South of Hue are the extravagant mausoleums of the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty (1802–1945), spread out along the banks of the Perfume River between 2km and 16km south of the city. There also some fine pagodas and other sights.
Almost all royal tombs were planned by the emperors during their lifetimes, and some were even used as residences while they were still alive.
Most of the mausoleums consist of five essential elements. The first is a stele pavilion dedicated to the accomplishments, exploits and virtues of the emperor. Next is a temple for the worship of the emperor and empress. The third is an enclosed sepulchre, and fourth an honour courtyard with stone elephants, horses, and civil and military mandarins. Finally, there’s a lotus pond surrounded by frangipani and pine trees.
Most people visit them on an organised tour from Hue, either by boat or a combination of boat and bus, but it’s perfectly possible to rent a xe om or your own bike and do a DIY tour.
(admission 80,000d) This tomb, constructed between 1864 and 1867, is the most popular, and certainly one of the most impressive of the royal mausoleums. Emperor Tu Duc designed it himself, for use both before and after his death. The enormous expense of the tomb and the forced labour used in its construction spawned a coup plot that was discovered and suppressed.
Tu Duc lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess (he had 104 wives and countless concubines), though no offspring.
From the entrance a path leads to the shore of Luu Khiem Lake. The tiny island to the right, Tinh Khiem, is where Tu Duc used to hunt small game. Across the water to the left is Xung Khiem Pavilion, where he would sit with his concubines, composing or reciting poetry.
Hoa Khiem Temple is where Tu Duc and his wife, Empress Hoang Le Thien Anh, were worshipped – today it just houses a jumble of dusty, unlabelled royal artefacts. The larger throne was for the empress; Tu Duc was only 153cm tall.
Minh Khiem Chamber, to the right behind Hoa Khiem Temple, was originally meant to be a theatre. Cheesy dress-up photo ops and cultural performances are available here today. Directly behind Hoa Khiem Temple is the quieter Luong Khiem Temple dedicated to Tu Duc’s mother, Tu Du.
Just around the lakeshore is the Honour Courtyard. You pass between a guard of elephants, horses and diminutive mandarins (they were even shorter than the emperor) before reaching the Stele Pavilion, which shelters a 20-tonne stone tablet. Tu Duc drafted the inscriptions himself. He freely admitted that he had made mistakes and chose to name his tomb Khiem (‘ modest ’).
The tomb, enclosed by a wall, is on the far side of a tiny lagoon. It’s a drab grey monument and the emperor was never interred here – the site where his remains were buried (along with great treasure) is not known. To keep it a secret from grave robbers, all of the 200 servants who buried the king were beheaded.
Tu Duc’s tomb is about 5km south of Hue on Van Nien Hill in Duong Xuan Thuong village.
(admission 80,000d) This majestic tomb is renowned for its architecture and sublime natural setting, surrounded by a forest. The tomb was planned during Minh Mang’s reign (1820–1840) but built by his successor, Thieu Tri.
Minh Mang’s tomb is in An Bang village, on the west bank of the Perfume River, about 12km from Hue.
The Honour Courtyard is reached via three gates on the eastern side of the wall. Three granite staircases lead from the courtyard to the square Stele Pavilion (Dinh Vuong).
Sung An Temple, which is dedicated to Minh Mang and his empress, is reached via three terraces and the rebuilt Hien Duc Gate. On the other side of the temple, three stone bridges span Trung Minh Ho (Lake of Impeccable Clarity). The central bridge was for the emperor’s use only. Minh Lau Pavilion (Pavilion of Light) stands on the top of three superimposed terraces that represent the ‘three powers’: the heavens, the earth and water. To the left is the Fresh Air Pavilion, to the right, the Angling Pavilion.
From a stone bridge across crescent-shaped Tan Nguyet Lake (Lake of the New Moon), a monumental staircase with dragon banisters leads to Minh Mang’s sepulchre. The gate to the tomb is opened only once a year on the anniversary of the emperor’s death.
Built on a hill overlooking the Perfume River, 4km southwest of the Citadel, this pagoda is an icon of Vietnam and as potent a symbol of Hue as the Citadel. The 21m-high octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, was constructed under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri in 1844. Each of its seven storeys is dedicated to a manushi-buddha (a Buddha that appeared in human form).
Since the 1960s it has been a flashpoint of political demonstrations.
Thien Mu Pagoda was originally founded in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang, governor of Thuan Hoa province. Over the centuries its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times.
To the right of the tower is a pavilion containing a stele dating from 1715. It’s set on the back of a massive marble turtle, a symbol of longevity. To the left of the tower is another six-sided pavilion, this one sheltering an enormous bell (1710), which weighs 2052kg and is said to be audible 10km away.
The temple itself is a humble building in the inner courtyard, past the triple-gated entrance where three statues of Buddhist guardians stand at the alert. In the main sanctuary behind the bronze laughing Buddha are three statues: A Di Da, the Buddha of the Past; Thich Ca, the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni); and Di Lac Buddha, the Buddha of the Future.
The best time to visit is early in the morning, before the tour groups show up. For a scenic bicycle ride, head southwest (parallel to the Perfume River) on riverside Ð Tran Hung Dao, which turns into Ð Le Duan after Phu Xuan Bridge. Cross the railway tracks and keep going on Ð Kim Long. Thien Mu Pagoda can also be reached by boat.
(admission 80,000d) This hillside monument is a synthesis of Vietnamese and European elements. Most of the tomb’s grandiose exterior is covered in blackened concrete, creating an unexpectedly Gothic air, while the interiors resemble an explosion of colourful mosaic.
Khai Dinh was the penultimate emperor of Vietnam, from 1916 to 1925, and widely seen as a puppet of the French. The construction of his flamboyant tomb took 11 years.
Steps lead to the Honour Courtyard where mandarin honour guards have a mixture of Vietnamese and European features. Up three more flights of stairs is the stupendous main building, Thien Dinh. The walls and ceiling are decorated with murals of the Four Seasons, Eight Precious Objects and Eight Fairies. Under a graceless, gold- speckled concrete canopy is a gilt bronze statue of Khai Dinh. His remains are interred 18m below the statue.
The tomb of Khai Dinh is 10km from Hue in Chau Chu village.
Wildly overgrown but still evocative, Ho Quyen was built in 1830 for the royal pastime of watching elephants and tigers face off in combat. The tigers (and leopards) were usually relieved of their claws and teeth so that the elephants – a symbol of the emperor’s power – triumphed every time. You can climb up grassy ramparts and look down on the old arena and imagine the scene – the last fight was held here in 1904.
The south-facing section was reserved for the royal family, while diametrically opposite are the tiger cages. Ho Quyen is about 3km outside Hue in Truong Da village. Follow Ð Bui Thi Xuan west from the train station, then look out for the blue sign near the market that indicates the turn-off on the left. Follow this lane for about 200m to a fork in the road and go right.
Nestled in a pine forest, this popular pagoda was built in 1843 and later co- opted by eunuchs from the Citadel (who have their own cemetery on the left-hand side). Tu Hieu is associated with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who studied at the monastery here in the 1940s, but lived in exile for more than 40 years, and was only permitted to return to Vietnam in 2005.
Today 70 monks reside at Tu Hieu; they welcome visitors to the twin temples (one dedicated to Cong Duc, the other to Buddha). You can listen to their chanting (daily at 4.30am, 10am, noon, 4pm and 7pm). Tu Hieu Pagoda is about 5km from the centre of Hue, on the way to the tomb of Tu Duc.
A classic covered Japanese footbridge in picturesque countryside and without a souvenir shop in sight, this makes a lovely diversion from Hue. The bridge is in sleepy Thuy Thanh village, 7km east of Hue. Finding it is a bit tricky. Head north for a few hundred metres on Ð Ba Trieu until you see a sign to the Citadel Hotel. Turn right and follow the bumpy dirt road for another 6km past villages, rice paddies and several pagodas.
This three-tiered esplanade was once the most important religious site in Vietnam, the place where the Nguyen emperors made animal sacrifices and elaborate offerings to the deity Thuong De. Ceremonies (the last was held in 1946) involved a lavish procession and a three-day fast by the emperor at the nearby Fasting Palace.
The Fasting Palace, located at the furthest end of the park, has an informative display of photographs and English captions.
Since 2006 the ceremony has been re-enacted as part of the Festival of Hue. Nam Giao Esplanade is at the southern end of Ð Dien Bien Phu, about 2km from the railway tracks.
(admission 80,000d) The only royal tomb not enclosed by a wall, the recently restored monument of Thieu Tri (built 1848) has a similar floor plan to his father Minh Mang’s tomb, but is substantially smaller. The tomb is about 7km from Hue.
(admission free) Emperor Gia Long founded the Nguyen dynasty in 1802 and ruled until 1819. Both the emperor and his queen are buried here. The rarely visited tomb is presently in a state of ruin. It is around 14km south of Hue and 3km from the west bank of the Perfume River.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
From the centre of Hue it’s only 15km north to the coast, the road shadowing the Perfume River before you hit the sands of Thuan An Beach where there’s a large resort hotel. If you continue southeast from here there’s a beautiful, quiet coastal road to follow with very light traffic (so it’s ideal for bikers). The route actually traverses a narrow coastal island, with views of the Tam Giang-Cau Hai lagoon on the inland side and simply stunning sandy beaches and dunes on the other. This wonderful coastal strip is virtually undeveloped, but between September and March the water’s often too rough for swimming.
From Thuan An the road winds past villages alternating with shrimp lagoons and vegetable gardens. Thousands and thousands of garishly colourful and opulent graves and family temples line the beach, most the final resting places of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) who wanted to be buried in their homeland. Little tracks cut through the tombs and sand dunes to the beach. Just pick a spot and the chances are you’ll have a beach to yourself.
At glorious Phu Thuan beach (about 7km southeast of Thuan An) a spectacular new place, the Beach Bar Hue ( 090-899 3584; www.beachbarhue.com; Phu Thuan beach; dm/bungalow 250,000/600,000d, meals 100,000d) has excellent backpacker-geared dorms and bungalows and sits pretty on a sublime stretch of sand (with no hawkers…for now). There’s a funky little bamboo-and-thatch bar for drinks and snacks. Next door a hip hotel, Villa Louise, was nearing completion when we passed by, which will have wonderful villas (around US$150 per night), 16 rooms (from US$60), two pools and a spa.
Around 8km past Beach Bar Hue, the remains of Phu Dien, a small Cham temple, lie in a hollow in the sand just off the beach. Protected by a glass greenhouse-style structure it’s an unexpected find. You’ll find a few seafood shacks here, too.
Continuing southeast a narrow but paved road weaves past fishing villages, shrimp farms and giant sand dunes and the settlement of Vinh Hung until you reach the mouth of another river estuary at Thuon Phu An, where there’s a row of seafood restaurants. This spot is 40km from Thuan An. Cross the Tu Hien bridge here and you can continue around the eastern lip of the huge Cau Hai lagoon and link up with Hwy 1.