Hue’s reputation as the cultural capital of Vietnam is largely attributed to the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled the country from 1802-1945. The legacy of Vietnam’s last family of emperors is somewhat controversial due to various levels of hypocrisy and poor leadership through their 13 monarchs. One key event which changed the future of Vietnam was the invasion and gradual colonisation of the French empire beginning in the mid to late 19th century. Once the French army had forced the then capital city of Hue into submission, the emperor was continually under threat from in-court fighting and French cultural imperialism. Some emperors were dethroned and exiled when disobeying French rule such as the child king Duy Tan and maverick Thanh Thai. Up to his appointment, no king had been more accommodating to the French empire than emperor Khai Dinh.
Who is Khai Dinh?
Born in 1885 as Nguyễn Phúc Bửu Đảo, Khai Dinh took to the throne in 1917. As his name suggests with its translation of ‘peace and stability’, the 12th emperor offered some continuity to the nation by managing a prosperous 8 years on the throne. This prosperity didn’t extend to Khai Dinh’s own health though as he died of tuberculosis at the age of 40 and was succeeded by the Nguyen dynasty’s final emperor, Bao Dai.
While French colonialists, Chinese traders and small pockets of Vietnamese elites prospered under the rule of Khai Dinh, a continual lack of basic human rights for the majority of the population saw a surge in protests and attempted coups. The emperor was always complicit to the policies created by the French colonialists, a large amount which were made in an attempt to pacify growing tensions with nationalist rebels who organised protests and promoted dissent. It was during the reign of Khai Dinh that Vietnam transitioned from a Vietnamese script inspired by classic chinese to a roman alphabet with diacritics.
While political opposition to the emperor and French colonialism was met with heavy repression, Khai Dinh continued to receive criticism from Vietnamese at home and abroad. Confucian revolutionary Phan Boi Chau and Ho Chi Minh (who published under the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc at the time) both wrote papers damning the incompetent emperor and his betrayal of Vietnam in exchange for personal privileges from the French.
The History and Architecture of the Khai Dinh Tomb
The Khai Dinh tomb is one of the more popular tombs in Hue, although it would seem a lot of tourists go to visit without really understanding why they do. Like most other Nguyen tombs, the Khai Dinh mausoleum is out of the city’s reach and on top of Chau Chu mountain, around 12 km from Hue centre. Its positioned carefully in accordance to the practice of Feng Shui. Although construction started in 1920, The building of his tomb outstretched his life and wasn’t completed until 6 years after his death. As Bao Dai abdicated and was buried in France., the Khai Dinh tomb was the last royal tomb to be built in Vietnam, aside from those previous emperors whose remains were either excavated and/or repatriated at a later date.
What makes the Khai Dinh tomb so remarkable compared to the other tombs in Hue is how significantly different it is in design. Khai Dinh’s tomb is often referred to as being neo classical in its architectural design due to the various greys of the reinforced concrete, the preference to height over width and its complex roofing structures. The blends of Vietnamese and foreign styles reflect how much of an impact growing foreign influence made on the emperor and Vietnam in the early 20th century.
While it is the most intricate in design, the Khai Dinh tomb is actually the smallest of the Nguyen Dynasty (excluding those buried at a later date). The shape of the Khai Dinh tomb is of an ascending rectangle over 6 floors and compared to his predecessors, he opted to compact the essential parts of the tomb into a small area of land, omitting ponds and large vacant spaces. Another unique feature of the Khai Dinh tombs are the materials used in its construction. Previous tombs were usually constructed with wood, stone and brick but Khai Dinh chose cast iron and reinforced concrete which were popular in Europe and used by the French at the time.
After ascending two sets of stairs to the third platform, you’ll come to a two-storey house made of reinforced concrete flanked either side by statues of guards, elephants and horses. The building contains a stele with an eulogy of Khai Dinh written by his successor Bao Dai. Two opposing obelisks also tower over the two-storey house.
At the end of the complex is the tombs highest point and the emperor’s burial ground named Thien Dinh temple. Inside, visitors will come across a gilded-bronze statue of the emperor, designed and sculpted in France. Underneath the sculpture lies the final resting place of Khai DInh. This brightly lit temple was decorated using numerous materials from abroad. Glass and porcelain came from China and Japan respectively. The slate tiles came from France. Contrastingly, akin to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the marble used throughout the compound comes from Ngu Hanh Son in Danang.
One last detail which often goes amiss on visiting the Thien Dinh temple are the ceiling murals which consists of numerous dragons rollicking amongst the clouds. The mural was designed by Hue artist Phan Van Tanh under the request of the emperor. A similar ceiling mural by the painter can also be found at Dieu De pagoda east of the Citadel. Phan Van Tanh would allegedly paint his murals atop of scaffolding, lying down with his brush between his toes so that he could view his work from a slightly further distance. Upon discovering Phan Van Tanh painting the murals with his feet, the emperor was enraged. It is claimed Khai Dinh would have killed Phan Van Tanh but his sublime skill saved the artist from punishment.
Reflecting on my visit to the Tomb
It is with some embarrassment that this was my third visit to Khai Dinh Tomb but only my first on a much improved understanding of its cultural, historical and architectural significance. I do not doubt that a large proportion of people still visit the tomb without a basic understanding of its importance in Vietnamese history but I hope that reading this has somewhat helped to improve the reader’s appreciation of the place as well as something to soften the steep ticket entry.
On recently learning of the benefits of taking photos at golden hour, I intentionally visited Khai Dinh temple at its final hour of admittance (16:30-17:30) being gently pushed out by the guard ten minutes early as I blasted my camera phone’s metaphorical shutter. As the sun descends orange beyond the valley, the shadows cascade over the marble and accentuate the facial features of the guards and animals that protect the tomb. Why the tomb doesn’t stay open just beyond sunset is also beyond me.
Khai Dinh Tomb and Mausoleum
Open everyday: 7:00-17:30
This article heavily borrows from Exploring Hue by Tim Doling (2018). The publication is filled with so much information of Hue’s cultural heritage sights that it takes several reads to fully consume it. For anyone interested in the history of Hue, it is an essential read and a great point of reference. It is available online at the The Gioi publishers website, Phu Xuan bookstore in Hue as well as numerous bookshops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Tim Doling also has a great blog, check it out here. You can read our interview with Tim upon the publication of Exploring Hue here.
21/02/2020 – The article incorrectly described the previous Vietnamese script as being traditional Chinese script rather than an adaption of classic Chinese.
It was during the reign of Khai Dinh that Vietnam transitioned from a Vietnamese version of the classic chinese script to a roman alphabet with diacritics.