Spread throughout Hue’s quiet rural surroundings are six large and opulent tombs which remain architectural marvels to this day. The Nguyen emperors, who ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, spent much of their time and immense wealth building extravagant monuments to none other than themselves. Though it can be disheartening to learn how the projects were funded by taxes squeezed from the lower classes, one thing is for certain: the Nguyen rulers had impeccable taste.
Exploring the Six Tombs
At the time of writing, there are currently six tombs you can visit in Hue, although one was actually off-limits during my visit. There are three tombs included on standard group bus tours of the city: Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh. And after seeing those, I was so impressed that I arranged private transport to see the others.
But after having visited the other three, it became clear why group tours don’t stop at all of them. Nonetheless, even the more obscure and dilapidated tombs are worth visiting for those with a special interest in history and architecture, and I have no regrets about making the extra effort.
The list below is arranged in chronological order. Taking logistics into consideration, though, it’s very unlikely that you’ll actually be visiting them this way. Learning about the tombs in order, however, helps put a lot of things into perspective. This way you can learn about the gradual architectural evolution of the tombs in addition to a coherent historical account of the Nguyen Empire. We’ll begin with the tomb of the very first Nguyen emperor, Gia Long.
The Tomb of Gia Long
The story of Gia Long’s rise to power sounds like something from a Hollywood action movie. After the Nguyen clan was wiped out by the Tay Son, Gia Long (then known as Nguyen Phuc An) was the lone survivor at age 17. After years of garnering support from foreign armies and multiple failed attempts to take back the country, he finally succeeded in 1802. He would go on to establish his new seat of power in the Citadel, Hue’s city within a city.
But despite the support he received from foreign armies like the Siamese and the French, he’d eventually adopt a rather isolationist policy during his reign. Shunning foreign trade, Gia Long was generally regarded as a backward-thinking emperor. On the other hand, he did adopt Western technology to modernize his military. And out of feelings of gratitude toward the French, he also allowed Catholic missionaries to operate in the country. Gia Long is also credited with establishing a postal service and new national roads.
The tomb of the very first Nguyen emperor also happens to be the farthest away from the center of the city, and therefore one of the least visited. But if you have the time and the means to get there, it’s the finest of the tombs not included on the standard day tours. It’s also interesting to see the precedent it set for all the others.
First entering the complex, you’ll encounter a traditional temple dedicated to the emperor and his wife. Temples dedicated to the deceased are a staple of Hue’s royal tombs, reflecting the strong Confucian values of the era. Gia Long himself is credited with reviving many Confucian traditions, such as various national examinations, during his reign.
Guarding the main pavilion are a set of statues depicting elephants, horses and mandarin civil servants. Oddly enough, while some statues are featured at the other royal tombs, this section is most similar to the last tomb on this list: Khai Dinh.
The tomb was first constructed between the years 1814 and 1820 – the year of Gia Long’s death. It was originally meant to only be the tomb of the emperor’s wife, who died in 1814, but Gia Long and other family members were included later. The royal couple is now buried side by side. Despite the tomb’s remoteness, there were freshly lit incense sticks and other offerings placed on the table during my visit, as a group of Vietnamese travelers had just stopped by to pay their respects.
In a separate area, you can also find a pavilion housing the stele. Gia Long’s son and successor, Minh Mang, wrote down details of his father’s life and reign, a tradition that would continue for all the future tombs of Hue.
One of Gia Long’s Tomb’s most peculiar features is the pair of massive obelisks just across the river. Overall, this tomb’s serene and picturesque natural setting is unmatched by any of the other tombs in Hue. If you have the time, pack a lunch and chill out for awhile.
GETTING THERE: The tomb of Gia Long is about 20km from the center of the city. Your best option is to hire a private motorbike driver (ideally from your hotel) who knows the way. You could, of course, try driving yourself, but even local residents have a hard time finding the place. Supposedly, the tomb is also accessible by private boat.
For a long time, entrance to this tomb was free. As of July 2018, however, they are now charging 40,000 VND.
Keep in mind that with so few visitors, there are only a couple of staff members on site at any given moment. When I arrived, the person with the key was out to lunch, so we had to wait a little while for him to come back.
The Tomb of Minh Mang
Minh Mang was Gia Long’s youngest son and was chosen to be next in line over the young son of his deceased older brother. He ruled from 1820-1841, and today his tomb is one of the best preserved and most visited in Hue. A regular stop on group day tours, this will likely be the first tomb you see.
In contrast to his father, Minh Mang showed no tolerance for the presence of Catholic missionaries in Vietnam, and his reign is known for sending the country down an even more isolationist path. He took after his father in promoting orthodox Confucian ideology while branding Catholicism, and many foreign ideas in general, as ‘perverse.’
The second royal tomb of the Nguyen emperors takes clear inspiration from the first one. It is, however, grander and more refined in nearly all aspects. The first structures you’ll encounter are the towering Dai Hong Mon gate, as well as the pavilion housing the stele commemorating Minh Mang’s reign. As Minh Mang did for his father Gia Long, so did the next emperor, Thieu Tri, prepare the stele’s inscription for Minh Mang.
Thieu Tri, it turns out, had a lot to do with the construction of the entire royal tomb. Though work had started in the beginning of Minh Mang’s reign, the elaborate and massive tomb was still unfinished at the time of his death. His son, with the help of thousands of workers, finally completed the tomb during his own rule.
At over 44-acres, one can’t help but feel small here. It’s hard to believe that everything around you is dedicated to a single man. Walking through Minh Mang’s tomb, one starts to get a real sense of the Nguyen family’s style of rule. They were far from being the humblest of rulers, but they did, at least, leave these stunning buildings for us to appreciate centuries later.
As spacious as it is, getting around the tomb is easy, as all you have to do is walk in a straight line. Minh Mang and his son Thieu Tri’s tombs are the only ones in Hue to be laid out this way.
Walking al the way across from the stele pavilion, you’ll get to a gate called Hien Duc, constructed in 1843. Its three doors are typical of the style used by the Nguyen Dynasty. And once on the other side, you’ll arrive at a couple of temples, a staple of every royal tomb. One is dedicated to the emperor and empress, while another was built in honor of Minh Mang’s loyal mandarin servants.
The next area is the Minh Pavilion. Surrounded by a well-manicured garden, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the tomb. The small wooden structure sits atop a three-tiered hill. Finally, the tomb itself can be found across a long bridge which stretches over an artificial lake. At the other end of the bridge, another staircase leads to the circular walled enclosure housing the king’s body. In contrast to Gia Long’s tomb, though, this section is off limits to visitors.
All in all, Minh Mang’s tomb could be considered a composite of all the other royal tombs in Hue. And as it’s one of the best preserved, it’s an absolute must visit during your time in the city.
GETTING THERE: As mentioned, Minh Mang tomb is one of the main stops of group bus tours of Hue. This is the easiest way to visit. If you visit on your own, entrance costs 100,000 VND. A combined ticket with the two other main tombs (Tu Duc and Khai Dinh) costs 280,000 VND,
The Tomb of Thieu Tri
Though Thieu Tri was responsible for completing his father’s tomb, his short reign didn’t allow him time to work on his own. Thieu Tri’s hastily and shoddily constructed tomb, built during the reign of his son Tu Duc, is now in the worst condition of all the royal tombs in Hue.
Learning a little more about his reign reveals why he wouldn’t have had the time. In addition to finishing up his father’s tomb, he also had to deal with violent skirmishes with the French over the Catholic missionary issue. Shortly after he called for the execution of all Christians in Vietnam, he passed away at age 40, ending his short six-year reign in 1847.
Thieu Tri had given his son orders on how to construct his tomb from his deathbed. The following year, Tu Duc then finished construction on his father’s tomb in an astonishing 10 months. The rushed effort is very apparent today, with much of the stones having been completely reduced to rubble. And with hardly any visitors, the whole place feels abandoned.
Its dilapidated state aside, the look and layout of Thieu Tri’s tomb is very similar to that of Minh Mang’s. The artificial lake, bridge and enclosed tomb area seem to be exact copies. The only difference is that the temple is a little off to the side rather than along the same single axis. And this is also the only royal tomb in Hue that’s not enclosed by a surrounding wall.
As is tradition, Thieu Tri’s tomb features a stele written by his son Tu Duc detailing his various accomplishments as emperor. One wonders, though, if the rushed and sloppy construction of the tomb might also reveal some additional information about their father-son relationship.
While Thieu Tri’s tomb is by no means essential, it still makes for an interesting visit. It’s quiet, peaceful and well off the tourist trail. And it’s also interesting to see the stark contrast, at least as far as conservation efforts go, between Thieu Tri’s tomb and those of relatives.
GETTING THERE: The Thieu Tri tomb is about 8km southwest from the center of the city. No tour groups stop here, so you’ll need to hire a private driver or drive there yourself. Entrance costs 40,000 VND.
The Tomb of Tu Duc
Tu Duc reigned from 1847 – 1883, making him the longest reigning Nguyen emperor. His long reign, however, was marked by incessant turmoil and he would be the last emperor of a truly independent Vietnam.
As the quality of life for the average citizen deteriorated, resentment toward the Nguyen family grew to an all-time high during Tu Duc’s reign. Furthermore, some relatives were still bitter about the fact that Gia Long had chosen his own youngest son, Thieu Tri, to rule, rather than the descendants of his eldest. Throughout his reign, Tu Duc was tasked with putting down local rebellions and coups by his own family members. But that was only the beginning of his troubles.
Tu Duc followed in his father’s footsteps by carrying on with the persecution of Catholics and foreigners in general. This resulted in a number of Western powers turning on Vietnam, and Tu Duc never changed his policies until it was too late. Realizing that defeat, either at the hands of the French or at the hands of local rebels was inevitable, he chose to cooperate with the French. They would at least help him deal with the local rebels who wanted him killed.
It was during Tu Duc’s rule, then, that Vietnam officially became a French colony. The next several Nguyen emperors would rule as French puppets, sewing even further discontent among the larger populace who hated both sides.
While he may not be remembered fondly today, the Tu Duc tomb is one of the nicest and most visited royal tombs in Hue.
While Tu Duc’s tomb is one of the better preserved royal tombs in Hue, there are still a number of crumbling structures among the vast area
Tu Duc completed his own tomb between the years 1864 and 1867, well within the middle of his reign. It was a huge endeavor that cost a fortune. Supposedly, the huge expenditure of the project even caused one of the numerous coup attempts that plagued his reign! Walking through the opulent creation, it’s not hard to see why.
During his lifetime, Tu Duc used the tomb grounds for his own leisure and amusement. He would come with his wives and concubines and ride boats around the artificial lake. Within the lake, he even built an artificial island where he would hunt for pleasure.
The tomb complex houses numerous structures and temples. In addition to what you’d normally find, the emperor built a pavilion specifically designed for poetry writing and he even constructed a private theatre. As if the one in the Citadel wasn’t enough!
Among the standard temples, one of them, Chi Khiem, was dedicated to his minor wives. But despite Tu Duc’s numerous wives and concubines, he was never able to father a son. Therefore, he was faced with the unusual task of writing his own stele inscription.
One of the strangest aspects of the Tu Duc tomb is that he’s not even really buried there. While his wife’s body is in the tomb, nobody really knows for sure where Tu Duc is. Supposedly, the decision was made to thwart potential grave robbers, but his extremely unpopular reign may have also been a factor. The location of the body still remains a secret, as the couple hundred laborers who built his secret tomb were beheaded upon their return to Hue!
GETTING THERE: The Tu Duc tomb is another one of the main stops of group bus tours of Hue. This is the easiest way to visit. If you visit on your own, entrance costs 100,000 VND. A combined ticket with the two other main tombs (Minh Mang and Khai Dinh) costs 280,000 VND,
The Tomb of Dong Khanh
Following the death of Tu Duc, who died without a son and who also handed over the reigns of power to the French, chaos ensued among the Nguyen clan. Tu Duc’s adopted son Duc Duc took over but his reign only lasted for three days! A royal tomb for him actually does exist, though it was inaccessible to the public during my time in Hue.
Next followed a number of emperors whose reigns only lasted a few months each. Finally, in 1885, there was some stability on the throne again when an emperor named Dong Khanh began a reign that lasted three or four years. He was installed by the French in a chaotic period which saw other members of the family trying to stage an anti-French rebellion.
Dong Khanh’s tomb is the smallest of all the royal tombs, but I couldn’t see much at all before I was kicked out by a security guard. Renovation work was taking place and no visitors were allowed at the time, despite no signs or online updates (an all-too-common annoyance in Hue). The part I did get a glimpse of, though, was a temple garden. It, well, basically looked like the other temple gardens at all the other tombs.
GETTING THERE: The Dong Khanh tomb may be closed for awhile, but should it open again, entrance will likely cost 40,000 VND. It’s located just south of Tu Duc’s tomb.
The Tomb of Khai Dinh
Khai Dinh, who ruled from 1916 to 1925, was the second-to-last Nguyen Emperor, and his tomb is completely unlike the others. He was the son of Dong Khan, though in between there were a few other reigns which lasted several years each. (Those other emperors now share the currently inaccessible tomb with Duc Duc, the three-day emperor). Like his father, Khai Dinh was very pro-French, and the European influence shines strongly at his tomb.
Built over a period of 11 years, Khai Dinh’s tomb is among the most ornate in Hue. But the beautiful tomb did not come without a price. Khai Dinh and the French even had to heavily raise taxes on the peasant class just to help pay for the project!
The tomb is divided into multiple levels, each divided by a set of triple staircases. The whole thing is on top of a large hill which offers gorgeous panoramic views of the rural surroundings. Overall, Khai Dinh’s tomb is much smaller than the others (with the exception of Dong Khai’s), but its small size is easily made up for by its intricate detail.
One of the features most immediately apparent is the heavy use of sculptures. The various mandarin and elephant statues seem to be a throwback to the very first royal tomb in Hue, Gia Long’s. But beyond that, there’s little else they share in common. Don’t miss the large-nosed dragons on the staircases, carved in a style very reminiscent of those inside the Citadel.
In the central part of the lower level is the exquisite stele pavilion. For the first time in awhile, this tomb finally had an inscription composed by the emperor’s son. In this case the author was Bao Dai, the final Nguyen emperor. He was also tasked with finishing the tomb itself, as Khai Dinh died before it was finished.
In contrast to the monochrome exterior, the interior of the main tomb, known as the Thien Dien Palace, offers visitors with an explosion of color. The walls and ceilings are entirely filled with ceramic mosaics that clearly took a lot of labor and material to create.
Elsewhere in the palace, you can also find an urn with a portrait of a young Khai Dinh. The guy had such good taste that it’s tempting to like him. That is, until you remember how this place was funded!
The highlight of the palace, though, is easily the crypt. On an illuminated throne sits a life-sized bronze statue of the emperor, surrounded by even more splendidly detailed and colorful decorations. Fittingly, the one-ton statue was sculpted in France.
While rumor has it that Khai Dinh was more interested in designing his fabulous tomb than spending time with his wives or concubines, he did manage to have one son. Bao Dai, the final Nguyen emperor, would briefly become a puppet ruler for Imperial Japan and then cede power to Ho Chi Minh. And he would also later become the president of Western-backed South Vietnam. Though he didn’t get a tomb of his own, Bao Dai did at least get to leave his mark on the tomb of his father. In many people’s opinion, this is the best royal tomb of them all, if not one of the most stunning man-made structures in all of Vietnam.
GETTING THERE: The Khai Dinh tomb is another one of the main stops of group bus tours of Hue. This is the easiest way to visit. If you visit on your own, entrance costs 100,000 VND. A combined ticket with the two other main tombs (Minh Mang and Tu Duc) costs 280,000 VND,
Many people see the three main tombs (Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh) as part of a city group bus tour. Though I’m not normally one for group tours, going on this one is worth it. In addition to the tombs, you’ll also stop at Thien Mu Pagoda. Some tours also include a morning stop at the Citadel, although I would really recommend spending a full day at the Citadel on your own.
Most tours start around 8am and bring you back to the center of the city by 16:30. They cost roughly between $10-$15 USD which also includes a buffet lunch.
To get to the other tombs, which you’ll need to save for another day, you’ll have to book a private driver or drive down yourself.
Hue can be reached by plane, train or bus from Vietnam’s major cities.
Train prices can vary greatly depending on what class you’re in. From Hanoi the journey takes around 14 hours, while from Saigon it takes around twenty!
A bus from either Hanoi and Saigon would only ever be considered by the most masochistic of travelers. Getting between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An, however, is best done by bus. The journey only last four or five hours.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling around Vietnam and are flexible with time, you might want to look up the “Vietnam Open Bus Tour.” Essentially, for a set fee, this allows you to get on and off long distance buses as you please.
You can also fly directly from Saigon to Hue (as I did), and the price is very reasonable. Be aware the when you arrive at the airport, there’s an airport shuttle that will take you into town, but it still may be another 10 – 15 minute walk to your hotel. As it was raining, I decided to just take a taxi.
As is common in Asia, you’ll be approached by a number of sketchy touts with big fake smiles as soon as you walk outside. Ignore them. You’re best off sticking to a proper taxi company with a uniformed driver, such as Mai Linh.
Hue’s attractions are very spread out and public transportation is nonexistent. The Citadel, fortunately, is walkable from the center of the city which also contains most of the hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s roughly twenty five minutes on foot and you’ll have to walk along the bridge over the river to get there.
To get around to the city’s various tombs and pagodas, you have the option of taking an organized tour, hiring a private driver or renting your own motorbike. I recommend a combination of these methods, spread out over a period of days.
If you need a driver, I would not recommend dealing with the drivers or touts who approach you in the street. They seem to be offering you drugs more often than rides! (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.) Instead, I recommend booking a private driver (often a just a motorbike, on which you’ll sit behind the driver) via your hotel with the price confirmed beforehand.
During my time in Hue I stayed at Ibiza Guest House which I couldn’t recommend highly enough. The hotel is well situated and the owner is incredibly friendly and helpful. She can provide a wealth of information on things to do and see in the area, and will set you up with a reliable driver if need be. Furthermore, the complimentary breakfast was delicious with generous portions.
Both shared as well as private rooms are available. I stayed in a private, which was one of the more spacious rooms for the price I’ve stayed at in Southeast Asia.
The weather in Hue is notoriously bad. If it’s not raining, the air will still be wet and moist and possibly even cold. It’s a far cry from what people often think of when picturing the jungles or beaches of Southeast Asia. If you’re traveling in the colder months, be sure to pack a few extra layers to sleep in. It can get cold at night and you’re unlikely to find anywhere with heating.