Story: Phan Thanh Hai
Photos: Nguyen Phong
While the Dong Khanh Mausoleum draws less visitors than some of Hue’s other royal tombs, it is well worth exploring
According to experts on ancient Asian cities, Hue is one of Vietnam’s most unique former royal capitals because its urban planning integrates yin and yang principles. The yang elements consist of the Hue Citadel, the Eastern Court (where the sun rises), and other buildings that hosted the daily activities of the emperors and their courtiers. The yin elements entail mausoleums and temples situated on the west and southwest sides of the city, where the Huong River flows upstream and the sun sets. When visiting Hue, in addition to the citadel and palaces, tourists should explore some royal mausoleums to gain a fuller understanding of this land’s culture and heritage. Many visitors with limited time opt to tour the more famous sites like the mausoleums of Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh. Meanwhile, Dong Khanh Mausoleum is often overlooked, which is a great pity.
Dong Khanh Mausoleum, also known as Tu Lang, is a relatively large-scale mausoleum located within the Tu Duc Mausoleum. It connects to other structures, creating a 220-hectare mausoleum complex. This complex consists of many smaller mausoleums of royal members, such as the Mausoleum of Emperor Dong Khanh, the Thien Thanh Cuc Mausoleum of Prince Kien Thai Vuong (father to Dong Khanh and two other emperors – Kien Phuc and Ham Nghi), the Tu Minh Mausoleum of Empress Phu Thien Thuan (also known as Lady Thanh Cung, wife of Emperor Dong Khanh), Empress Dowager Doan Huy (also known as Lady Tu Cung, mother of Emperor Bao Dai), the Tomb of Prince Canh, and several mausoleums of other members of the royal family. All of these mausoleums were built in different years over a long timespan.
The Kien Thai Vuong Mausoleum was originally the only structure in this complex. After ascending to the throne in 1886, Emperor Dong Khanh commissioned the construction of Truy Tu Temple, about 100 meters southeast of here, to worship his father. The construction was still underway when Emperor Dong Khanh passed away at age 25 on January 28, 1889. His successor, Emperor Thanh Thai, changed the name of the temple to Ngung Hy to worship Dong Khanh instead and moved the memorial tablet of Kien Thai Vuong to the Han Vinh Lineage Hall by the An Cuu River. Built in a simple style, the Dong Khanh Mausoleum stood about 100 meters southwest of the temple. This mausoleum was renovated in August 1916 with more modern materials under the command of Emperor Khai Dinh, son of Dong Khanh, followed by subsequent revamps in 1921 and 1923. The 35-year span of construction (1889–1923) left distinctive marks on the architecture of this mausoleum complex.
Similar to other Nguyen emperors’ mausoleums, the Tu Lang Mausoleum consists of two areas: a worship area and a tomb area.
Situated on a low-lying hill, the worship area faces southeast toward Thien An Hill, which lies about three kilometers away. In front of this area is a semi-circular lake, a water element in feng shui to bring good luck and prosperity. The whole worship area is fenced off by a rectangular wall with a height of three meters, a thickness of 0.55 meters, and a perimeter of 262 meters. There are four gates in the middle of each wall. The back gate and two side gates form an arch with a pseudo-tiled roof, while the Cung Mon front gate, a two-story and three-compartment structure, is made of wood. From Cung Mon Gate, 15 steps made of Thanh stone run between two rows of dragon statues, leading to another three steps in the back that descend to the front courtyard of Ngung Hy Temple.
Designed in the architectural style of a “double-roofs, duplex house”, Ngung Hy is the main temple of the worship area. It features three buildings, each comprised of seven compartments and two inter-connected wings, all situated on the same level, forming a roughly square shape that measures 25 meters by 24 meters. There are a total of 100 ironwood columns painted in red and gilded with gold leaves. The main temple houses not only the memorial tablet of Emperor Dong Khanh but also the tablets of two empresses – Thanh Cung and Tien Cung – on both sides. The roof sections at the front, back, and gables are decorated with various reliefs and statues on the ridge, friezes, and hip rafters. Most of these decorative items are made of painted enamels, clay, and mortar.
In front of Ngung Hy Temple are two more structures: Cong Nghia Duong on the left, and Minh An Vien on the right. Both of these buildings have three compartments and two wings that serve as worship places for meritorious officials. Behind the main temple are two more buildings in a similar architectural style: Ta Tong Vien, on the left, and Huu Tong Vien, on the right. They served as residences for the imperial concubines after the emperor passed away.
The tomb area is situated on a high hill, pointing in an east-southeasterly direction and facing Thien Thai Hill. Its architecture is similar to that of previous Nguyen Emperors’ tombs but uses more modern materials, such as cement, iron, and steel. The area is surrounded by three rings of walls built from square bricks. All three walls have a front entrance gate. Behind the outermost gate is a decorative slab with tiger tally patterns and the word “longevity”. The tomb is made of Thanh stone in the form of a roofed house that is 4.2 meters long and 2.6 meters wide. The ridge is decorated with statues of dragons and bats, while the word “longevity” adorns the front gable.
In front of the tomb is a three-level, checkered yard made of Bat Trang tiles. This yard was used for offering ceremonies. In the middle of the yard lies a quadrangle, pavilion-like structure built of brick with pseudo roof tiles that houses the Thanh Duc Than Cong stele. The stele is three meters tall, 1.45 meters wide, and 0.16 meters thick. It rests on a platform, which, like the stele, is made of Thanh stone. The stele is inscribed with a verse written by Emperor Khai Dinh in 1916 to commemorate his father. On both sides of the pavilion are two obelisks made of brick and plastered with cement.
The yard in front of the pavilion is called Bai Dinh (meaning a salute to the stele). It is also built from Bat Trang tiles. The Nghi Mon Gate, a three-arched entrance gate with cylindrical columns, provides access to the whole area. On each side of Bai Dinh Yard is a row of six statues depicting civil and military courtiers as well as horses and elephants. Unlike in the mausoleums of previous Nguyen Emperors, the statues in this tomb area are made of brick and mortar, with relatively slim figures. All of the statues are placed on a square brick platform.
While the Tu Lang Mausoleum is less popular than some others, it offers unique charms. This complex’s most distinctive feature is Ngung Hy Temple, a triplet-styled building with diverse and original characteristics of both Vietnamese royal and folk architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Tu Lang Mausoleum not only highlights the influences of modern architecture on traditional Vietnamese architecture but also marks the beginning of a period when these two styles both clashed and reconciled. Visiting this mausoleum complex, most tourists can’t help but feel nostalgic as they’re taken aback by its simple yet sophisticated and romantic beauty.