Visiting the Tombs along the Perfume River
The many mausoleums, including the tomb of King Thieu, and pagodas that lie dotted throughout the countryside along the Perfume River south of Hue should be high on the visit list for anyone visiting the city. Some of the imperial tombs have almost been restored to their former grandeur, while others are still left to crumble and some are in severe disrepair. Most tourists explore the mausoleums of the former Nguyen dynasty by tour groups or take the dragon tourist boats from the centre of Hue. We discovered that some of the most atmospheric and charming tombs (we recommend Gia Long) are almost never seen by foreigners and are best traversed independently by bike or with your own driver.
Exploring by bike
Our ambitious plan to tour the sites of the tombs would take us on a circular course of about 20 km through the surrounding rural areas by bicycle. Starting out from the Pilgrimage Hotel, shortly after breakfast, with a rucksack full of drinks and a few snacks, we rode towards our first stop, the Tomb of King Thieu Tri.
Duc Son Pagoda
Turning off the main road we accidently stumbled onto the Buddhist temple at Duc Son Pagoda, where a group of nuns and their visitors just finished a prayer session. There was a covered swimming pool integrated into the complex and a playground out front. The excited chatter of children could be heard and I later found out that the nuns look after orphaned children.
The Beautiful Gardens
A statue towered over the small garden with its pretty lily pond and the walls were covered in murals of mountains and cranes. An old lady approached us and showed us into the prayer room, we guessed that she wanted a donation for the temple (and kids) and we happily obliged.
The Tomb of King Thieu Tri
From Duc Son Pagoda we took a narrow path to the Tomb of King Thieu Tri, or at least what we assumed was the main tomb. We parked our bikes at the entrance of the crumbling site, surprised that there was no one around to take our tickets (the tomb is part of the combination ticket we had purchased at the Imperia Enclosure) or charge us for parking. The tomb was laid out like most other tombs we would encounter during our stay in Hue.
Layout and Elements of the Tombs
Each mausoleum usually consisted of five elements all planned by the emperors during their lifetimes. Some were even used as residences while they were still alive with the plan to become a final resting place. The best example of this is the Tomb of Tu Duc, which we would actually visit on the next day. The first element 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 element 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. However, we found that some of the temples although having most of the elements, were arranged in a variety of orders.
Stepping into the Tomb’s Complex
At this first tomb we stepped straight into the honour courtyard and assumed that the first three parts had disappeared in the war, except that we were actually approaching the tomb from the backside! The floor tiles were largely damaged and uneven, the walls and stone bannisters crumbled. In contrast, the elephants, horses and soldiers were still largely undamaged. The roof of the structure that enclosed a large stela was held largely supported by additional posts and looked like it had seen better times, like the rest of the complex.
The Lotus Pond
Down the steps we crossed a platform with a view of the bridge across a pond and further steps ahead. Instead of climbing the steps to the temple of worship, we strolled along the lotus pond that surrounded the temple area like a moat. In between the pink lotus blossoms we spotted a sunken wooden boat.
Meeting the Locals
Once back at our bikes, we spotted a group of locals that had gathered for a picnic or early lunch break. They watched us unlock our bikes and then returned their interest in a fisherman out on a similar wooden boat to the sunken one, trying for a catch with a net in hand.
The Main Entrance to Thieu Tri Tomb
Afterwards we realised, that we had taken the wrong route through the temple complex of Thieu Tri Tomb. We had reached the site from the wrong entrance (the local back door so to speak), making our little detour via the side road and past the Buddhist temple. However we left the Thieu Tri Temple along the main entrance and were surprised when a guard asked us for our tickets upon leaving and passing his little hut. Putting one and one together we were suddenly aware that we must have seen only about half of the Thieu Tri Tomb but were too flabbergasted to turn around and see the rest which was to the right behind his hut.
Cycling on Towards the Tomb of Minh Mang
Our hunt for the next tomb commenced and we cycled on towards the majestic tomb of Minh Mang, a few kilometres further up the Perfume River. Read all about this stunning mausoleum and its colourful buildings, quite a stark contrast to Thieu Tri Tombs, in the following post.
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