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. He was staunchly Confucian in his outlook and 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. 

Construction of the Tu Duc Tomb 

Even though the mausoleum 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 meter long wall.

Unique Aspects of the Tu Duc Tomb 

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

The 120-meter walkway from the entrance is paved with ceramics from the famous ceramic Bat Trang village near Hanoi. 

The Honor Courtyard mandarins are smaller than other sites. Their design is semi-realist featuring more ornate features. 

The Stele exposing the achievements of the Emperor 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. 

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. 

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. 

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

The burial tomb surrounded by a wall is quite modest. It’s said that the Emperor was not interred there, but in a secret location somewhere else in Hue. 

The Minh Khiem Hall (nhà hát Minh Khiêm), where the emperor enjoyed various types of performances, is the oldest surviving theater in Vietnam.

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.

Other Emperors Resting at Tu Duc Tomb

Even though the Emperor Tu Duc’s remains are probably not to be found at his Mausoleum, you will find the graves here of other emperors. 

The Emperor Duc Duc 

All three adopted sons of Tu Duc would go on to become Emperors namely, Duc Duc (Dục Đức), Kien Phuc (Kiến Phúc), and Dong Khanh (Đồng Khánh). Although the true facts behind the three day rule of Duc Duc and his contentious ascension are not clear, in 1889 his son came to the throne as Emperor Thanh Thai. He constructed a formal tomb for his father and restored Duc Duc’s remains. 

The Emperor Kien Phuc 

The Emperor Khien Phuc was another short lived ruler during the tumultuous years after the death of Tu Duc. His reign was less than a year, and although he was generally unhealthy, it’s believed he was also poisoned. His predecessor, Emperor Hiep Hoa, was forced to commit suicide by courtly powers after he had signed a treaty with the French.

The Emperor Thanh Thai 

The Emperor Thanh Thai
[ image by Manhhai from Flickr ]

Emperor Thanh Thai (Thành Thái) was considered an ill fit for the throne. There were many rumours about his bizarre and often cruel or lewd behaviour. He was an excellent poet and political writer, but the French had him declared insane and replaced him with his son. 

Later, the Emperor Thanh Thai and his son, Emperor Duy Tan (Duy Tân), were both exiled by the French to Reunion Island. Thanh Thai returned to Saigon in 1945 where he lived under house arrest in Vung Tua. He died in 1954 and was laid to rest in the tomb of Duc Duc.  

The Emperor Duy Tan

The Emperor Duy Tan
[ image from ]

He ascended to the throne as a boy aged seven after the French deposed his father. Although installed and groomed by the French, into his teenage years he became more belligerent against French excesses. 

He also cut down on the excesses and waste of his own royal court. However, in 1916 the French dismissed him into exile with his father. During his time inexile, Duy Tan, served valiantly with the French occupying forces in Germany up until 1945. 

There were plans to restore him the throne, but he was killed in a plane crash in the Central African Republic. In 1987 his remains were returned to Vietnam and laid to rest in the tomb of his grandfather Emperor Duc Duc. 

Life and Legacy of the Emperor Tu Duc 

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

The Emperor Tu Duc was born Nguyễn Phúc Hồng Nhậm on September 22, 1829. Emperor Tu Duc had no children, many say due to childhood smallpox, but he accepted 3 nephews as his adoptive sons. 

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 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 be translated 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 Annam in central Vietnam.

The Passing of the Emperor Tu Duc 

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

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 afterwards. 

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.

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. It’s easy to get there by taxi or a ride service such as Grab Car. If the weather is not too hot, some people like to ride there by bicycle.

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. 

Nearby Tu Du 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 tomb of Khai Dinh (lăng Khải Định) in the same day – however, the quieter tomb of Trieu Tri is halfway between, but most of the sub tombs are closed in 2020 undergoing repairs and renovations.

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