Huế

Dragon handrail at the Imperial Tomb of Khải Định (twelfth emperor) of the Nguyễn dynasty

Dragon handrail at the Imperial Tomb of Khải Định (twelfth emperor) of the Nguyễn dynasty

Dates visited: December 26, 2014 – December 27, 2014

Huế, 63 miles northwest of Đà Nẵng, was established as the capital of Vietnam in 1802 by the Nguyễn dynasty, and held this position until 1945. We drove from Đà Nẵng to Huế via the scenic but dangerous Hải Vân Pass—a 13 mile pass with hairpin turns that offers stunning views of the South China Sea and the Annamite mountain range. In Vietnamese, the name of the pass means “ocean cloud pass” for the mist that rises from the sea, thus reducing visibility for drivers.

The Complex of Huế Monuments is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and comprises the 1804-built Citadel (that contains the Imperial Residences, Imperial City, the Forbidden Purple City and royal palaces) and other monuments such as Thiên Mụ Pagoda and tombs of the Nguyễn dynasty emperors.

The Citadel wall is six metres high and 1.5 miles long, with a moat that is fed water from the Perfume River that snakes through Huế. And enclosed within these impenetrable walls, was the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City which offered protection to the royal family. But the unfortunate part about the Citadel is that over 94% of the monuments were destroyed during the Vietnam War. Thus, a lot of the significant existing monuments have been partially restored using traditional techniques and materials to ensure their authenticity. It took us more than two hours to wander the grounds but the dilapidated structures, decaying ruins and signs of missing monuments only reminded us what a thriving and opulent capital this must have been in the nineteenth century.

We also visited Thiên Mụ Pagoda; a seven-story pagoda that is also the tallest religious building in Vietnam. This iconic structure is wonderfully set on a hill, right across the Perfume River. The main hall houses a statue of Maitreya Buddha, and we were lucky to be present during the monks’ prayer time. The monks ranged from young kids to old men, and it was very surreal to hear them chant and perform their rituals.

The next day, we visited the tombs of Tự Đức (fourth emperor) and Khải Định (twelfth emperor) of the Nguyễn dynasty.

  • The Imperial Tomb of Tự Đức was built from 1864-1867 and is considered the most beautiful of all tombs with its gardens and lakes. In fact, it was used as a Summer Palace and spiritual retreat when Tự Đức was alive! However, Tự Đức was buried in a secret location on the tomb grounds to prevent looting. The 200 workers who helped bury the body were decapitated after completing the task so that they would not reveal the secret.
  • The Imperial Tomb of Khải Định was built from 1920-1931 and is considered the most majestic of all tombs with its exquisite architecture and carving details. The main entrance itself is grand with a staircase that has handrails in the shape of dragons (biggest in the country). And past that are the two rows of statues of mandarins. On the tomb grounds, you will also find the elaborate Thien Dinh Palace that houses a life-size statue of Khải Định. The palace is decorated with stained glass and mosaics of ceramic pieces.

Last but not least, here’s a shout-out to our guide Hai and Cong, the owner of Tour From Hue. Hai was a knowledgeable guide but he was also the funniest guide ever… …his jokes just cracked us up! We had to make changes to our itinerary because several family members fell sick, but Hai and Cong were extremely accommodating. In fact, Cong called my phone several times to ensure that my family was doing well… …I was simply touched by his genuine concern for our health. He surprised us with a token gift on our way to the airport—a Vietnamese cake! It was heartwarming to be treated so wonderfully by strangers on the other side of the globe.

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