Welcome back to Vietnam.
William finally reaches his destination, the tomb of Gia Long.
Unlike the tourist-oriented tombs near to Hue, there was no barrier let alone entrance fee and in fact we seemed to be the only people there as we parked the bike and walked up to the well preserved main ancestral temple with its rich gold and red-painted altars for the worship of the emperor’s soul. Suddenly a caretaker appeared looking sleepy and startled to see anyone in that remote place. Hung translated as the man explained that the site had been under a programme of renovation for years but that lack of funds meant that work was progressing very slowly; he offered to unlock for us the main mausoleum of the emperor and his primary wife, though as Hung explained, it was unlikely that Gia Long had in fact been interred exactly there as the fear of tomb raiders led to some Egyptian-style subterfuge so that the bodies were not usually put into the most visible and obvious place (Gia Long himself had reason to be mindful of this when planning his tomb since he had ordered the remains of his predecessors in the rival dynasty that he supplanted to be dug up and their tombs desecrated).
But whatever the slightly melancholy history hanging over such a monument, it was a truly unforgettable experience to wander alone through the numerous huge structures, some in good order and some now overgrown and dilapidated. The atmosphere was both eerie and fascinating. From the temple we moved to the large ceremonial courtyard beside it, flanked with life-size stone statues of animals and government officials standing mutely like a small version of the terracotta army of Xi'an.
A series of wide stone terraces led up from here to the massive walled quadrangle of the tomb itself and, as the caretaker unlocked the double doors we noted that they and the wall beside them were riddled with bullet holes which he said were from the war in the 1960s and 70s. Once inside a thick wall blocked access to any spirits who would try to enter the tomb in a straight line (spirits apparently cannot turn corners) and behind it were two small houses – the mausoleums themselves - and an altar.
Adjacent to the tomb we found a small pavilion which, judging by the smell of fresh paint, had clearly only just been restored. In its centre was a large stone stele inscribed from top to bottom with Chinese characters apparently extolling the virtues and achievements of Gia Long and composed by his son Minh Mang who would later himself rule as Emperor.
In front of the tomb, across a small lake two giant ruined obelisks jutted into the sky, perfectly reflected in the still waters below; scattered in the surrounding landscape we found ponds, pavilions, gardens, smaller tombs and temples dedicated to others in Gia Long's life such as his second wife. As we wandered around the parkland, butterflies danced around the wild flowers and the air was filled with the scent of the many pine trees shading the paths from the fierce afternoon sun. Altogether a magical place harmoniously combining history, architecture and nature into something of quite ethereal beauty and undoubtedly worth the adventurous journey needed in order to reach it. It’s wonderful to be there; even more to be there In the company of a lustral boy.
Quoc Le Hung: Guide/Companion in South-East Asia
If the adventure below whets your appetite to explore Vietnam (off or on the beaten track), lustral Vietnamese boy Hung offers a full guide/companion service around his country including planning your trip, booking all required accommodation & internal travel and accompanying you at every stage of your journey. He speaks fluent English and good French & Flemish/Dutch; he can also guide you around neighbouring Laos and Cambodia in addition to Vietnam.
Hung is currently spending part of the year in Antwerpen, Belgium. If interested in discussing ideas and possibilities further with him, please email him at email@example.com or call/text on his Belgian phone number: 0032 4 77 72 35 63.
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