Beginning in the early 19th century, much of present-day Vietnam was once again unified after being divided by rivaling feudal lords for centuries. The Nguyen dynasty, the last dynasty in the history of Imperial Vietnam, ruled the country for more than one hundred years, a period of time marked by increasingly assertive French colonial might in the region. The palace in Hue witnessed changing tones of successive emperors toward the European power’s influence, from hostility in the early decades of the Nguyen dynasty’s rule to outright subjugation toward its final years. However, regardless of their different stances, all Nguyen emperors made sure their final resting places around the capital were showered in opulence.
In 1820, Minh Mang, the fourth son of the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, ascended the throne at the age of 29. His 21 years of rule saw the reforms of the government administrative structure as well as of land ownership. Under his reign, wealthy individuals were prevented from acquiring land excessively. However, his policies toward ethnic minority groups and foreign powers were described as hostile and xenophobic. Different peoples living in Imperial Vietnam were increasingly sinicized to create a uniformed national identity. A staunch Confucian himself, he imposed strict values of his beliefs upon non-Vietnamese ethnic groups, claiming it would help them leave their “barbarian” cultures behind.
The emperor was no more sympathetic to foreign powers. Not only was he hostile toward the French for the European nation’s colonial agenda as well as the French missionaries who he believed were spreading a perverted and corrupt religion, but he also turned down an offer from Burma to form an alliance to defeat Siam, their common enemy. An effort by the U.S. President Andrew Jackson to establish relations with Vietnam was also met with a lukewarm response. Minh Mang, it seemed, only focused on restructuring his empire from the inside and did not bother to foster ties beyond his realm.
As a traditionalist, the emperor was very concerned about his descendants. Due to the many wives and children he had, Minh Mang created an imperial succession poem which would determine the surnames of his progeny. Many years later, however, this has led to unexpected confusion for a Vietnamese American blogger who wonders about continuing or ending the tradition.
Long after his death, people – both his descendants as well as modern-day visitors – can still see Minh Mang’s vision for Vietnam from his expansive tomb located at a tranquil setting outside Hue. The layout epitomizes many aspects of Chinese tradition which inspired the emperor, with multiple gates, pavilions and temples guarding the long pathway toward the tomb. Surrounded by a crescent pond, the tomb itself sits on a verdant hill locked away from both the outside world and unwanted visitors, just like how Minh Mang ruled his empire.
Six years after Minh Mang’s death, Tu Duc ascended the throne of Imperial Vietnam. In his relatively long reign, the country continued to witness the oppression of minorities, particularly Catholics. He further ordered Vietnamese Catholic converts to renounce their religion or risk their rights as citizens. Meanwhile, disputes among Confucian scholars over Tu Duc’s legitimacy to rule the empire worsened and rebellions became commonplace, stemmed by dissatisfaction toward the emperor.
In response to Tu Duc’s oppressive policies toward the Catholics as well as exploiting the empire’s fragile unity, the French forced the emperor to cede southern parts of Vietnam, including Saigon, to appease the European power so he could focus on crushing the rebels elsewhere in his dwindling empire. However, amid the emperor’s deteriorating health, the French moved further north and occupied Hanoi. China, seeing this part of Vietnam within its realm of influence, and upon the request of Tu Duc himself, was then involved in an eight-month conflict with the French which ended in victory for the European power. Tu Duc didn’t live long enough to see the aftermath of the conflict, from which France was further emboldened to get deeply involved in Vietnam’s politics. For this reason, Tu Duc is often regarded as Imperial Vietnam’s last independent emperor.
As opposed to Minh Mang’s tomb compound which is spread across a vast landscape in a linear layout, that of Tu Duc’s sits in the middle of a jumble of temples, halls, pavilions and other royal tombs. And unlike that of his predecessor which rests on a hill and is closed from the public, Tu Duc’s tomb – located at the very end of a series of guardian statues and a stele pavilion – is located in a quiet enclosure which is open for everyone to pay a visit.
In 1916, more than three decades after Tu Duc’s death, Vietnam’s penultimate emperor came to power. Khai Dinh, the 12th ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, ascended the throne during a period when the French effectively controlled Vietnam. The son of the ninth emperor who was installed by France, Khai Dinh continued his father’s close collaboration with the colonial power. Although assuming the title emperor, his position was merely ceremonial as important decisions regarding the nation were made by the French.
In the early years of Khai Dinh’s reign, the Confucian examination system was suppressed – a dramatic change from what the early emperors of the Nguyen dynasty imposed. A few years later, the emperor issued a decree, adopting the Romanized Vietnamese alphabet in all written discourse. First developed by a Jesuit Portuguese priest, the new alphabet had been further developed by French missionaries from the 17th century onward. What was used to spread Catholicism among the locals eventually became the country’s official writing system in 1919. Wise people say you reap what you sow. What Minh Mang had done to the ethnic minority groups, uprooting them from their cultures, seemed to come around to the same dynasty almost a century later.
Khai Dinh’s unpopularity for his pro-French policies reached its peak two years prior to his death. He allowed the French to levy higher taxes on the Vietnamese people, partly to fund his own opulent tomb. Perched on a slope to the south of the capital, the imposing compound rests on multiple platforms reached by a flight of stairs. Inside the grandest structure at the very end of the complex is the tomb of Khai Dinh himself, who died of tuberculosis.
Opulence is what many modern-day visitors perceive of these tombs. But exploring them can also teach and remind us about the law of causality, as history repeats itself over and over again. In popular culture, the adage “with great power comes great responsibility” might be a relatively distant memory now as more and more Spider-Man movies come out every other year or so following the success of the 2002 film played by Tobey Maguire. But as history shows, we, humans, need to always be reminded of this wisdom, so when we hold power in our hand, no matter how little, we always think of the consequences for the people who live long after we’re gone.