The Tomb of Tự Đức is located in a narrow valley in the Duong Xuan village within Hue. Nguyen Emperor Tự Đức reigned the longest of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, for nearly 40 years. He had over a hundred wives and concubines; in spite of this, he was unable to produce an heir (possibly because he became sterile after contracting smallpox).
His epitaph is inscribed on a stele the largest of its type in Vietnam, brought from a quarry over 500 kilometers away. It took four years until the stele was transported to the pavilion. Etched into the stone is the Khiem Cung narrative: composed by the Emperor, a retelling of his life and imperial cause, his misadventures and diseases.
Temple buildings served as a palatial retreat for Tu Duc and his wives, and eventually the tomb’s palace buildings became his place of residence.
Luu Khiem lake greeted us when we entered the temple area. The Emperor used to come here to compose poems, read books, and admire the flowers in the company of his escorts. I can imagine it being far more beautiful in its heyday, instead of the swampy mess of algae blooms and dying trees that we saw.
In the middle of the lake sits a tiny island where the Emperor would hunt small game. The lake is also large enough to boat across, which Tu Duc would often do.
Although the palace and tomb site have a reputation of grandeur and luxury, most of it seems to be in a state of disrepair. Faded lacquer, cracked paint, chipped wood. Barren, quiet, and lonely. Cracked tiles, scratched out inscriptions, and a desolation felt most deeply when the only sound that cuts through the gray, winter air is the mechanical clicks of tourist cameras.
Tu Duc was actually buried in a different, secret location in Hue. Not at the place he spent two decades planning, building, and living in. The 200 laborers who buried him were all beheaded after they returned from the secret route, to protect the true location of Tu Duc.