A long time ago in a kingdom not too far away, the first emperor of Vietnam finally established his dynasty after more than 300 years of feudal and clan civil wars that ravaged and eventually unified the Vietnam peninsula. Like the stories of many empires, the struggle of the Nguyen lords was an underdog legend that underscored credence and perseverance.
Moving back south from Hanoi to establish a more direct rule, the first and most grandest of palaces in the whole of Vietnam empire was to become known as the great Purple Forbidden City and to be seated in the most strategic location befitting mystique, myths, and rhapsodising poetry; the city of Hue.
Impoverished by the prolonged civil wars, the people of Hue were taxed heavily to fund the construction of the imperial palace and the complex engineering feat of the man-made island citadel. The Purple Forbidden City was modelled after Beijing’s Forbidden City, only smaller due to budget constraints and yet differing in themes and belief systems. If you’re curious of the purple idea, please see my other blog – Secrets of the Lost City of Hue.
With massive cultural and monarchism references from China and its imperial rule, the Vietnamese kings of the Nguyen dynasty began living an extravagant and exuberant lifestyle befitting an emperor. To show power and legacy, each emperor would do something much bigger or more significant than its predecessor or maybe at least try to. It soon came to mind that an emperor shall also enjoy a lavish passing with a lasting memoriam of themselves to be forever worshipped until eternity.
The Vietnamese kings of late started building lavish tombs for themselves with royal edicts passed down to ensure that their tombs shall be protected, up-kept and worshipped by all subjects for all eternity. It was to be the last awe of power and influence any king could exact upon historians and generations of people that follow after. The tombs were more grand than the place of the living and took even longer to build due to the complexities and costs.
Gia Long, the first emperor built his first royal tomb for his first wife. But soon after, he passed on and was buried together with her. The tomb was then renamed to ‘The Great Gia Long Tomb’. His son, Minh Mang succeeded the throne with much objection from his father’s most prominent and faithful general, Van Duyet, who was lobbying for Gia Long’s Catholic grandson instead. Minh Mang took in hundreds of concubines and forcefully restricted all forms of religions and ethnicity. According to some local historians, Minh Mang even invaded and annexed the kingdom of Champa, forcing Muslims to eat pork and Hindus to eat beef as part of his assimilation program and renamed Vietnam as Dai Viet.
To enforce his ultimate rule and power as well as exact his revenge over the rebellious southern states under Van Duyet’s influence, he posthumously punished and desecrated the tomb of Van Duyet by lashing his grave 100 times. Minh Mang conducted Viet-facism, ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and coercive integration of citizens into Vietnamese and enforced an occult form of Confucianism and mass genocide for those of different religions. To make things worse, Minh Mang envisioned his tomb to be even larger and greater than his father’s and taxed the locals even more for the cost of construction. But in spite of all his ruthlessness, he managed to rebuke western European colonisation attempts and remained the longest ruling Emperor of an uncolonised Asian nation called Dai Viet (aka Vietnam).
Ironically, Minh Mang feared that his own tomb would be desecrated by his enemies upon his death and hence he hired loyal guards to protect his tomb and bury his body somewhere else in secret for fear of plunder and looting. Even until today, no one knows where his actual remains are. The Minh Mang tomb as seen today is massive with curtain walls covering a massive crescent lake that embodies the king’s burial mound within a traditional Confucius-styled circular shaped wall. The topology of the landscape, as seen from afar, was to resemble that of a man sleeping on his side with a head pillow. Completed by Minh Mang’s son, Thieu Tri, Minh Mang’s tomb was a perfect blend with harmony and nature with the benevolent Perfume River bringing tranquility between the living and the spirit realm.
Minh Mang’s undoing cursed the Nguyen dynasty further with the French becoming even more aggressive to protect the Catholic churches in Vietnam. Moreover, the power squabbles and cheating amongst the Nguyen monarchy, the suffering of the people, the sway to riches by the leadership and stewardship of the late kings by the early 20th century led to the rapid decline of the dynasty. In fact, there were no more great tombs or mausoleums after Minh Mang. There were also no other kings who lived and ruled the throne as long as him. Minh Mang’s refusal to purchase adequate weaponry from powerful European and American counterparts in his time had left Vietnam powerless and easily defeated by the renewed French who returned after the Napoleonic wars in Europe. And for that, Cochin-china was ceded.
The later kings of the Nguyen dynasty became more and more absorbed and indulged by the French colonists leaving the people to suffer under the colonial rule. When World War I broke out, the people of Vietnam were forced to supply manpower and food to their French colonists. King Khai Dinh was so obssessed with French renaissance art that he had his tomb lavishly built with French architecture, mural paintings and embedded coloured glass mosaics within its halls, making his tomb the most beautiful compared to his predecessors. A tennis court was even added to the purple forbidden palace grounds. These actions made the people suffer even more and detest the imperial monarchy further.
When World War II broke out and France surrendered to the Axis powers, the French ceded its far east territories to Japan, including Vietnam. The Japanese reinstated the Vietnamese empire with King Bao Dai as their puppet king and kept it as a vassal state to the Japanese empire. Again, the people suffered greatly from the atrocities of the Japanese and the king gained everything. As soon as the Japanese retreated at the end of World War II, the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh began campaigning against the imperialist rule and in August 1945, they unceremoniously abdicated the last emperor of Vietnam.
Immediately, the purple forbidden city fell into disuse and the guards at the kings’ tombs were relieved of their duties. Most of the late emperor’s treasures within were moved to the museum but it wasn’t long before the start of the new reunification war of the republic of Vietnam that destroyed most of the relics of these forgotten kings of Vietnam. Bombed, shot-at, and singed by fire from both factions even at the end of the Vietnam War, Hue, the lost city of kings, was in total disrepair alongside with all the remnants of imperialist buildings that was to be nothing more than symbolic relics of imperialist oppression for the new socialist republic of Vietnam.
For many years, these structures lay ruined and dilapidated until recently when some of these sites were finally listed in the UNESCO world heritage site listings that they became worthy for tourist dollars. Although much restoration work is underway, much is left to be desired or be reminded of the former monarchy by the locals.
Next Read: Secrets Of The Lost City Of Hue
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