Emperor Khai Dinh, the second last of the Nguyen emperors that ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 was born in 1885 (his original name was Nguyen Bun Dao) and he was emperor from 1916 to his death in 1925. He was the eldest son of the emperor Dong Khanh (1885-1888), but did not immediately succeed his father as emperor. Emperors Thanh-thai (1889–1907) and Duy Tan (1907–16) came between their two reigns. Khai Dinh’s tomb is located about 10 kilometres south of the central Vietnam city of Hue.
Now, if you’re like me, you’ll have found that biographical information interesting, but…well…a little bit forgettable. It’s not the dates and facts that make for a memorable understanding of history, it’s the colour. And, by all accounts, Emperor Khai Dinh was a figure not lacking in colour.
But before we get to the colour, you need to understand a bit about Hue and the Nguyen Dynasty.
From 1558, the city of Hue was the seat of the powerful Nguyen family – a family of warlords, who, over the next couple of hundred years gained control of much of Southern Vietnam and parts of what is now Cambodia. There was a complicated interlude in the late 1770s, which involved civil war, an overthrow, exiled Nguyens and a Chinese invasion. Then in 1802 Nguyen Anh, aided by French interests, returned to Vietnam, defeated the ruling Tay Son in the North, named himself Emperor Gia Long of the newly established Nguyen dynasty, and declared Hue to be the new national capital.
The Nguyen Dynasty subsequently ruled over Vietnam from Hue until 1945 when the last emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated, following the Vietnamese Nationalist forces’ proclamation of independence. (Bao Dai lived out the remainder of his life in exile in Paris, dying there in 1997.)
Nowadays, people visit the Unesco World Heritage site of Hue to see the temples, palaces, pagodas and tombs that remain from that era of Vietnam’s history. The city’s location mid-way between the north and the south meant that it took a beating during the Vietnam War, with many of the old buildings being destroyed by aerial bombing. A slow, but steady restoration process is underway at places such as the Imperial Citadel.
Anyway, back to Khai Dinh.
Twice, we’ve hired guides to take us on tours of the Imperial Citadel and to the emperors’ mausoleums that dot the countryside south of Hue. On both occasions our guides were extremely knowledgeable about the history of Hue and the Nguyen Dynasty, and told us some fascinating stories. However it was Emperor Khai Dinh who really captured my imagination.
Khai Dinh was a colourful character, who believed that it was in the best interests of the Vietnamese people to work with, rather than against, the French colonial powers. He was the first of the reigning emperors to visit Europe when he attended an expo in Marseille in France in 1922.
Khai Dinh was a fan of new technologies, and thought that Vietnam needed to obtain an understanding of Western culture and cutting-edge knowledge before pushing for independence, so that it could compete in the world arena. His pro-French attitude didn’t always sit well with the people who accused him of betrayal and of being a puppet for the French.
There is one story about Khai Dinh that I particularly love.
Khai Dinh had a reputation as a flamboyant dresser. Apparently, while he was in France, he obtained a set of battery-operated fairy lights. Then, when he returned to Hue, he wore those lights on his person around the palace until the battery ran out – like a walking, talking imperial Christmas tree.
There may be no truth at all in that story…but boy, it makes for a memorable image. And every December when I see fairy lights appearing on homes near us, I am reminded of it.
There is, however, no doubt about Khai Dinh’s love of French architecture and style. It is clearly evident in his mausoleum, which sits on a hillside outside Hue.
The emperors’ mausoleums were constructed during each emperor’s lifetime to their own individual specifications. More like summer palaces than the stone monuments the word ‘tomb’ suggests, each mausoleum is a reflection of the character and tastes of that particular emperor.
Khai Dinh’s stands distinctly apart from the others, with no expanses of gardens or living quarters. Instead, his is a grand European baroque construction incorporating ornamental elements of Vietnamese style. Although Khai Dinh only reigned for nine years, his elaborate tomb took eleven years to build, and the budget blew out by so much, he had to introduce extra taxes to pay for it. I’d imagine that just added to his popularity with the people…
The mausoleum has a spectacular view over the valley of the Perfume River. It’s a steep 130+ step climb to the tomb itself (add that one to the Ultimate Stairmaster Workout).
The exterior of the tomb is covered in concrete which has been blackened by the elements. The interior is a veritable celebration of colourful, high-kitsch. The walls and ceiling are decorated with glass and porcelain mosaics and trompe l’oeil murals of the four seasons.
A life-sized gilded bronze statue of Khai Dinh holding his royal sceptre sits under a canopy on the location where his remains are buried – 18 metres below.
I’m sure he meant the demeanor of his likeness to remind us of his imperial stature…but all I can think of when I look at him is those twinkling fairy lights draped around that body.
There are seven mausoleums scattered across the countryside south of Hue. They can be reached by bicycle, motorbike, taxi or even (some) by boat via the Perfume River. The ‘big three’ included on most visitors’ itineraries are the tombs of the emperors Tu Duc, Minh Mang and Khai Dinh. Each tomb is open from 7am to 5pm each day, and entrance fees apply.
It is worth hiring the services of a good English-speaking guide to accompany you, as it is through the colourful stories they tell that you will gain the best appreciation of what you are seeing. On our last trip, I arranged a driver and guide through the Mandarin Cafe in Hue.
C’mon admit it…who would like to wear a set of fairy lights too?
This post is linked up to:
#SundayTraveler series hosted by Pack me to