Located approximately halfway between Hanoi and Hoi An in Vietnam and best known for its Imperial Walled City, no Hue trip would be complete without a visit to at least one of Hue’s Royal tombs.
I spent three nights in Hue as part of my two-week Vietnam trip, and I am so glad I did. Even though Hue was only Vietnam’s capital for a brief spell, from 1802 to 1945, it is full of history. I spent my days exploring Hue Imperial City and its Royal tombs and mausoleums and found them fascinating.
In this Hue guide, you will discover Hue’s famous royal tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and one very special pagoda Thien Mu, situated on the Perfume River.
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How to get to the Royal Tombs
Hue Royal Tombs are primarily located in the west of the city near the Perfume River.
You can visit the Hue tombs by booking a private taxi for the day (your hotel can help you arrange it). The driver will take you from one tomb to the next and wait for you to explore in your own time.
If you are confident on two wheels, you could hire a motorbike and venture out independently.
A boat trip along the Perfume River can be combined with a visit to some of Hue’s top tombs.
If you prefer to take a guided tour of the main Hue tombs and learn about the history that surrounds them, you can book a Hue Royal tomb tour.
Hue Royal Tombs Map
Below is a map of all the mentioned royal tombs for handy reference.
A brief introduction to two of the best tombs in Hue
The Nguyen was the last dynasty in Vietnam and ruled for over 140 years. Hue was its capital.
Even though there were 13 emperors during the Nguyen dynasty, only seven tombs were built. These can all be visited in Hue and vary from simple to ornate structures.
The Royal tombs were all designed in line with Fung Shui principles.
Like the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, Hue’s royal tombs were under construction as soon as a new Emperor was crowned. Some were still being constructed way past death if it had been a short reign.
While called Royal tombs, they are so much more than simple burial chambers. Indeed, the ‘tombs’ visitors head to see in Hue are far from dull and not underground as might be expected. Instead, they are housed in ornate mausoleums, and beautiful grounds fit for an Emperor’s final resting place.
Khai Dinh Tomb
The Royal tomb and mausoleum of Khai Dinh is in the Chau Chu Mountains. It is nestled between scenic pine forests and sugar cane farms. Thien Dinh temple is the main building of the Khai Dinh mauseleum.
In 1916 Emperor Khai Dinh ascended the throne at the age of 31. He built many royal palaces and tombs for himself and his family during his short nine-year reign. He started building his Royal tomb and mausoleum in 1920.
The architecture of Khai Dinh’s tomb is a mix of East and West. Materials from France, China and Japan were used in its construction. It took 11 years to complete and was finished by his son in 1931, six years after Khai Dinh’s death.
Visiting Khai Dinh Royal Tomb
We arrived at Khai Dinh on a swelteringly humid afternoon in April.
There are five terraces before you reach the tomb. Climbing the first 130 stone steps flanked by ornamental dragons, we were on the main terrace. After another set of steps, we were greeted by life-sized statues of warriors, horses and elephants.
After three more flights of stairs, we arrived at Khai Dinh’s mausoleum and tomb. The inside was extremely ornate and colourful compared to the white and grey exterior.
The tomb room is beautiful and decorated with porcelain mosaic, tiles and glass in purple, blue and gold.
At its centre is Khai Dinh’s tomb, with a statue of the King on top of it. The throne he sits upon is gold-plated copper, and an elaborate canopy hangs above the tomb.
The ceiling of the temple is filled with mystical dragon paintings.
Around him are some of his possessions and photographs showing how young this Emperor was. He passed away in 1925, aged 40.
Back outside, the view of the surrounding mountains from the mausoleum courtyard is breathtaking.
Tu Duc Tomb
Emperor Tu Duc ruled Vietnam for 36 years (1847-1883), the longest time of any other Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. He had over 100 wives and concubines but no children after suffering a childhood illness which left him infertile.
Tu Duc instructed his architects to build his tomb 16 years before his death, but he may not even be here. Fear of robbers looting his grave led to his final resting place still being a mystery.
After Tu Duc died, his adopted son became the new Emperor of Vietnam. He only got to rule the country for seven months before being poisoned. With so little time on the throne, no tomb was built for him. Instead, he was buried near one of the Emperor’s favourite wives in a small corner of Tu Duc’s tomb.
The tranquil grounds of Tu Duc’s mausoleum and tomb are lovely to stroll around. The area is delightful and filled with trees, koi carp ponds, and pavilions in an area of scented pine trees.
Tu Duc used to write poetry and spent his time in the gardens composing prose, and once you have visited, you can understand why he loved this space.
Visiting Tu Duc Royal Tomb
Arriving at Tu Duc, we immediately felt it was a different design from that of Khai Dinh.
The grounds of Tu Duc were extensive, with many pagodas.
Beautiful lily-pad ponds, bridges and pagodas filled the area, and secluded shaded seating in the shadows of the huge pine trees was a peaceful reprise from the sun.
Like Khai Dinh, we found stone Mandarin warrior statues standing on guard in Tu Duc’s gardens.
Without a guide, we couldn’t quite locate where the Tu Duc’s tombs were, but we had a pretty good idea they were these ornate structures in the corner of the grounds, embedded with shells.
Thien Mu Pagoda
While not one of the Hue Royal tombs, the Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady) is the city’s oldest religious structure and the official symbol of Hue. It is also a Unesco-protected site.
The first ancient pagoda was built in the 16th century. Its purpose was to worship the legend of a local woman with spiritual connections.
The current seven-storey tower (Phuoc Duyen) was built on the orders of King Thieu Tri between 1844 and 1846 and is considered a must-see on any Hue itinerary.
Visiting Thien Mu Pagoda
Steps led from the river directly to the pastel-coloured seven-storey octagonal tower, the tallest pagoda in Vietnam. Each pagoda floor worships Buddha statues, with a spiral staircase leading to the top. Sadly on our visit, the pagoda was closed to visitors.
On our visit to Thien Mu, we arrived just in time to see one of the Buddhist monks that live on the grounds of Thien Mu arrive by boat. The pagoda used to be a significant place of Buddhism during the Nguyen Dynasty, which is why monks are still there.
After admiring the pagoda, we wandered along the red brick pathway that leads through the manicured gardens. We could hear birdsong and the shrill of cicadas all around us.
We went inside the Dai Hung temple in the garden and saw offerings on the altar. Quite a few statues of deities and Emperors line the courtyards.
We passed a pastel-pink single-story house on the grounds surrounded by bougainvillaea of the same colour. Its roof was ornately tiled and featured ceramic dragons, a familiar sight in Hue.
Strolling around the grounds, we sensed that the monks here liked gardening as we saw a few tending the bonsai trees in the courtyard.
At the end of the garden is a smaller version of Thien Mu, and behind it, you can see the Perfume River.
Five more top Royal Tombs in Hue you must visit
- Minh Mang
- Dong Khanh
- Thieu Tri
- Gia Long
- Duc Duc
I did not visit these tombs; however, if you have the time, adding one or two of them to your Hue Royal tombs itinerary is a good idea.
Last thoughts on visiting the tombs of Hue
While we hired a driver for the day and enjoyed wandering around each location and taking photographs, in hindsight, I would have loved to know more about each tomb and get some local information that can’t be grasped from guidebooks.
With this in mind, I recommend you book a guided tour of the Royal tombs of Hue, so you know what you are looking at.
Also remember to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat and comfortable shoes. The day we visited the tombs, it was unbelievably hot.
Our elderly driver even gave us his fan and bought us water as he thought we looked hot and bothered. He was right; we were overheating in the April sunshine, and we welcomed his kind gesture.
This is an example of how kind and gentle the Vietnamese people can be and why Vietnam is one of my favourite countries.
Where to stay in Hue
Like most Vietnamese cities, there are plenty of places to stay in Hue to suit all budgets.
I stayed outside the city centre in the 5-star Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort and Spa and can say it was fantastic. Comfortable accommodation, beautiful pool and delicious food all set in manicured gardens.
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