A royal tomb: then and now
Â A view of Luu Khiem Lake, created from a small stream once running through Tu Duc’s Tomb area.
When Truong Bao Anh was a child, she would walk the half-kilometer from her house outside the historic town of Hue to the tomb of King Tu Duc – the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty.
There, she would meet her friends and they would collect dry pine wood, snails and fetch fish out of the tomb complex’s lakes.
“After that we played together,” said Anh, 29, who speaks with a raspy cough acquired via her job as a tour guide at the Hue Royal Antiquities Museum since 2009.
Â “My parents didn’t want me to go to the tomb because they considered it a holy place for kings. But, I was too young to understand.”
Anh said that she and her friends would often spend afternoons sleeping at the tomb or playing folk games.
“It was fun, but we always left before 5 p.m. because that was when our parents told us the dead would rise from their tombs.”
Back then, the tomb, located in Duong Xuan Thuong Village, Xuan Thuy Ward, was all but abandoned, save the few adventurous youths. Wild grass and plants covered the open gate, said Anh. But now, the gate is refurbished and locked after business hours as the Tu Duc’s Tomb is one of Hue’s major tourist attractions. It is one of the many historic spots that made the town of Hue and its historic citadel, palaces and tombs, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1993.
Tu Duc, who reigned from 1847 to 1883, had hundreds of wives but no children after a case of small pox left him impotent.
It took three years (1864-1867) to build his tomb, which is divided into a Temple Area and a Tomb Area, including a few small lakes.
The old gate and the tomb are still mostly in their original form and the complex’s buildings and landscape were designed as a harmony between beauty and practicality, as the emperor actually lived his daily life here before he passed away.
Tu Duc was known as a poet and poem-lover, and he would often boat on Luu Khiem Lake to Du Khiem Pavilion on Tinh Khiem Islet. There, he would fish and enjoy the serenity. He could also take a rest at Xung Khiem Pavilion, where he recited and composed poetry in the company of his concubines.
The lake was created from a small stream running through the tomb area. The emperor ordered his meant to build Tinh Khiem Islet in the middle of the lake using excavated earth. He also erected three small ornate buildings and several varieties of rare animals and birds were moved onto the island.
However, not all was well.
“Construction of the tomb demanded so much labor and extra taxation that there was a workers’ rebellion against the emperor,” said Anh.
Many workers died during the construction and the rebellion, which was eventually put down.
Tu Duc then apologized for the pain his project had caused.
“The emperor finally ordered that all structures’ names here contain the word Khiem (moderate or modest) as a reminder,” said Anh.
Not all the items in the Tu Duc’s Tomb that tell the former king’s story are well-preserved.
“Tourists have to buy tickets to visit certain places in the tomb complex, however only categories which can make money are well-preserved,” Anh said.
While the altars, antiques and items for ancestor worship inside the tombs – including beautiful glass paintings hung on wooden walls and pillars – are often dusty and lack light, the Minh Khiem Theater, the only one built in Hue’s royal tomb areas where classical operas and variety shows performed by the emperor’s concubines were held for him, his entourage, is bright and clean. The theater is the oldest one remaining relatively intact in Vietnam.
A model of Nguyen Dynasty throne is in the middle of the theater, which includes a traditional royal costume area and a souvenir stand, where tourists can spend money to wear one of the costumes and sit on the throne for a photo shoot.
“There’s a big difference between the explanation boards at the ancestor area and this pavilion,” said Anh.
“While it’s hard to read what is written on the board there because it’s always blurry, here the board with information about tickets always looks new and is easy to read.”