LIFE AND DEATH ON THE PERFUME RIVER

The last eunuch at the court of the last emperor of Vietnam had tiny blue hands, a shrivelled face and a high, fluting voice. He drew me inside the mausoleum, where the great bronze statue of Emperor Khai Dinh sat amidst swarming dragons and porcelain mosaics, and told me about the funeral.

“It was very impressive. The procession ran from the Imperial City to the edge of the European quarter – elephants, funeral biers, musicians, mourners. It took them two days to reach the tomb.” He smiled and his face filled with wrinkles. “I was eight. It was 1925. The day after the funeral my mother took me to the palace, and I began my life in the Forbidden City with the new King, Bao Dai.”

A girl walking in Thien Mu temple, Hue

The trouble with eunuchs is that they bring out one’s worst tabloid instincts. The funeral procession story was mildly interesting, but really I was dying to ask about castration. While he waffled about the porcelain mosaics, I wanted the hot gossip from the harem. The last eunuch kept glancing up at the statue, as if it might be eavesdropping. “The wives were all right”, he whispered. “But the concubines were a handful. They kept going over the wall.”

There is a refinement about Hue, a touch of gentility. It is a city of scholars and poets who wax lyrical about the Perfume River, the lush gardens and the beauty of the local women. For a century and a half, Hue was the royal capital of Vietnam – home to the Nguyen dynasty, who established themselves in the city at the beginning of the 1800s. Ruins of an imperial palace the size of Hyde Park stand at the heart of the city, and seven beautiful royal tombs are scattered along the Perfume River.

The staircase up to the tomb of Tu Duc, Hue

From the quay beneath the hotel, I hired a boat for the day and set off to visit the tombs. A misty oriental rain softened the day. Low sampans ferried women with umbrellas towards the town. A fisherman beneath a lampshade hat sat in the stern of a tiny dugout, still as a statue, drifting downstream, apparently asleep. A young woman scudded past, standing in the stern of her canoe, propelling it with a single, long oar.

The kings of Vietnam spent so much time preparing for their death that it’s no wonder the French ended up running the country. Most of the royal tombs led a double life. Long before the monarch ‘mounted the dragon’s back’ – the euphemism for royal death – the tombs were used as country retreats. A weird but surprisingly common feature of the royal lifestyle was that Vietnamese kings often invited a few hand-picked concubines to spend fun-filled weekends at their tombs. And none was as carefully contrived to exploit the possibilities of the romantic retreat as the tomb of Tu Duc.

Tomb of Tu Duc from above in Hue, Vietnam

The boat dropped me on the bank and I followed a lane between thickets of bamboo and tiny paddy fields the colour of Ireland. Set behind a rambling, moss-covered wall, Tu Duc’s tomb is an exquisite place. Brick paths lead around the shore of a meandering lake. Old dilapidated palaces and crumbling tombs are scattered amongst the pine trees. The harem, overgrown with brambles, smelt of brick dust and damp wood. Beyond the stale rooms of the Hoa Khiem palace was an old theatre, whose only seating was a vast royal box. Tu Duc was something of a couch potato, who spent his evenings watching the oriental prototypes for the modern soap opera: cliff-hanging dramas that ran to 1,000 episodes.

During the days he fished from the pavilions on the lake or went hunting on a tiny island, which his retainers had thoughtfully stocked with tame deer. After a strenuous morning of field sports, the king would retire to the Xung Khiem pavilion – the Palace for Admiring the Moon and Declaiming Poetry – where his concubines would serenade him. Tea arrived, made with dew gathered from lotus leaves. Lunch ran to fifty courses. When he felt a poem coming on, a scribe hurried forward to take it down. (Tu Duc may have been a lousy king, but he was an eager poet.)

In such sylvan and sybaritic surroundings, one might have expected a jolly hedonist; but Tu Duc was not a fun guy. Most of his 4,000 poems could best be described as laments. Admittedly, we are talking about a man who had 104 wives, brothers who wanted him dead, and a country that was falling apart. Perhaps it’s no wonder that he tended to be glum.

Vietnamese girls wearing traditional Ao Dai light floating lanterns on the Perfume River

The tomb itself lies beyond the salutation court, where stone mandarins await instructions from beyond the grave. In the square court, open to the sky and surrounded by cypress trees, stands a simple sarcophagus. Tu Duc, of course, is not inside. He lies beneath the paving stones of the court, hidden somewhere in a vast labyrinth of tunnels. Those foolish enough to agree to be pallbearers were sealed inside with him.

Statues of mandarins in the stele court of the tomb of Tu Duc

Further upriver lies the mausoleum of the greatest of the Nguyen rulers: Minh Mang, Tu Duc’s grandfather. Minh Mang was passionate about architecture and his tomb features some of the finest buildings in Vietnam. Set in a landscaped park of cypress trees and curving lakes, it is a place to linger. In courtyards beneath the frangipani trees, behind lacquer shutters in the cool dark rooms of temples, in pavilions where sparrows flit through fan-shaped windows, one could happily pass hours thinking of nothing, or everything.

I met my eunuch at the Khai Dinh’s mausoleum in the hills beyond. He was the ticket collector at the tomb of the king, whose funeral he had attended eighty years before. The moss-covered statues of the mandarins in the stele court looked like his younger brothers.

Khai Dinh’s tomb is unusual in not containing any living quarters. Understandably he preferred to spend his weekends in Paris, rather than hanging out at his own tomb. His mausoleum is a warning about what happens when French baroque is mixed with oriental kitsch – the tomb looks like a carnival ride. Khai Dinh, a hopelessly vain fellow, had similar taste in clothes. It is rumoured that he once brought back a string of fairy lights from France, which he wore around the imperial palace, twinkling, until the batteries ran out.

“They were great men in great days”, whispered the eunuch.

It seemed that my friend had not been paying attention. Several decades of anti-royalist revolutionary rhetoric had simply gone in one ear and out the other.


untitledStanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.