From a Zen tribute to tombs of ancient emperors, the countryside beyond Huế shares its memories well.
I had the remarkable opportunity in late January to pay homage at the funeral of Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, one of the most ìnfluential spiritual voices of his generation.
I happened to arrive in Vietnam’s ancient imperial capital of Huế on the eve of his death at the age of 95. An outspoken peace activist who once voiced his opposition to the country’s civil war and the American involvement, Nhất Hạnh was banished from his native land in 1966 and was unable to return before 2005. But during his long exile in France, he wrote more than 100 books and became the leading advocate for a practice of mindfulness called “engaged Buddhism.”
Only a few years before his passing, Nhất Hạnh returned to Huế to live quietly in Từ Hiếu Temple, the sanctuary where he spent his young adulthood.
“Birth and death are only notions,” he wrote in his book No Death, No Fear (2002). “They are not real.” When his devoted followers suggested a stupa (a shrine) for his ashes, he suggested a plaque reading: “I am not in here. I am not out there either.”
Từ Hiếu Temple is approached by a winding drive off a suburban street southwest of central Huế, in the Thủy Xuân commune. Low-lying temples and shrines, residences shared by 70 monks, and a tranquil bell tower nestle among rolling hills in a pine forest. Built in 1843 and famed as a meditation center, it was initially supported by eunuchs from the Imperial Citadel; many of their graves are among those in an ancient cemetery beside the complex.
I entered the grounds through a gateway of three doors and walked around a half-moon-shaped pond filled with multi-hued lotus flowers and colorful koi fish. From here, it was a short climb through the woods to the central temple where more worshippers than usual were offering prayers. When I expressed a desire to honor the man known as Thầy, or “Master,” I was directed to a courtyard where monks from other Vietnamese centers were gathering with brethren from Từ Hiếu along with dozens of devotees from the local community.
I was warmly if quietly welcomed: This was a time of inner reflection, not loud celebration. Removing my shoes (of course), I fell into a line with other well-wishers who paraded slowly, hands clasped, before a small photograph of Nhất Hạnh and around his coffin. It was draped in flowers and banners, and watched over by a half-dozen Từ Hiếu monks, their heads bowed in silence and prayer.
Tự Đức or not Tự Đức
Aside from the Từ Hiếu temple, the countryside south of Huế is renowned today for its cluster of imperial tombs, miles from the royal palace. Indeed, together with the Imperial Citadel, the complex is acclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Complex of Huế Monuments.
Tombs remember seven of the 13 the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, which governed an independent Vietnam between 1802 and 1884, then (as figureheads) a French colonial protectorate until 1945. Of these, the most visited, due to their physical condition and relative accessibility, are the tombs of Minh Mạng (ruled 1820-41), Tự Đức (1847-83) and Khải Định (1916-25).
Nearest to both Từ Hiếu and central Huế is the Tomb of Tự Đức. Built in the mid-1860s as a place of Buddhist worship, it also became the emperor’s de facto home (Khiêm Palace) following an 1866 assassination plot. He left the Imperial Palace grounds and settled here with his wives and concubines — all 104 of them.
By all accounts, the 32-acre (12-hectare) grounds were a wonderful place to live. At the heart of the property was 4.2-acre Luu Khiêm Lake, where Tự Đức could go boating or hunt small game on a central islet. Afterward, he could relax lakeside in either of two facing pavilions, and return to the palace or the royal theater across any of three bridges.
But his life was turbulent and sad. A fierce opponent of the growing French presence during his reign, he actively challenged the Catholic missionary presence, which only served to stoke the Europeans’ invasion plans. A youthful bout of smallpox had rendered him impotent, so he was unable to father an heir to the throne. When he died, nephews and an adopted son filled the nominal leadership role as France took control of the country.
It was traditional for a ruler’s son to write an epitaph saluting the deeds of his predecessor’s reigns. Tự Đức was left to write his own self-critical appraisal. The inscription today fills a two-sided stele in a pavilion just east of the emperor’s tomb. The stele is the largest in Vietnam; it took four years to carry the stone from a quarry 500 kilometers (310 miles) distant.
Minh Mạng memorial
Minh Mạng was the second emperor of the Nguyen line, and he ruled in a much more prosperous and tranquil era than Tự Đức. Thus it’s not surprising that this retreat beside the Perfume River, 11 km (7 miles) southwest of the Citadel, is more reflective of its natural setting.
Built between 1840 and 1843 on the lower slopes of Mount Hieu, it was intended as an earthly paradise of flowers and birds, a place speaking to the emperor’s love of art, poetry and philosophy. Around the shore of lotus-perfumed Lake Trung Minh, beneath pine-shaded hills, are pavilions specifically designed for the ruler to read books, contemplate nature, rest with his concubines, fish, feed deer or merely enjoy fresh air.
Today, visitors enter through the Dai Hong Mon gate. Its three entrances and 24 roofs display such ornaments as carp turning into dragons, which roll into clouds. Behind in the salutation court, two lines of carved stone mandarins, elephants and horses offer eternal praise to Minh Mạng and his queen. The stele house shelters the requisite memorial stone inscribed with the emperor’s biography, as written by his successor (Thieu Tri).
The main temple gate is located inside a square wall that symbolizes the earth. Beyond, as the centerpiece of a circular heaven, is Sung An Palace, and beyond it Minh Mạng’s tomb.
Khải Định ruled only during and immediately following the First World War, and the design of his tomb — which blends Vietnamese and European architecture —might be seen as a reflection upon his collaboration with the government of France. Indeed, he was not popular in his own country.
Built between 1920 and 1931 on the steep slope of Chau Chu Mountain, the tomb is smaller but more elaborately designed than others. It requires a moderate amount of stair climbing. The largest dragon sculptures in all of Vietnam support the side walls, and more intricately designed dragons adorn the ceiling of the elaborate palace, which stands before the mausoleum. A dozen stone statues representing bodyguards protect a reinforced-concrete stele. At the rear is the emperor’s grave crowned by a statue of the ruler that was cast, not surprisingly, in France.
Huế’s other four imperial tombs — those of Gia Long (1802-20), Thiệu Trị (1841-47), Dục Đức (1883) and Đồng Khánh (1885-89) — can also be visited by tourists. None is said to be especially remarkable. That of Gia Long, the first of the Nguyen dynasty, has been recently restored but is somewhat more distant. At the Citadel, I paid 530,000 Vietnam dong (about US $23) for a combination ticket that admitted me to all three of the tombs that I visited as well as the Imperial City itself.
One more site that is easily included in a day’s tour of the imperial tombs is the Thiên Mụ pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. An unofficial symbol of Huế, it overlooks the broad and beautiful Perfume River on a low hill, about 5 km (3 miles) west of the Citadel.
Built in 1601, it has been expanded several times over the centuries. Emperor Thiệu Trị, in 1844, built the iconic and octagonal Phước Duyên tower, each of its seven stories dedicated to a different Buddha. Constructed of brick, it is 21m (69 feet) in height. At the foot of the tower is a large marble turtle, a symbol of longevity, and inscriptions of poems written by the intellectual Thiệu Trị. The knell of a massive bell, cast in 1710, is said to be audible from 10 km (6.2 miles) away.