Exploring the Tombs
The tomb of Minh Mang is for many among the finest in the Hue area. It has a serene setting inside a lush forest and the proximity to the Perfume River makes it easily accessible by the tourist dragon boats from the centre of Hue, but keep in mind if you plan the journey with kids that the boat ride takes two hours one way. We had chosen to explore a few of the tombs by bike from our hotel on the outskirts of Hue. Earlier on that day we had visited a Buddhist Temple and the Tomb of Thieu Tri. Having left the mausoleum behind, we first rode along a quiet back road before joining the main road that runs parallel to the Perfume River with scenic views of the calm water and the odd boat floating past.
A Local Village
Just before the main bridge crosses the river we came to a cluster of small houses and huts with street stalls selling their goods, including the ever present sugar cane juice, to the truckers that pass by on their long distance drives on the road that runs from Hanoi all the way to Saigon. There was even a wedding dress shop, although I could not imagine that they would get many customers. In fact we would see these stores all over the country throughout our trip in the weirdest of places.
Crossing the Perfume River
We joined the long distance road briefly, crossing the bridge across the Perfume River, with a few heavy trucks blasting by and shaking the bridge like a hammock. The drivers would blast their horns, more as a “hello” rather than to warn us. Despite them we felt quite safe on the pavement and stopped to enjoy the sweeping views of the river below and the hills in the distance. The river edge was covered in thick bamboo and with traditional wooden boats anchored ashore.
Taking the Wrong Turn
After the bridge we took the wrong turn, which we realised way too late… Approaching another nest of dwellings we stopped to buy some grapefruits of a young mother with her baby boy. The baby seemed rather chirpy and happily smiled with us, his grandma seemed less excited by our custom but did not object to me taking her photo holding the boy. Like many other young children the baby wore no nappies, for us westerners an uncommon sight, but considering the costs of them and the likely income from selling a bit of fruit it is possibly the only way to cope with a boy his age.
A Small Detour
As mentioned, we should have taken the dirt track that runs along the river straight to Minh Mang Tomb, unfortunately we chose the longer detour around the back, following the road the cars and buses would normally take to the mausoleum. This would normally not be a problem. The additional three kilometres could have been fun if part of it would not have been uphill. Every downside has its upside though and once we had pushed our bike up the hill we had a free run downhill until the turn off to Minh Mang Tomb. To our surprise, we were not the only idiots making unnecessary detours in the absolute heat that day, and we were overtaken by another tourist who had made the same mistake.
Time for a Cool Drink
Happy to finally arrive at the grounds of the tomb, we locked our bikes somewhere along the fence to avoid the parking fees, after already being approached several times by strangers telling us there was a back entrance to the tombs. There were a number of coaches in the car park and it looked like they were about to build a new entrance with toilets and another bigger ticket office. We decided that we were in desperate need of a break with a cool drink before exploring the Minh Mang Tombs and took seats in the souvenir shop. The friendly lady was quick to serve us before taking her baby back and breastfeeding her on the bed in the corner. There were other kids running around plus some chicken and dogs. It almost looked like the family lived there under the makeshift corrugated and tarpaulin roof of the shop and cafe. Other members of the family made advances to sell us some of the souvenirs but once we declined they left us alone to enjoy our drinks.
Some History on Minh Mang’s Tomb
The walls that surround the tomb’s complex gave us a taster of the grandeur that we were about to explore. While the walls showed clear signs of time, the peeling paint did not diminish the resplendence it once must have had. Inside the gate we found a spectacular, kidney shaped pond swarming with thousands of goldfish, waiting to be fed by the tourists. King Minh Manh was the second monarch to rule Vietnam in the line of the Nguyen dynasty and the son of Gia Long, whose tomb we would be visiting later on. He built and designed his own tomb during his lifetime. Previously the burial ground consisted of 40 buildings but only 20 still stand. Huge efforts and investments have been made to bring back the former prestige of the site.
The Colourful Pavilions
Stepping into the honour courtyard we were struck by the colours of the stele house in front. It stood in stark contrast to the ruin we had seen at the Tomb of Thieu Tri a few hours before. The bright yellow paint almost hurt in the dazzling sunlight. The roof, beams and walls were intricately painted and dragons adorned the line of the rooftops. We walked up the granite dragon stairs that feature in most tombs and palaces, through the pavilion and on towards the Sung An Temple.
Each pavilion looked like it was only just built and not over a hundred years ago. Especially the red and gold lacquered paint still showed its best side. Everything was kept in the same colour sceme, red, yellow, green, blue and of course gold. The roof was adorned with the signature yin-yang tiles and to Jerome’s joy the courtyards were filled with bonsai trees.
Minh Lau Pavilion
At last we stepped through a rather crumbled gate that looked completely out of place with the rest of the buildings and saw the two-storied Minh Lau pavilion in front of us. The pavilion is positioned between three terraces each representing the three natural powers of the world: earth, water, and heaven. Jerome was sad that the stairs to the second floor were closed off. In fact at none of the two storied pavilions we visited during our entire three weeks in Vietnam we were allowed to climb the steps to the top floor. However the Pavilion of Light was my favourite building of the tomb’s complex, as it still showed the wear and tear of time.
The Emperor’s Crypt
Leaving the structure through the other door we saw the bridge that crosses the crescent shaped lotus pond below, leading to the emperor’s crypt. Only once a year is the gate to the tomb opened, on the day of the emperor’s death.
Planning your Visit with Children
While we really enjoyed our visit of the Minh Mang Mausoleum, the buildings are truly magnificent and the landscaped lakes and canals appealed a lot to our senses, it is a long journey out of town if you are thinking about taking the boat. Two hours each way by dragon boat might be quite tiring and boring for the little ones. If this is a concern for you I do recommend hiring a car with driver or taxi for the day or visiting the impressive tombs of Tu Tuc, which are much closer to the centre of Hue.
Cycling on to the Gia Long Tomb
We returned to the entrance gate and bought more drinks for the onwards bike journey. With hindsight we probably should have had lunch at the street stall but decided to leave it for later, we were sure to find a local eatery in one of the villages. On we went across the river towards Gia Long Tomb, the third in a day…
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