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The mystical Minh Mang: A truly ‘royal’ tomb
We meandered up the Perfume River sluggishly, on a warm summer’s day, in the direction of what I consider to be the most impressive of Hue’s royal tombs. Scenes of the countryside and river life mesmerized us – kids part playing, part washing in the water, narrow but covered boats designed for permanent living, rows of corn fields and rice paddies – a colourful motley of scenery and one best absorbed, as we were, from a boat.
While visiting the royal tombs such as Gia Long (the first of the Nguyen Emperor’s and the last reigning royal family line of Vietnam) and Minh Mang (the son and successor of Gia Long) is more romantic via boat, it must be noted that the journey to both tombs is quite lengthy. Minh Mang is around 2 hours just one way if you choose to take the waterways and Gia Long another hour on top of that. However, taking a boat is a highly recommended form of travel if you have the time for a more protracted and relaxed means of soaking in the contemporary river life and ancient culture of Hue together.
Now, let me tell you what I love about Minh Mang and how it differs from any of the other royal burial grounds. Two words: symmetry and grandeur. On my first visit to Minh Mang, I had already been to a slew of Hue’s attractions and it was the last on a day’s journey of stops which included both Tu Duc and Khai Dinh’s tomb sites. While the latter emperor’s built impressive complexes, I felt a true sense of the regal nature of Minh Mang’s tomb. It was older, more austere, and yet its landscaped lakes, canals and architecture all revealed a precise nature in the design that appealed to me more than the others.
You can tell a lot about the personality of a ruler by the design of their resting place and I believe Minh Mang’s dedication to symmetry represents a willingness on his behalf to achieve balance during his reign as emperor. Known as a staunch Confucian, who was sceptical of Christian missionaries – and, in fact, any form of proselytism (the act of trying to convert people to a certain religion or ideology) – Minh Mang was largely disliked by his European counterparts. He was wary of European visitors to Vietnam, proclaiming that all French entries should specifically monitored: "lest some masters of the European religion enter furtively, mix with the people and spread darkness in the kingdom.” Moreover, he restricted trade with the West and instead opted to focus on building and refining Vietnam’s infrastructure. His achievements included the construction of highways, a postal service, public storehouses for food and a variety of monetary and agricultural reforms aimed at helping the poor. All attributes that I personally find admirable and possibly – on a subconscious level – provide the reasoning as to why I love this tomb site the most.
The main point of entry to the tomb is the Dai Hong Mon Gate, regardless of your mode of transport. You will walk a dirt path (lined with vendors such as those selling sugarcane drinks) before reaching a ticket office. The Dai Hong Mon gate has three openings – a right and left side as well as a central opening. Visitors can enter through either of the side gates but not through the centre which was only used once by the emperor himself (typical of royal tomb architecture, the middle is always reserved for the emperor while other royal family members used the side gates). Dai Hong Mon represents the easternmost point of a straight axis that lines up the structures in the Minh Mang Tomb, an ensemble of buildings built within an oval shaped wall enclosure of 1700 metres.
Forecourt and Stele Pavilion
Once you have entered the tomb site through one of the gates you will find yourself in a Forecourt, or the Honour courtyard, lined by a traditional double row of statues depicting mandarins, elephants, and horses.
From the forecourt, you can ascend one of three granite staircases to the square Stele Pavilion, containing the Thanh Duc Than Cong stele, a large pillar inscribed with the biography of Minh Mang written by his son and successor Thieu Tri.
Temples and Lakes
Past the stele pavilion, you’ll find Hien Duc Gate guarding access to Sung An Temple, where both the emperor and empress Ta Thien Nhan are worshipped. From Sung An, three bridges crossing the Lake of Impeccable Clarity (Trung Minh Ho) and another gate (Hoang Trach Mon) lead to the Bright Pavilion (Minh Lau), a square-shaped, two-storey pavilion with eight roofs.
The pavilion is positioned above three terraces, each representing the three natural powers of the world: earth, water, and heaven. Behind this, a carefully maintained flower arrangement symbolizes the Chinese character of longevity.
Another viaduct crosses the crescent-shaped Lake of the New Moon (Tan Nguyet), bridging the path to a large staircase with dragon banisters that leads to the circular wall protecting the emperor’s sepulcher. This is closed off to all visitors. It is believed that the royal burial ceremony was all for show – the actual remains of the emperor were transported separately and secretly through underground canals to the crypt at another time to avoid interception by enemies.
You can either take a boat or go via car. By car the tomb is approximately 40 minutes drive from the centre of Hue city. By boat it is approximately 2 hours. The entrance fee is 80,000VND. Ask the reception desk for details.