Tu Duc Tomb: Memorial to the Last Independent Monarch of Vietnam

The Tu Duc Tomb (Lăng Tự Đức) is the largest imperial burial complex in Hue, and Tu Duc was the longest reigning of all the Nguyen Monarchs. Although Confucian in his outlook, he was scholarly and open minded. He was also the last independent monarch to rule over Vietnam. 

Of all the royal tombs, Tu Duc is the perfect place for a family outing, especially if you choose to include some biking for the day. Its vast and shady grounds have plenty to explore and discover, and it’s not too far from the city center. 

How to Get to Tu Duc Tomb 

  • Adults: 150.000 VND
  • Children under 12 years: 40 000 VND

The Tu Duc Tomb is just on the western outskirts of Hue city, about 6.5 km from the downtown Four Seasons Hotel. It’s easy to get there by taxi or a ride service such as Grab Car. Biking is also a favorite option.

If you want to visit more than one tomb or location in the day, then it’s probably better to hire a private car and driver, or to join one of the many popular guided tours. Take comfortable shoes and extra water as you may be walking quite a bit. 

Construction of the Tu Duc Tomb 

Even though the tomb of Tu Duc was largely completed in the Emperor’s lifetime, construction lasted for more than 10 years. The heavy cost in terms of both money, taxes, and workers’ lives led to a revolt which the Emperor managed to put down. The memorial was eventually completed in 1867 with the labor of 10 000 men. It covered some 20 hectares with 50 structures surrounded by a 1 500 meters long wall.

Unique Aspects of the Tu Duc Tomb 

Honor Courtyard at Tu Duc Tomb
Honor Courtyard at Tu Duc Tomb
[ image by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

As you approach the tomb you’ll walk along a 120-meter walkway  paved with ceramics from the famous ceramic Bat Trang village near Hanoi. The Honor Courtyard mandarins are smaller than other sites, and semi-realistic with ornate features. 

The Stele at Tu Duc Tomb 

Although a stele exposing the achievements of the Emperor is common at most imperial tombs, the one at Tu Duc is unique. It was written by Tu Duc himself since the Emperor had no son or children of his own. It weighs 22 tons and took 4 years to transport to its resting location. 

This ‘Thanh Duc Than Cong’ stele contains a sad and self critical eulogy of 4 935 words inscription in 1871. The emperor freely admits his mistakes, most of all his regrets about not having a son and heir. Since he failed in this most important task of a king, he felt unable to achieve anything remarkable during his life. For these reasons, he named his tomb Khiem (Modest).

The Temples of Tu Duc Tomb 

Hoa Khiem Temple at Tu Duc Tomb
Hoa Khiem Temple at Tu Duc Tomb
[ by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Flickr ]

The Hoa Khiem Temple (điện Hoà Khiêm) is where the Emperor and Empress are worshipped. It’s the largest temple ever constructed by a Nguyen monarch. It was, however, used as a residency for the Emperor when he visited there during his lifetime. Behind Hòa Khiêm temple to the right is Minh Khiêm Đường theatre

Luong Khiem Temple (điện Lương Khiêm), which is directly behind Hoa Khiem Temple, honors the mother of Tu Duc. Known as the Grand Empress Dowager Từ Dũ, she was one of the most formidable powers in the palace, especially during imperial transitions.

Imperial Entertainment

Xung Khiem Pavillion on the shores of Luu Khiem Lake
Xung Khiem Pavillion on the shores of Luu Khiem Lake
[ by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Flickr ]

The Minh Khiem Hall (nhà hát Minh Khiêm), where the emperor enjoyed various types of performances, is the oldest surviving theater in Vietnam. You can have some fun dressing up in period costume and posing for a slice of your own imperial fame.

The Luu Khiem Lake (hồ Lưu Khiêm) has an island where the Emperor went to either be alone with his poetry, or to hunt small animals. On the lake side is the Xung Khiem Pavilion. It’s a beautiful structure made entirely of wood and sometimes you can catch performances there of traditional music. 

The Tu Duc Burial Tomb 

  It’s said that the mortal remains of  Tu Duc are interred in this tomb, but in a secret location elsewhere. This was a common ploy by many previous emperors in order to avoid their graves being defiled or robbed. 

There is an unsubstantiated legend that about 200 laborers were beheaded after they returned from the real burial site in order to preserve the secret of its location.The symbolic burial tomb, surrounded by a wall, is quite modest.

Life and Legacy of the Emperor Tu Duc 

Enclosure of the Tomb of Tu Duc
Enclosure of the Tomb of Tu Duc
[ image by Roger Shitaki from Tripadago ]

The Emperor Tu Duc was born Nguyễn Phúc Hồng Nhậm on September 22, 1829. Although childless, he adopted three nephews who would all go on to become emperors themselves, and amongst them would carry the lineage to the abdication of King Bao Dai in 1945. 

Despite his failings, the emperor wanted to modernize Vietnam and had a deep concern for education and culture. He was an avid writer penning 4000 verses and 600 prose in poetry, philosophical texts, and history works. The Tu Duc Tomb also functioned as a royal retreat, and the emperor invited scholars to his mausoleum complex to discuss literature.

Sibling Rivalries and a Royal Revolt

Ironies and intrigues plagued even his early life. His father, Emperor Thiệu Trị, passed over the eldest son, Hồng Bảo, in the succession. He hoped Tự Đức would continue staunch Confucianism and opposition to foreign influences.

Ironically, Confucian scholars and mandarins in the court objected to this snubbing of hierarchy. A rebellion ensued also fueled by those with grudges against the previous emperor and the Nguyens in general. 

Then in wake of a swift military suppression, his elder brother was arrested and now faced execution. The Dowager Queen, mother of Tu Duc, begged for mercy, but the elder brother then supposedly committed suicide while imprisoned. 

Policies Towards Christians and Foreigners 

The Emperor largely continued the anti-foreign policies of his two predecessors. However, as a highly astute and educated person, he was a lot more open to Vietnamese Christians. 

He included Christians in high government posts. A Catholic mandarin named Nguyễn Trường Tộ even traveled to Rome for a Papal audience.  Furthermore, he returned with books to translate in Vietnamese. 

However, the incessant political agitation by French missionaries and their illegal entries to Vietnam began to test his patience. In 1848, all Vietnamese Christians were ordered, in a largely ignored decree, to renounce their beliefs or lose all privileges.

Vietnam Invaded and Divided 

Under Tu Duc’s rule, southern incursions by the French increased. In the north, as French troops made land, the Emperor gathered support from the Chinese and the Black Flag Army. This resulted in the 1884-85 Sino-French War in which the French emerged victorious. 

The execution of a Spanish bishop caught up in a southern rebellion, was then used as a pretext for a joint French and Spanish invasion of Saigon. Rebellions arose against his rule, and as Tu Duc suppressed them with one hand, he made a deal with the French with the other to save his dynasty. 

Vietnam was finally divided into French Cochinchina in the south and the French protectorates of Tonkin in the north, and the Kingdom of Annam in central Vietnam.

The Passing of the Emperor Tu Duc 

Tu Duc Tomb early 1900s
Tu Duc Tomb early 1900s
[ by Manhhai from Flickr ]

Although the longest-ruling of all Nguyen monarchs, his successors had no such good fortune. The immediate succession was heavily contested, with the Emperor Duc Duc removed after three days on the throne, and he died soon afterward. 

Next on the throne was Emperor Hiệp Hoà, who tried to favor the French. As a result, he was poisoned and deposed by court mandarins some four months later. Emperor Kien Phuc ascended to the throne at the age of 15 years, but also passed away only six months later.

Nearby Tu Duc Tomb 

The Tu Hieu Pagoda (chùa Từ Hiếu) is a popular stop-off or detour when visiting the Tu Duc Tomb. It’s one of Hue’s most famous temples where the globally popular Zen monk Thích Nhất Hạnh studied and now resides in his old age. 

People often visit the Khai Dinh Tomb (lăng Khải Định) on the same day. The quieter tomb of Thieu Tri is halfway between. There’s not so much to see, but there are some intact parts including a temple, archways, and the enclosed tomb. If you like wandering around ruins, it’s also quite a romantic setting.

 For most of the period of 2021 minor imperial sites will remain closed for renovation.

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