Khai Dinh Tomb

Vietnam’s 12th Nguyen Emperor broke from many of the traditions set in stone by his predecessors’ tombs. Instead of separating his crypt and temple, Khai Dinh housed both in Thien Dinh Palace — a single structure built into the side of a steep hill on the outskirts of Hue. The overall area of the tomb occupies a much smaller parcel of land than many of the other tombs, but it is easily the most opulent and flamboyant.

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Weathered by time and the elements, Thien Dinh Palace appears to be a deep gray, but it originally was a stark white. A series of stairs guarded by dragons leads visitors up to the imperial audience courtyard. Here statues of soldiers and mandarins, some seated on horses or elephants, symbolically await an audience with the Emperor. The outside of the palace is elaborately decorated with a curious mix of Eastern and Western motifs: Chinese lettering, teapots, paintbrushes, and face mirrors. As ornate as the exterior is, it’s nothing compared with what’s inside.

It’s no surprise it took 11 years and a 30 percent increase in taxes to build Emperor Khai Dinh’s mausoleum. The halls are covered many times over in intricate mosaics. Some of the materials had to be imported from France and China. Every surface glimmers with bits of precious stone, painted ceramic, and enamel plates. On the ceilings, three of the largest murals in Vietnam depict nine dragons hiding in a cloudy sky. The Emperor’s own tomb is richly decorated, back-dropped by a setting sun, and crowned with a bronze statue of the young king himself.