tien advised us not to do so. "Three tombs are more than enough," he said. He didn't mind to bring us to more places, only if there was time left. He was right. If you think of a tomb of two-times-eight square feet, then you will drop your jaw by seeing a tomb with an area larger than several football fields combined.

We took 30 minutes to arrive at Emperor Tu Duc's tomb (8 km from the City of Hue), with a 15 minutes stop at incense and hat making shops. We never had expected that we spent the next 120 minutes inside the tomb. Of course, the whole area is not just about a tomb, it served as a palace for the emperor as well. Emperor Tu Duc (嗣德), reigned an era with troubles (1847-1883), with his rebellious brother suicide in the prison (which people accused him as the murderer), the colonization of the country by French, and threats from dissatisfied mandarins had driven him to build a palace outside of the citadel, which later became his own tomb. The area consists of two major parts-  the ritual and the burial with up to 50 buildings.

The entrance of the tomb (or should consider as palace?).

Many shops selling food, beverages, and souvenirs were available opposite of the tomb (upper left), with the ticket counter located beside the entrance (upper right). A big lake is located in the middle of the area with all the buildings were built surrounding the lake (lower right). Brief information was available around the area, providing the key information to the visitors. 

The front part of the ritual area was in ruin (upper row). Only the temple dedicated to the concubines remained standing (lower row).

The second part of the ritual area was well-preserved with many buildings remained in good condition. Facing Minh-Khiem Hall (鸣谦堂), the building to the right is the Hoa Khiem Palace where the emperor met his officials, and to the left is the Luong-Khiem Palace (良谦殿) where the emperor lived. Minh-Khiem Hall served as a theater showing classical opera and performance for the emperor.

Inside of Luong-Khiem Palace (良谦殿).

The whole ritual area is decorated with extensive artworks. These works however are not exquisite.

The emperor's tomb is located next to the ritual area. Entering the tomb area, two rows of stone sculptures (upper left) can be seen lining up in front of the stele temple (upper right). The deepest part of the area is the location of the tomb (lower left). The stele was written completely with traditional Chinese characters.

The queen's tomb (the emperor's first wife) was located about a hundred meters away from the emperor's tomb. After her death in 1902, she was honoured together with the emperor in Hoa Khiem Palace (referred as Hoa Khiem Temple after the emperor's death).

The tomb area extended with the tomb of the emperor's adopted son- Emperor Kien Phuc. Emperor Kien Phuc became the emperor of Nguyen Dynastry after his brothers Duc-Duc and Hiep Hoa were deposed. All three Duc-Duc, Hiep Hua, and Kien Phuc ruled for a very short period of time. All of them were Emperor Tu Duc's adopted sons, as Tu Duc was unable to produce any child even had been granted with many wives.

Emperor Khai Dinh (啟定) ruled from 1916 - 1925 as the 12th and the last emperor of Nguyen Dynasty (some said Bao Dai was the last emperor). He died at at the age of 40 as an unpopular emperor, as he had raised the tax and worked closely with French. His relationship with French government can be seen from the collection of French-made items around his tomb. The tomb itself was an artwork combining the East and the West. Khai Dinh's tomb was close to Tu Duc's, located apart around 10 minutes by car. 

We thought that nothing would surprise us anymore after the visit to Tu Duc's tomb. We were wrong. The tomb is much smaller than Tu Duc's tomb, but it is really impressive in architecture wise. The sculptures and the decoration are fine, elaborate, and exquisite, especially in the temple that honouring the emperor. Through our reading, that lavish mausoleum was a monument that stood on the heavy tax on the people in the country.

Emperor Khai Dinh tomb is located on the outskirt of Hue, at the side of Chau Chu Mountain (upper left). Twelve sculptures (upper right) standing in front of the stele temple (lower right) at the second tier of the tomb area. The temple honouring the emperor is located on the top tier.

The temple of the emperor. It was lavishly decorated, from the floor to the ceiling.

The emperor lays below the sculpture of the emperor, which was constructed with the scale of 1 to 1. The walls are elaborately decorated with exquisite artworks.

The outside of the temple is finely decorated (upper left). Some of the gifts from French government (upper right) and photos (lower right) were displayed in the temple. There was a video corner showing the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Hue at a corner of the temple as well.

Emperor Minh Mang (明命) tomb is located 15 minutes away from Khai Dinh tomb, some 12 km away from Hue. Reigning from 1820 - 1841 as the second emperor of Nguyen Dynasty, Minh Mang imposed strict policy on European countries, but at the same time embraced Confucius ideology. He successfully secured the regions succeeded from his father by overpowering several groups of local rebellions.

Minh Mang Tomb is huge. Compares to the Tu Duc's, Minh Mang tomb was filled with natural beauty- lakes, trees, and flowers were blended well with the buildings. The tomb was quiet, and the swimming ducks and chirping birds caught our attentions once in a while. It is really a place where we should stay for a longer time, but we stayed for about 45 minutes only. Exhaustion and hunger had driven us to move faster to complete a round trip in the tomb area.

Two visitors were walking out of the tomb on our way in. We didn't meet another visitor for the next 30 minutes. The whole area was basically quiet, only filled with the sound of nature.

The stele temple (upper left) and the pavilion (upper right) of the tomb. The stone sculptures are located behind the stele temple. The temple honouring the emperor- Sung An Temple is located around 100 m away from the stele temple (lower right). Sung An Temple is flanked by four smaller structures. Then, we would have to go through a beautiful garden to reach Minh Lau Pavilion.

The interior of Sun An Temple.

The burial site of Minh Mang Emperor can be seen from Minh Lau Pavilion. The middle of the arch stated "正大光明" or "be above board".

This is a view from Minh Lau Pavilion towards Sung An Temple.

From our way back from Minh Mang Tomb to Hue, we stopped by Thien Mu Pagoda. We took around 15 minutes to travel from Minh Mang Tomb to the pagoda, which was located 4 km from Hue. Thien Mu (天姥) means celestial old woman in Chinese (some site wrongly translated it into celestial fairy lady). The pagoda had a humble start as a temple built by a Nguyen lord in early 1600, and was renovated and rebuilt from time to time.The seven storey pagoda was built by Emperor Thieu Tri in 1844. Standing 22 m tall, the pagoda was the highest religious building in Vietnam.  The pagoda is surrounded by a well-maintained garden with temple complex and monastery inside, which took us 45 minutes to walk around. The entrance to the pagoda was free during our visit.

The pillars of the front entrance of the pagoda. However, we were a bit disappointed that the pagoda was closed for visitor. It would definitely be great to see the scenery of Perfume River on the top level of the pagoda.

The temple complex beside the pagoda.

Perfume River doesn't look impressive from the ground level of pagoda .

The advices given by experienced travellers were right. We should not squeeze too many tombs in one single trip, unless we wished to rush through each of the tombs, paying VND40,000 entrance fee for each of the tombs, while just spending 30 minutes running around the compound. For us, we chose a few which were famous and representative- Minh Mang (the second emperor), Khai Dinh (the last emperor with his own lavish tomb), and Tu Duc (the emperor with many troubles that moved his palace away from the imperial city to his tomb), and took a close look at a more leisure pace.

There was no vendors selling food and beverages inside the compound of the tombs, except for Tu Duc Tomb. However, stalls selling drinks were available outside of the tombs. Souvenirs booths were available in all the tombs, with mostly books and coins on their selling racks. Most of the walking paths were covered with tiles as well. 

To visit the tombs, comfortable footwear, drinking water, and umbrella are necessary. Rain will drop anytime of the way. Tour guides are available with extra fee. For us, doing a little bit of reading is enough to learn about the background and the design of the tombs.

All the tombs consist a pavilion with sculptures, stele temple, a temple honouring the emperor, and the burial area. However, each tombs might have their unique characteristics- the temple honouring Tu Duc is converted from his old palace, which is a distance away from the burial area. These information can be easily obtained online.

The trip to 3 tombs and Thien Mu Pagoda took us nearly 5 hours. We took our lunch at Hue around 2 pm. We had our two more destinations to go- Imperial City of Hue (Hue Citadel) and the Royal Palace Museum. Follow us now.

Our sharing about Hue:

Our sharing about other places in Vietnam:


  1. Thank you for the details. Lucky to read you blog. Will visit Hue next year.

  2. I appreciate your effort and the detailed description of these places you visited. Searching info online is very time consuming and confusing. Other sources (including Wikipedia and Lonely Planet) said Emperor Tu Duc eventually wasn't buried there, for he was afraid that his grave and treasure would be looted. All those 200 laborers who buried him were all beheaded afterwards, so that no one would tell where his real resting place was.
    Perhaps no one could really confirm which was true.
    However, I enjoy reading your report. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your precious information Denise, which adding the misterious element to the place. It is not surprise that emperors might not be buried at the "official tombs" to avoid being looted.

  3. Please check the word "Tien Mu Pagoda", because the right name of that Pagoda is Thien Mu that you just lack of "h".

    1. Thank you very much Lam Ngoc Tam. We will rectify the mistake.