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. Its blackened exterior sets quite a somber tone, even on a sunny day. As you scale 127 steps up five levels, you come to what resembles a Baroque-style palace.

The complex retains all the traditional elements that you would see in other Nguyen tombs. These also include Confucian design principles. However, 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. His was the last tomb to be built. He was the son of Emperor Đồng Khánh, an adopted son of Emperor Tự Đức. Dong Khanh ruled as the ninth emperor.

Khai Dinh was the first emperor since Tu Duc with the time and length of reign to build a memorial. He ruled for around nine years from 1916 to 1925. Often criticized as being solely a puppet, all emperors by that time were appointed by the French anyway.

Ho Chi Minh even wrote a satirical play about Khai Dinh called, ‘The Bamboo Dragon’ (Con Rồng Tre). During his time, the emperor signed orders against nationalist leaders, with many of them arrested, exiled, or beheaded.

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 of his death of tuberculosis in 1925, at the age of 40. In 1922, the emperor made a highly popularized trip to France. This may have influenced the final details of the gorgeous interior. His son, Bảo Đại, completed the tomb in 1931.

The Five Steps to Heaven

Khai Dinh Tomb Aerial Photographs
Khai Dinh Tomb
[ by Phượt Huế from Facebook ]

Khai Dinh Tomb is not a contemplative walk like that of Minh Mang Tomb. Nor is it 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. These are humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness. The lower levels can also symbolize the similar four cardinal principles.

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
[ 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 pathway, the stele pavilion aligns perfectly to the center. There are 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
[ 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 solid stone. Their diminutive stature, contrasted to the imposing grandeur, speaks to the lives of mere mortals.

The Stele Pavilion and Two Obelisks

Khai Dinh Tomb
Stele Pavilion at Khai Dinh Tomb
[ by Clay Gilliland from CC ]

As with all royal tombs, there is the obligatory stele. As per tradition, it’s a biography written by his son, and final monarch, Bao Dai. The Khai Dinh stele pavilion (bi đình) is no different in its traditional two-level design. However, it resembles a grand monument more than a pagoda as seen at other tombs.

Besides the stele pavilion, you will find the two obelisks. These are also a structural feature of the Minh Mang Tomb. The minarets of the obelisks look like southern Buddhist stupas. These are commonly a symbol of dynastic stability and majesty.

Inside Khai Dinh Tomb: The Khai Thanh Hall

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

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

It’s very Baroque in its external and interior appearance. Additionally, Greco-Roman pillars blend with distinctive eastern motifs of dragon colonnades and staircases.

Inside, a brightly colored and ornate 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
[ by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

Porcelain and glass ceramic adorn the walls in intricate mosaic patterns. Furnishings and ornaments from around the world reflect Khai Dinh as one of the most outward-looking emperors.

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

Khai Dinh Tomb: More About the Man as Emperor

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

Emperor Khai Dinh was not particularly popular with the common people, least of all those within independence movements. His popularity, or lack of it, was also largely the result of taxes levied for monuments and other architectural works.

Personal Life of the Bamboo Dragon 

It was widely rumored, and in historical records, that Emperor Khai Dinh had very little interest in women. As such, he was largely considered to be homosexual. He reportedly spent most of his nights with a royal guard, Nguyễn Đắc Vọng.

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. She produced an heir and only son — Bao Dai who became the last king of Vietnam.

The Emperor as Artist and Modernist

Khai Dinh as Artist and Modernist
[ by Đỗ Chanh from Facebook ]

Khai Dinh firmly believed that Vietnam could only achieve true independence through modernization and assimilation of Western scientific knowledge. He saw cooperation with the French, rather than political agitation, as a constructive way forward.

His achievements were primarily cultural and artistic. 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 legacy. 

One of the most remarkable blends of Western and Eastern architecture and art can be seen in the An Dinh Palace (cung An Định). It was built by 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 (Khai Dinh Museum), it was one of the first modern museums in Vietnam.

Khai Dinh and The Three Rebel Kings

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

The first Emperor to largely fulfill his ceremonial role without unduly agitating the French  was Emperor Dong Khanh — Khai Dinh’s father. He died from a mysterious illness at the age of 24. He was enthroned by the French after the previous emperor Ham Nghi was dismissed.

Ham Nghi had fled the Purple Palace to head an anti-French resistance. He was betrayed and captured. Later, the French exiled him to Algeria. He eventually married a French Algerian, had three children, and died in Algiers 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 replaced him with his son Duy Tân. Both were exiled to Reunion Island for their non-compliance with French authority.

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

From Hue central, it’s about 10 km to Khai Dinh Tomb, so it’s easy to get there by taxi, or Grab Car. It’s best to visit early in the morning or late afternoon because there is little shade or protection from the heat of the sun.

Day Tours to Khai Dinh Tomb and Other Sites

People usually visit two Hue royal tombs in one day. If you book a tour, or hire a private car for the day, you could manage the main three. Tu Duc Tomb, however, is fairly close to Hue central and can easily be visited by bicycle.

Khai Dinh Tomb is further away and the busy road and route is not so accommodating to bicycles. It is, however, only 6 km from the Khai Dinh Tomb to the Tomb of Minh Mang on the other side of the Perfume River. Tours often include these two in a package.For a full day excursion, you can start your morning at Thien Mu Pagoda. From there, you can take a river taxi to Hue Nam Shrine, and then another to Minh Mang Tomb. To end your day, you can usually get a taxi from Minh Mang to Khai Dinh Tomb.

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