10 Sep 2013

The previous day we arrived in Hue via the Reunification Express overnight train from Hanoi. We got there in the morning, so we had good amount of time to visit the Citadel and the Imperial City in the afternoon. The skies were overcast with occasional sprinkles, but our umbrellas easily took care of any inconvenience (this will matter later on).

We only had two nights in Hue before heading down the Vietnamese coast to Hoi An, so I wanted to see as much as we could while here. For our second day I’d planned a bike excursion that would take us to the renowned royal tombs outside Huế city. Before we left home, I researched a route using Google Earth & Open Street Maps and I placed the trackfile on my Garmin GPS along with the relevant waypoints. And in the morning of the ride we rented bikes from a place on Lê Lợi, the main drag south of the river. The bikes were $3 each for the nice ones with the wider tires.

Ho Quyen – imperial elephants

Ho Quyen Arena with Chickens

Ho Quyen Arena with Chickens

The light rain had stopped by the time we biked the 3 or so miles to the first stop: Ho Quyen (or Royal Arena). This structure was purpose built in 1830 for the imperial gladiatorial entertainment of elephants vs. tigers. Of course the elephants (hint, hint: the imperial state) were miraculously ever-victorious over the tigers (hint, hint: rebels). Fortunately for the tigers, this fighting nonsense ended in 1904.

A guard let us in and the only action going on now in the arena were the chickens running around. The simple and austere structure is circular with the 10′ (3m) thick walls standing about 20′ (6m) high. The field itself is about 110′ (34m) in diameter and although bricks were missing in spots, it looked well-kept and not bad for its age. Since the crumbling stairs to the box seats for the Emperor and his family were closed, we didn’t get the imperial view.

We took a short walk down a lane to the Long Chau Dien Temple. If you were a victorious elephant, this is where you went for your post-fight adulation and worship. The upkeep seems to have gone with the elephants and the temple was in a sorry state of repair.

Tu Duc Tomb – intimacy & charm

Tu Duc Tomb - View of Luu Khiem Lake from Khiem Cung Gate

Tu Duc Tomb – View of Luu Khiem Lake from Khiem Cung Gate

The light rain had returned and, as we rode the 2 paved miles to our next stop, gradually increased. Although this was no cold rain — it’s the tropics after all — we grabbed a table out of the wet at a roadside cafe just opposite the entrance of the Tu Duc Tomb. We thought we would let the rain pass over a coffee. And indeed it did, it passed from light to moderate then right to heavy. After trying to wait it out for 30 minutes, we gave up, took a deep breath, and headed out to the tomb in the downpour.

Waiting for the rain to let up

Waiting for the rain to let up

Emperor Tu Duc (ruled 1847-83) built this pleasure palace for himself in the middle of his reign and so was able to enjoy this lovely place for 16 years before he took advantage of the tomb facilities. But actually he didn’t, fears of looting led him to be buried in a secret location. Eh, at lest he enjoyed it when he could.

A brief background on Vietnamese royal tombs or mausoleums. They are more garden than graveyard and share 3 elements: temple, stele, & tomb. Like medieval Christian chapels, the temple is dedicated to the veneration of the dead emperor. The stele has writing that tells the emperor’s story. And the tomb, well, it’s a tomb (in most cases).

The Tu Duc Tomb was a gorgeous mausoleum: 30 acres (12 ha) of pavilions, pines, and lake. It’s small in scale with an asymmetrical & naturalist layout. There’s hummocky land covered with pine trees & their needles carpeting the ground contrasting with the angular stone structures and the bend of yellow tile atop the lake balustrade. And the tomb itself was almost modern in its stark geometry. The stele is huge and the temple serene. And shit was it raining.

We weren’t idiots, at least about the weather. We had raingear and I had a waterproof bag for my camera. But it’s hard to catch the rainy season’s green saturation when there’s a haze of downpour in front of the lens.

On the GPS the track to the next tomb went from a solid line to a dotted one. And sure enough, five minutes down the road the road became a path and we were off pavement in the rain through mud and large puddles. Although not optimal, the surface was just wet and not very muddy so it wasn’t bad for biking. Soon we hit pavement again, and finished the 6 miles to Minh Mang Tomb riding along the Perfume River.

Minh Mang Tomb – formality & grandeur

Minh Mang Tomb Courtyard

Minh Mang Tomb Courtyard

Minh Mang (ruled 1820-41) liked his architecture: he finished grand construction of the Hue Citadel. It took so long to find the perfect site for his tomb that he died before it was done, so his successor finished building it 1840-1843.

The Minh Mang Tomb is the largest one of ones around Hue — and it did impress. It is grand where the Tu Duc Tomb was charming. All the elements (stele, temple, & tomb) run along one central axis surrounded by a large lake. Whereas the Tu Duc Tomb encouraged wandering, the Minh Mang Tomb requires a procession: from the stele to the temple through a pavilion and finally the tomb. Each was raised from the enclosing courtyard so we went up and down stairs until we crossed the causeway to the large circular burial mound topped by more pine trees.

And still it rained. As we rode to the next tomb, a woman on a cyclo stopped and talked with us. Her name was Diep and she offered to serve us lunch at her house. Not really having a better offer, we followed her home. Her house was basic but immaculate and she served us pomelo (a grapefruit-like citrus) and corn on the cob — just the light meal we’d been hoping for. We gave her some cash for her efforts. After lunch the rain had finally began to slow, so we said our thanks & goodbyes to Diep and continued on our way.

Khai Dinh Tomb – gaudy bauble on a beautiful hill

View from Khai Dinh Tomb

View from Khai Dinh Tomb

Our next mausoleum was the Khai Dinh Tomb and it was totally different from the others. Built 1920-31 for the emperor Khai Dinh (ruled 1916-25) his tomb, instead of having a spread-out garden setting, is compact and rises steeply on a hillside. All three tomb elements are there, but they are overwhelmed by the ornamentation. The monochromatic concrete construction lacks the brilliant yellows and red of the previous tombs. The views over surrounding rolling landscape, however, can’t be beat. This was the last royal tomb built and the last of the day for us.

I didn’t like this one. Was it the gilded statue of the emperor? Maybe the overwrought mosaic work? Perhaps it was the cast concrete dragons that had what appeared to be large googly-eyes. The design was baroque, agitated, and occasionally ridiculous. Maybe in the sunlight its genius would have shone through. But with the low clouds of the day, not so much.

But that view. It has a wonderful setting and the height accented that, each level giving you a better view than the next.

The rain has stopped by the time we headed back to Hue. We hit the evening traffic going back into town, but our fellow bicylists were the most of the traffic. Despite the rain it had been a good day.

So should you do this? Sure! It’s totally doable to do this unguided. Get that track on the GPS, though — one could easily get turned around in this rural area. Both the front desk woman and the guy we rented the bikes from said that the Minh Mang Tomb was too far to bike to — but it wasn’t. I’d be hesitant, however, to recommend biking in the rainy season. But it did keep the crowds down.

  • Total Milage: 22 miles (biking + walking)
  • Total Time: 8 hours
  • Total Tombs: 3 (plus 1 elephant fighting arena & 1 elephant worshiping temple)