Khai Dinh Tomb: A Filial Legacy Set in Stone with an Artist’s Touch

The Khai Dinh Tomb (Vietnamese spelling: Lăng Khải Định) is a remarkably different memorial. It’s blackened exterior sets quite a somber tone, even on a sunny day, as you scale its 127 steps up five levels to what resembles a Baroque-style palace. 

The complex retains all the traditional elements that you would see in other Nguyen tombs. These include Confucian principles, but the decorative interior is really what captures the imagination. 

Who Was Emperor Khai Dinh?

Emperor Khai Dinh
Emperor Khai Dinh
[ by Manhhai from Flickr ] 

Khai Dinh was the twelfth Nguyen Emperor in a lineage of thirteen and this was the last tomb to be built. He was the son of Emperor Dong Khanh (Đồng Khánh), an adopted son of Emperor Tự Đức (Tu Duc). Dong Khanh ruled as the ninth emperor.   

Khai Dinh is often unduly criticized as just a puppet Emperor. However, by the time of his reign, all emperors were appointed by the French anyway. The previous two emperors were exiled for disobedience to their colonial masters.

Khai Dinh was the first emperor since Tu Duc who had the time and length of reign to actually build a memorial. He ruled for around nine years from 1916 to 1925.

Tradition and Symbolism at the Khai Dinh Tomb 

Construction of the Khai Dinh Tomb and Mausoleum started in 1920. It remained incomplete by the time the emperor died of tuberculosis in 1925, at the age of 40. In 1922, the emperor made a highly popularized trip to France, which may have influenced the final details of the gorgeous interior. His son, Bảo Đại, completed the tomb in 1931.

The Five Steps to Heaven  

The Khai Dinh Tomb is not a contemplative walk like at the Minh Mang Tomb, or a stately expanse such as Tu Duc Tomb. Its total area is relatively constrained as you are impelled up a mountain slope with nothing much else to enjoy. 

The five levels in effect can represent the five constants of Confucian theology namely, benevolence, righteousness, proper rite, knowledge, and integrity. The lower four levels also symbolize the four virtues.

There are also four books and five classics that underpin Confucian theology. The final union of individual self with the God of Heaven, the goal of Confucianism, is represented in the interior chamber. 

The Decorative Gate and Dragon Staircases

Gate and Staircase to Khai Dinh Tomb
Decorative Gate and Dragon Staircase to Khai Dinh Tomb 
[ image by Clay Gilliland from CC ] 

The three porthole gateway (tam quan) is quite typical of similar ones at other tombs and the Purple City. This one, however, is more elaborate in its decorative design.

If you ascend up the central porthole, the stele pavilion aligns perfectly to the center with two obelisks towering on either side at the back. Mythical dragons flank all the staircases up to the fifth level. 

The Honor Courtyard at Khai Dinh Tomb

Honor Guard of Mandarins at Khai Dinh Tomb
Honor Guard of Mandarins at Khai Dinh Tomb
[ image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Flickr ]

In line with tradition, you will first pass through the honor courtyard (sân chầu). Here you are inspected by a mandarin guard with horses and elephants. At the Khai Dinh Tomb, these are cut out of solid stone. Their diminutive status against the imposing grandeur above speaks to the lives of mere mortals. 

The Stele Pavilion and Two Obelisks 

Stele Pavilion at Khai Dinh Tomb
Worshipable Altar of Emperor Khai Dinh
[ image by Clay Gilliland from Flickr ] 

As with all royal tombs, there is the obligatory stele which is a biography written by his son, and final monarch, Bảo Đại. The Khai Dinh stele pavilion (bi đình) is no different in its two  level design, but it resembles a grand monument more than a type of pagoda. 

Besides the stele pavilion, you will find the two obelisks, which are also a structural feature of the Minh Mang Tomb. The minarets of the obelisks are shaped like southern Buddhist stupas. They are said to symbolize dynastic stability and majesty. 

Inside Khai Dinh Tomb: The Khai Thanh Hall 

Worshipable Altar of Emperor Khai Dinh
Worshipable Altar of Emperor Khai Dinh
[ image by Clay Gilliland from Flickr ]

After ascending the single flight of steps into the imperial space of Khai Thanh Hall (điện Khải Thành), one can’t fail to be impressed with the level of detailed ornamentation.

It’s very Baroque in its appearance, as is the interior, with the addition of Greco-Roman pillars and distinctive eastern motifs of dragon colonnades and staircases. 

Once inside, a brightly colored and ornately decorated throne dominates the interior. On it, sits a life-size statue of the young emperor. The mortal remains of the Emperor lie beneath.

No previous emperor represented themselves in this way. The statue was cast in France and the canopy is completely made of concrete. 

A Young Khai Dinh Immortalized on His Throne
A Young Khai Dinh Immortalized on His Throne
[ image by Roger Shitaki ]

The walls are decorated with porcelain and glass-ceramics. The furnishings also come from various parts of the world reflecting Khai Dinh as one of the most outward-looking Emperors. 

The ceiling has nine mythical dragons appearing between the clouds, all of which were painted by hand. There are also various personal effects of the Emperor on display. These include historic photographs, precious vases, ornaments from both the East and the West, and diplomatic communiques.

Khai Dinh Tomb: The Man Behind the Monument

Emperor Khai Dinh and Assistant
Emperor Khai Dinh and Assistant
[ image by Manhhai from Flickr ]

Khai Dinh was largely dismissed as a French puppet, and Ho Chi Minh even wrote a satirical play about him called, ‘The Bamboo Dragon’ (con rồng tre). The emperor orders against nationalist leaders, with many of them arrested, exiled, or beheaded.

Neither was he particularly popular with the common people. His popularity, or lack of it, was largely impacted by taxes which he levied to pay for his monument and other architectural works.

Two Compliant Emperors and Three Rebel Kings

The deposed Emperor Ham Nghi Marries in Algiers
The deposed Emperor Ham Nghi Marries in Algiers
[ image by Manhhai from Flickr ]

Being the Emperor of Vietnam under French occupation was never the greatest career choice. If the Emperor bent too much to the will of the French, he was hated by the people and attacked by disgruntled Confucian mandarins. Too rebellious, and the French had the Emperor deposed, declared insane, or exiled abroad. 

The first Emperor to largely fulfill his ceremonial role without unduly agitating the French was Emperor Dong Khanh. He died from a mysterious illness at the age of 24. He was enthroned by the French after they had dismissed yet another Emperor, Ham Nghi. 

Ham Nghi had fled the Purple Palace to head an anti-French resistance. He was betrayed and captured. Later, he was exiled to Algeria where he married a French Algerian, had three children, and eventually died there in 1944. His remains were moved to a family estate in Thonac, France by Princess Như Lý or the Countess de la Besse. 

After the sudden death of Dong Khanh, Emperor Thành Thái, son of three-day-emperor Dục Đức, ascended to the Dragon Throne. The French declared him insane and they replaced him with his son Duy Tân. Both were later exiled for their non-compliance with French authority. 

Personal Life of the Bamboo Dragon 

It was widely rumored, and in historical records, that Emperor Khai Dinh had very little interest in women and was largely considered to be homosexual. His first wife, Trương Như Thị Tịnh separated from him to become a nun in 1915 before he even ascended to the throne. 

Once ascending to the throne he married his second wife, Từ Cung, who produced his heir and only son, Bao Dai. It’s said that the emperor spent most of his nights with a royal guard, Nguyễn Đắc Vọng. 

The Emperor as Artist and Modernist

Khai Dinh Tomb circa 1971-2972
Khai Dinh Tomb circa 1971-2972
[ image by Manhhai from Flickr ] 

Khai Dinh firmly believed that Vietnam couldn’t achieve true independence until it had undergone modernization and assimilation of Western scientific knowledge. He saw cooperation with the French as a constructive way forward, rather than political agitation. 

His achievements were more cultural and artistic than anything else. He enforced the replacement of Chinese characters with the Romanized Vietnamese alphabet. His fusion of Western and Vietnamese aesthetics and design was perhaps his greatest achievement. 

One of the most remarkable blends of Western and Eastern architecture and art can be seen in the An Dinh Palace (cung An Định) built by the Khai Dinh’s father, Dong Khanh. Emperor Khai Dinh completely renovated the interior into a modernist style, including Western-style paintings of Vietnamese motifs. 

His own masterpiece was the Kien Trung Palace (điện Kiến Trung) in Italian Renaissance style, in the grounds of the Purple City. The building was destroyed by the Viet Minh, but is now undergoing a complete reconstruction. 

In 1923, he established the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities. Originally named Musée Khai Dinh (Kha Dinh Museum), it was one of the first modern museums in Vietnam. 

Visiting Khai Dinh Tomb 

  • Entrance Fee Adult: 150 000 VND     
  • Entrance Fee Children under 12 years: 40 000 VND     
  • Opening Times: 7 am to 5 pm 

People usually visit two tombs in one day, but if you’re really into it, you can do all the main three together. The Khai Dinh Tomb is about 10 km due south of Hue central, and you can easily get there by taxi, Grab Car, but is often included in a tour package. 

It’s only 6 km from the Khai Dinh Tomb to the Tomb of Minh Mang. It’s best to visit Khai Dinh Tomb early in the morning or late afternoon because there is little shade here or protection from the heat of the sun.

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