Since Wednesday I have been juggling a medley of seeing the sights of Huế, completing a term paper on economic development, and beginning to design my independent research project. Though it may seem like a full plate, I actually finished both assignment early and had extra time to explore the city and do some souvenir shopping.
Huế was the captial of Việt Nam from 1802 – 1945 under the rule of the Nguyễn Dynasty. And no, not all of your Vietnamese friends with Nguyễn family names are related to this royal family. Though, sometimes I like to pretend that I am somehow related to the Lê dynasty. Interestingly, the Nguyễn family name became popular because people would claim the family name in order to protect themselves from persecution. Emperor Gia Long, the first king also ordered certain families to change their names especially if their family names were of his rivals. Here are some interesting facts about each of the Nguyễn Emperors:
13 Facts about the 13 Nguyễn Emperors
1. Gia Long had an 800 elephant troop as a part of his imperial citadel defense.
2. Minh Manh had 500 wives and concubines. He would sleep with 5 of them each night.
3. Thiệu Trị strongly suppressed Christian missionaries in Vietnam. He passed away before his edict to allow persecution of missionaries without trial was passed.
4. Tự Đức was the last king to rule independently, his successors will serve as puppet kings under the French.
5. Dục Đức ruled for three days.
6. Hiep Hoa committed suicide after signing the treaty that made Vietnam a colony of France.
7. Kiến Phúc, an adopted son of Tự Đức was poisoned by his adopted mother.
8. Hàm Nghi had been exiled to Algeria and married an Algerian French lady. In 2002, his daughter refused to allow the Vietnamese government to move her father’s remains from France to Huế.
9. Đồng Khánh is the great-grandfather of the Madame Nhu, the First Lady of Vietnam from 1955-1963.
10. Thành Thái was the first emperor to learn how to drive a car.
11. Duy Tân came to throne at the age of 7.
12. Khải Định means “auger of peace and stability.”
13. Bảo Đại passed away in 1997 in Paris, France where he is also buried. 4 of his 5 children are still alive, all residing in France today.
Thursday, I visited the immense Imperial City surrounded by the Imperial Citadel that Emperor Gia Long began to construct and his son, Minh Mang completed. At the very heart of the city is the “Forbidden Purple City” mirrored after the Chinese’s Forbidden City. Only the emperor and his immediate family were allowed inside the complex. Wives and concubines were rarely allowed to leave. Surrounding the “Forbidden Purple City” were the living quarters of the queen mother, living quarters for the emperor’s children, the emperor’s throne room, the Royal Theater, and several temples devoted to the worship of deceased emperors and empresses. Only 30% of the complexes within the citadel remain intact or restored, the other 70% was lost during the war.
Preservation and restoration efforts are difficult because of lack of funding. There is also a lack of photograph records of the structures, so accurate reconstruction is difficult. The buildings and especially the citadel wall that encompasses the entire Imperial city were quite impressive. I remember visiting this site with my family the summer before I began college. I do not remember being as nearly interested or excited as I was this time around. I guess a few years of maturing and a liberal arts education positively changes one’s perspective about experiences like this.
Saturday morning our group had the rare opportunity to meet with THE “Hue Historian,” Mr. Phan Thuận An. He is actually married to the niece of Emperor Khải Định. He and his wife live at the Temple of Princess Ngoc Son, seriously that’s the address on his business card. It was a cute yellow house with a breathtaking garden in the back. The quarter of the house where we listened to him lecture was where the atlar to the princess and her family was placed. On either side of the altar are many shelves filled to the brim with personal possession of the royal family, like toothpicks (why someone thinks to save those is my question), photographs, history books, and magazines that this home and Mr. Phan are featured in. With every historical article Mr. Phan presented, he was beaming with pride and pure excitement. He fully lives up to his title as the “Hue Historian” which such an extensive collection.
He pointed out the many elements of feng shui that are incorporated into the garden’s design, down to the placement of certain stones and plants. Feng shui was highly incorporated into the design of the Imperial City as well. The City faces the river toward the mountains serving as the “screen” and on either side of the Citadel are two islands serving as the “Blue Dragon” and “White Tiger” protectors of the city.
Today, Nancy and I ventured south of Hue, about a 30 minutes drive from our hotel to check out Minh Mang’s Tomb. It was rumored to be the largest and most beautiful tomb in Hue. Traditionally, when the emperor passes away, his wives and concubines must go and live with his remains. Remember how many wives and concubines he had? (Refer to the facts above). I was anticipating huge building complex with his body lying in the middle and his 500 women locked inside the tomb till their own deaths. Scary. Being a part of the royal family doesn’t seem too appealing now does it?
The tomb is not what I anticipated. (Thank goodness for the sake of his 500 wives and concubines.) It’s actually very spacious with three “gates” leading to his burial altar. His first wife, the empress, is also worshiped at this altar. There were ponds and lots of land to roam around. Nancy and I contemplated what sort of activities his wives and concubines would do to occupy themselves besides worshiping at Minh Mang’s altar every day. And what happened to his 146 kids?
Well, this ends my central Vietnam ventures. Tonight I’m catching a plane to Hanoi!