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Vietnam Hue tombs and imperial city

Tombs of Tu Duc and Khai Dinh, Imperial City, Thien Mu Pagoda, Perfume River.

Hue 2nd August

We left the coast and began to head more inland towards Hue. Again there were roadworks from road widening projects, but we did arrive in Hue (and our hotel, the Mondial) in time for a snack dinner on the hotel rooftop balcony restaurant overlooking the river and watching sunset. I spotted some Vietnamese (Dalat) wine and thought I must try it. Mistake. Big mistake.
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After dinner it was still early enough for a walk so we headed down to Perfume River to walk through the gardens on the bank. We passed a huge (and popular) funfair. Supposedly the gardens are for pedestrians only, but clearly scooters with courting couples felt they were exempt. We fancied a ride in one of the swan boats until we realised what everyone else was doing in the boats (yuk). So we went on across the bridge and walked to the entrance to old Hue, going through the impressive Hien Nhon Gate, then doubled back through the statue-filled gardens the other side, across and bridge and back to bed.

Hue- Palace and Tombs 3rd August
A so-so top floor balcony breakfast at our hotel, Hue Mondial, with an amazing view of Hue and the hills. We were collected in the huge glass atrium at a very sociable 9am. We drove through Hue (our guide’s home town) along the moat walls and out towards the Imperial tombs. Hue is intimately connected with the Nguyens, both as Lords (1558- 1778) and Emperors (1802-1945). After Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to Ho Chi Minh the city did badly. It was taken by the Viet Cong for nearly a month, during which time they murdered 3,000 suspected South sympathisers. In their turn the advancing American troops damaged or destroyed much of the old city- we certainly saw gun holes everywhere. Our guide asked if we really wanted to see the Tiger Arena and I’d already wanted to change that part to another tomb, so we agreed on an amended agenda.

Tu Duc Tomb
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First we drove 7 km and parked outside the Tomb of Tu Duc (1848-83). This tomb, built 1864-7, was huge; like an alternative Imperial citadel for the Emperor’s summer holidays. There are over 50 buildings around the lake, comprising pavilions (Xung Khiem being the best), temples, tombs, boat houses (Du Khiem), a ruined harem (or courtesans) area and even a small island. Tu Duc had 104 wives and a number of temples are dedicated to them. Despite all these women Tu Duc was sterile (probably from smallpox). Tu Duc’s tomb was in the final courtyard, centrally placed. It is possible he was not buried here, but in a secret location elsewhere. The tombs of Empress Le Thien Anh (Tu Duc’s First Wife) and Emperor Kien Phuc (Tu Duc’s adopted son, ruled 1884) are also in the complex. As Tu Duc had no children he had to write his own epitaph of achievements on the stele inside the pavilion in front of his tomb. He was not especially popular and the enforced (corvée) labour on his tomb caused an abortive coup in 1866. We entered through Vu Khiem Gate, next to the ruined Chi Khiem Temple and Harem (both on the left) and the lake (on the right). We could see Tinh Khiem Island in the lake centre with its little causeway.
On our left we saw the steps up to the ruined Chi Khiem Temple and the harem remains beyond. The Luu Khiem Lake with its low wall was very attractive, with water lilies surrounding small wooden rowing boats moored up at the edge. From here we could see the tranquil woods, the small island and several boat houses or rather, boat pavilions given their size. We walked past the main temple complex (which we returned to later) to Du Khiem pavilion (with its renovation work just finishing), which was used by Tu Duc to watch nature and write his poetry.
We crossed over Tien Khiem bridge to the wooded other side and Xung Khiem pavilion (picture below)- quiet and tranquil. From here we walked to the tombs of Kien Phuc and Le Thien Anh as well as the Chap Khiem Temple, before crossing back over.
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Khiem Cung Gate and stairs
Then it was to the main tomb complex- the entrance courtyard was filled with Imperial ‘Guardian’ statues of animals and mandarins. My favourites were the elephant and horse in 3⁄4 size (apparently because Tu Duc was short of stature). At the top end was a magnificent pavilion with a huge stone stele inside listing Tu Duc’s ‘achievements’.
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From here we looked back over to Empress Le Thien Anh and Emperor Kien Phuc’s tombs.
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Chi Khiem Temple, Harem ruins, Tinh Khiem Island and Luu Khiem Lake
After this we walked back to the main palace and temple complex- up the steps and through Khiem Cung gate (picture on previous page). This gave access to the first courtyard, with Le Khiem House (our right) and Phap Khiem House (our left). In front was Hoa Khiem Palace, through to the inner courtyard. Long Khiem Palace was directly in front, Minh Khiem Royal Theatre to the right and On Khiem Palace to the right. We were able to explore (but not take photos) inside the palaces. In one we saw the drying racks used by the servants to air dry the clothes.
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clockwise from top left- Tien Khiem Bridge; Chap Khiem Temple; Le Thien Anh Tomb; Kien Phuc Tomb
I commented on the Vietnamese script and how useful (to us) that it was easy to read as it used western script. This was because the French missionaries got in early and wanted to write using Vietnamese (rather than Chinese- style characters) so chose a Latin alphabet. Our guide said Vietnamese was actually quite an easy language to learn to speak and read.
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Honour Guards Courtyard, stele pavilion, tomb gateway
Very interesting- we spent quite some time here as it is the most interesting tomb.
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The tomb of Tu Duc himself is protected by a spirit gate, which prevents evil spirits from catching his soul.
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Phap Khiem, Hoa Khiem, Le Khiem.
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Large photo- Palace courtyard- from left to right Long Khiem Palace, Minh Khiem Theatre, On Khiem Mansion
On our way to the next tomb we asked if we could stop at one of the local villages and our driver took us to Thuy Xuan (Incense and Conical Hat village) where we bought some lovely spiral incense sticks. The village is set by the roadside and everywhere was colourful sticks and swirls of incense. Originally incense was made of sandalwood and cinnamon (so were a red or brown), but nowadays they use a variety of scents and all the colours of the rainbow. The smell was amazing! The village is also famous for its conical hats, so we looked at how they made these iconic Vietnamese hats (men’s are more ornate). The hats, made from plaited palm leaves, are great as sunshades, rain covers and even baskets. They last a season, so everyone buys a new one yearly. Those of Hue are especially prized, being thinner, lighter and more delicately made. The Thuy Xuan artisans also add decoration, usually of Hue buildings like Thien Mu Pagoda or Trang Tien Bridge, or famous poems (which is why they are called Bai Tho or Poem Hats). The hats are made by collecting young leaves from Bo Qui Diep palm in the forest. They are cleaned, then left overnight in the mist, before being dried. They then iron them and select the best. After this they make a hat frame from 16 small bamboo splints (the cham stage), the weave two thin layers of leaves to create the hat. Finally the hat is covered in a light oil (to make them water resistant) and dried in the sun, ready to sell.
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Tomb of Khai Dinh
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We continued to drive to the Tomb of Khai Dinh (built 1920-31). The tomb is made primarily of concrete, cleverly painted to look like marble. Khai Dinh (1916-25) was clearly interested in French architecture, which we could see in his design. This is interesting given the Vietnamese dislike of their French colonial masters. Khai Dinh died at 40 of TB, leaving his son and successor, Bao Dai, to complete his tomb. We entered from the road up the set of steps to the imposing metal gateway with its dragon handrails. This led us to the first courtyard with the left and right Mandarin Halls with 6 ceremonial bonsai trees. A second set of steps with metal gateway led to a second terrace- the Stele and Honour Guard Courtyard. As with most Nguyen tombs the central Stele Pavilion was flanked by two obelisks. We took the right hand stairs to the Thien Dinh Palace to admire the views over woods, river and hills. The interior was interesting as the concrete walls had been painted to look like marble- very effective. It said no photos, but no one was paying that any attention so after a brief conscience wrestle I gave in too. The interior was lavishly decorated with statues, furniture, wall decorations and gold everywhere. Some interesting old photos and documents leant a historical framework to the palace and tomb.
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Entrance steps to tomb, Mandarin Hall, Honour Guard and Obelisk
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Stele pavilion, Thien Dinh Palace, Khai Dinh’s stele

We went back down and asked to drive past some of the other Nguyen tombs; Minh Mang (1820-40), Duc Duc (20th- 23rd July 1883), Gia Long (1814-20), Thieu Tri and Dong Khanh.
• Minh Mang- he designed his tomb around two lakes, though his son, Thieu Tri in 1843, completed it.
• Duc Duc- his tomb is small and neglected. 1883.
• Gia Long- his tomb is the furthest from Hue and so quiet. Seen as a French collaborator he is unpopular. As the first Nguyen emperor his tomb set the standard: the tomb of Gia Long and First Wife inside a walled quadrangle reached by a series of terraces, a ceremonial courtyard with statues of the Honour guard. West is the ancestral temple and right are the two obelisks and stele pavilion. As became tradition, the stele of achievements was written by his son, Minh Mang.
• Thieu Tri- he was a popular Emperor, much loved by his people. His father was Minh Mang. His son, Tu Duc built his father’s tomb in 1848.
• Dong Khanh- built 1917

Hue Imperial Citadel
Before lunch we drove to the Imperial Palace- a huge area.
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We drove through the flag gate/ tower (Col Co) we had walked through yesterday to a large open area where we could park. From here we walked to the Ngo Mon (Noontime) Gate- an impressive structure built in 1833 (Minh Mang) quite clearly based on the Meridian (Five-phoenix) gate at the Forbidden City. The lower stone/ brick level has three main entrances- a main centre one for the Emperor and two slightly smaller ones for the mandarins and generals. Two much smaller entrances are for everyone else (around the lotus ponds). Above the entrance arches the upper level (Lầu Ngũ Phụng or Five-Phoenix Pavilion) was for the Emperor to view the city or ceremonies. It was here in 1945 that Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to Ho Chi Minh’s provisional military government. It is covered with imperial yellow tiles- quite a theme in the Imperial citadel.
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Row 1: Ngan Gate, Col Co Flag Tower: Ngo Mon Gate. Row 2: Carp Ponds, Unicorn, Trung Dao bridge. Row 3: Thai Hoa palace, Forbidden court-yard, Hall of Mandarins. Row 4: Hien Lam Palace and dynastic urns, Hung Mieu Gate, The Mieu temple

The other side of the gate has the Trung Dao (Loyal and faithful) Bridge over carp ponds (with large fat carp being fed). The bridge had a ceremonial pai lou style gate at each end. We walked across to arrive in the Courtyard of Great Salutation (Sân Đại Triều Nghi) with some nice potted plants and two small pavilions each housing a Vietnamese unicorn (which is what we’d call a dragon-lion). Directly in front was the impressive Thai Hoa (Supreme Harmony) Palace, used for court ceremonies, including the coronation. Again it was consciously echoing the same named palace in the Forbidden city! Inside the palace were the 13 thrones of the Nguyen Emperors (no photos allowed). The columns and roof were lacquered and had good decoration. The palace housed an excellent audio- visual presentation, which gave a good overview of how the palace would have looked in its glory. Coming out the far side of the palace we were inside the Imperial Forbidden Purple City. This was the last courtyard that non-royals could access. There were two Mandarin halls, to the left the Ta Vu (Generals) Hall and to the right the Huu Vu (Mandarins) Hall. In front it was open, but originally had a wall sealing the view to the Imperial residences beyond. We strolled around the courtyard before heading left to the Imperial Temples area. Through an immensely gaudy gate we arrived first at Phung Tien Palace in its courtyard. Hung Mieu temple formed the opposite side of the quadrangle. Inside was a somewhat incongruous red telephone box with a Vietnamese roof along with the Nine Dynastic Urns (Cửu Đỉnh) to Gia Long (Cao Đỉnh), Minh Mang (Nhân Đỉnh), Thieu Tri (Chương Đỉnh), Tu Duc (Anh Đỉnh), Kien Phuc (Nghị Đỉnh), Dong Khanh (Thuần Đỉnh) and Khai Dinh (Tuyên Đỉnh). We chose NOT to dress up in dusty robes and sit on a throne for a lot of dong! Coming around the back of this area we past an ancient tree to arrive at the temple Thé Mieu, which housed shrines to the Nguyen emperors. We took off our shoes to look at the beautiful interior and the lovely altars. Behind this temple was the less interesting but fairly intact, pavilion of Hien Lam. We walked along a the edge of the citadel on tree lined pathway with an arch showing evidence of gun fire damage to the Imperial Ladies residence of Dien Tho. Then through the arch to a grassy field (replete with grazing horse) and up to a very French looking building- the Tien Minh Residence (below right). After a bit of a wiggle we came through Duc Chuong Gate (below left) and ended by the Truong Sanh (Longevity) Residence (below centre)- recently restored- a quadrangle building with cloisters and old photos. It was the house of Empress Tu Du (Tu Duc’s mother) up against the moat edge and it still quite tranquil (as not officially ‘open’) with gardens etc.
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We continued through to a open garden/ partially ruined area, which was the central area of the Purple City. Sadly a fire in 1947 and the Tet Offensive bombs of 1968 pretty much destroyed the buildings, apart from the Thai Binh Lau (Royal Library) and the Royal Theatre. The small library building has a pond and mountain-island in front with bonsai tree- pretty. Heading right through the mainly ruined treasury area we walked past the last two ruined temples to the ancestors- Trieu Mieu and Thai Mieu, long the moat and right out the far side to our car.

A note on the Imperial City-
The Purple Forbidden Citadel is a walled palace (perimeter 2.5km) inside the Imperial City walls (perimeter 8km), and the whole is surrounded by a pretty lotus filled moat. The moat takes its water from Perfume (Huong) River which flows right through Hue. In 1802 Nguyen Lord Phuc Anh pro-claimed himself Gia Long and set about turning his ancestral capital at Hue into the imperial capital. Initially he began with earth walls, but soon changed to stone. The imperial palace was on the east, facing the river and subsequent emperors added more and more buildings. By the 1950s there were nearly 160 buildings (of which 10 remain relatively intact). The Viet Cong and Americans ended up fighting a pitched street Battle of Hue, hence the bullet holes visible everywhere.
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Perfume House and Thai Binh Lau Royal Library

We then headed back into Hue to have lunch at the famous Y Thao Garden House restaurant in its wooden pagoda garden house. Steve swears he saw a tiger mosquito in the toilets but that could happen anywhere in Hue, what with all the still water. Y Thao Garden, 3 Thach Han St, Hue.
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The Imperial menu was lovely- our favourites were the peacock made from a pineapple and the fig and lotus rice. There were lots of courses, all quite small- from 1.spring rolls attached to a peacock, 2.vegetable soup, 3. Steamed shrimp (beautifully arranged on skewers), 4. Hue pancake filled with bean sprout, cheese tofu, and dipping peanut sauce, 5. Fig salad with shrimp crackers, 6. Lotus rice with tree-ear mushroom, pork, carrot and fig seeds, 7. Fried fish and 8. A vase of what looked like plastic flowers and turned out to be sweet fruit and green bean paste cake. The garden and house are 50 years old and made in traditional style. The large garden is made in the famous “Garden Houses of Hue” style. A large central stone served as a symbolic mountain, with the added value of a windbreak. Left (as we came in) was another, smaller, rock and a garden in the Chinese Green Dragon symbol. The opposite side was a garden in the White Tiger symbol with a small water garden. We walked through this garden to get to our dining room, a traditional triple-bay house filled with antiques, especially porcelain and pictures. We ate looking over the gardens and could not hear any traffic at all. We could see the 5 symbolic mountains (rocks) set in the gardens next to a huge green fig tree. Apparently the porcelain collection included 300 year old pieces from the time of Nguyen Lord Le Trinh, as well as a variety of imperial porcelain in blues and yellows with Chinese characters alongside Vietnamese script. The mirror paintings attracted us with the beautiful scenes in inlaid nacre.

Thien Mu Pagoda
It was really hot and I asked if it was possible to go along the river to the famous Thien Mu pagoda, which it was. We parked at the entrance and walked along a street market (with some amazing fruit) and up the steps to the pagoda. This is a working pagoda and, although briefly suppressed by the communists, it soon resumed. It is on Ha Khe Hill and overlooks Perfume River and is often used as a symbol of Hue. Thien Mu means Heavenly Lady and refers to its founding legend. It was originally built in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang (Governor of Thuan Hoa) and has been rebuilt several times since. Within the first courtyard was a 21m octagonal tower Phuoc Dien (Thap Phuoc Dien) built in 1844. Each of the 7 storeys is dedicated to a manushi-buddha (Buddha in human form). To each side was a pavilion; to the right a marble turtle has a 1715 stele on its back and to the left an enormous 1710 bell. Just through the main gate were 12 temple guardians of wood, fearsome like demons with real hair! Past 3 guardians through to the temple and Dai Hung shrine, a low building in an inner courtyard. The three Buddha statues were impressive- A Di Da (Past Buddha); Thich Ca (Buddha Sakyamuni); Di Lac Buddha (Future Buddha). The monastic buildings (still working) were to our left and we could see the novices at their lessons. On the left too was a car-it was the very one which the monk Thich Quang Duc drove in 1963 to Saigon to self-immolate himself in front of parliament to protest for religious freedom. At the very rear was a Buddhist cemetery in a garden with the Truong Son mountains behind.
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Cruise on Perfume River
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By now it was late afternoon and we went back to the hotel for a change of clothes. We said we’d meet our guide at 6ish for a snack and a cruise. Our guide drove us not far to what looked like a spit-and-sawdust Vietnamese snack bar. But, she recommended it as one of the best in Hue, so we thought, let’s be open-minded. The cafe, Hàng Me Ching Goc, (12 Vo Thi Sau Hue 054-3837341) had a huge menu and they said “What do you like”. “Anything”, we answered, so they brought a tasting selection and showed us how to eat things. Our favourite was ram-it (rice and fish with copious fish sauce- the strong local stuff, not the wishy-washy tourist version). We tried Bánh (rice flour) bèo (prawn) which is like a pancake with prawns and crispy sprinkled pork fat and onion on top. Then Banh nam and banh bot loc – mainly different ways of cooking the rice flour, prawns and pork, in banana leaf. Our guide was trying to tell us about a rival sister’s restaurant, which we later discovered was a sore point locally. Apparently the landlords of the original decided to try muscling in to their success by calling her restaurant the same name with an extra Me (Hang Me Me) but the food was nothing like as good.
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When we had finished it was getting dark, so we walked down the road to the boat landing where (after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing) we took a plastic-chaired river cruise down Perfume River. A quartet supplied the music and a group of female singers in traditional costume provided the songs. All the other passengers were Vietnamese and clearly knew the songs. We passed a floating restaurant that kept changing colours (a bit like the bridge we spotted yesterday). We did not float far as we anchored mid river and a smaller craft moored along- side to listen. My favourite was a song between a couple (male and female) singing an argument (we asked later and it was a traditional village song about two arguing sweethearts who then reconcile). After this we were all given flowers to throw into the river and lit a lantern to send down with our wishes. Lovely idea. Then back to the hotel for a nightcap and bed.

Posted by PetersF 14:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged city vietnam tombs hue imperial tu_duc khai_dinh

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