Historic tombs buried in an urban jungle

(No.3, Vol.3, Apr 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Located in the centre of Hanoi, the stone mausoleum of Viceroy Hoang Cao Khai has been almost lost, despite its official recognition as a national heritage site fifty years ago and the exquisite beauty of its stone architecture. The imperilled tomb is a fitting tribute to a man whose sins and virtues are still debated by people to this day.
After a long struggle to locate it, I finally found the mausoleum hidden away in an alley at 252 Tay Son Street, Dong Da District. Squeezing through a crowded market, I saw an iron gate. Several dozen motorcycles were parked in the courtyard. An elderly woman selling tea at the gate confirmed, ‘This is, indeed, a stone mausoleum, but I don’t know to whom it belongs. The courtyard has been used to park vehicles for some time now. If you want to go into the mausoleum, you’ll have to look for Mr Nam, the head of the security team of Residence quarter 9, to get the keys.’
A sign reading ‘Quarter 9 People’s Patrol Headquarters’ of the Trung Liet Precinct Police hung in front of the mausoleum. As he opened the door into the mausoleum, Mr Nam explained, ‘If we didn’t set up a people’s security patrol headquarters here, then this stone mausoleum would have already been ruined or people would have occupied it already.’ Brick walls tightly concealed the space around the mausoleum.
Mr Nam said that, previously, the mausoleum had several stone statues and that the stone elephants at the front were quite majestic. However, now only three statues remain. Each of the statues’ heads are chipped, their ears cracked, and their feet almost completely buried, since the courtyard foundation has been elevated many times.
The tomb of Mr Hoang Cao Khai, located on the left, and that of his his wife, Pham Thi To, on the right, were covered by a wooden board. Mr Le Quang Tinh, who is 74 years old and has lived in a home behind the mausoleum for several decades, lamented, ‘People condemn Hoang Cao Khai. I won’t discuss that old story, but to neglect the beauty of this mausoleum is truly not right. It is the labours and fruits of the working people, the stonemasons who built it. That is why it holds cultural value that should be respected and preserved.”
Hoang Cao Khai (1850-1933) hailed from Ha Tinh Province. He was a man of letters, a historian, and a great official under the reign of Emperor Thanh Thai. While the French ruled Vietnam, he was their trusted servant. It is because of this that people consider him a ‘sinner’.

Mr Tinh said that many people who have lived around there for a long time don’t realize that the mausoleum was listed as a national heritage site in 1962.
To the right of Hoang Cao Khai’s tomb is another stone mausoleum of equal grandeur– the mausoleum of Hoang Trong Phu (the son of Hoang Cao Khai). Today, it has been transformed into a residence for locals. In the front, sits a pork butcher’s stall. A man who lives there said, ‘How could there actually be a tomb here? If there really was a tomb, then we wouldn’t dare live here.’ However, when I went inside, I immediately saw a large tomb in the middle of a room that now has been fashioned into a bedroom.
The tomb was enshrouded in a cloth. The worship space was also blocked off by a thin wooden door. I had to squeeze my camera through a hole in order to take photographs of the ancient stele and the stone altar space inside. Now, it is a bedroom with a bed and furniture piled full of personal belongings.
The assemblage of Hoang Cao Khai’s mausoleum was originally as capacious as 17 hectares and it enclosed 14 large and small architectural structures, such as the tombs of Hoang Cao Khai and Hoang Trong Phu, Nghinh Phong Hill, Tam Nguyen Lake, and the shrine to the Hoang clan. The stone mausoleum was built in 1893. Vietnamese historians rank it as the country’s second grandest example of stone workmanship, just after the Citadel of the Ho Dynasty (a World Heritage Site in the central province of Thanh Hoa).
Hoang Cao Khai’s tomb is eight metres long and six metres high. Its entire structure is made of intricately carved white marble.
The principle patterns carved into the stone are lotus, pine leaves, and the characteristic dragon head of the Nguyen era. Although the pair of stone dragons seated at the tomb’s front door has already been damaged in many places, it still retains the majestic beauty of a work of art that is quite rare in the land of the capital.
The mausoleum of Hoang Trong Phu was built after that of his father and is grander in scale. A full cross-section of the mausoleum is 15 metres long and is divided into many small sections. Outside is a stone chamber with a hexagonal roof and intricate designs. It is seven metres from the structure’s foundation. Because it has long since been occupied and transformed into a living space, the green of the stone has turned to black from coal and firewood smoke. On November 25, 1945, in a decree to protect heritage sites and ancient artefacts, president Ho Chi Minh advocated keeping the original condition of Thai Ha hamlet intact, including the Hoang Cao Khai family mausoleum.
In a resolution to list it as a heritage site on April 28, 1962, the Ministry of Culture and Information (now the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism) assessed, ‘This is the singular veritable vestige in our country of an assemblage of a viceroy’s tomb and mansion.’
‘Hoang Cao Khai and his past deeds may have suffered the deprecation of the world, but the aesthetics embodied in this stone mausoleum represent the art of the people. We must clearly delineate this distinction,’ said professor Tran Lam Bien.
   *The article was published on Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan of May, 2012.

Photos: At Hoang Cao Khai Mausoleum in Hanoi, April 2012. Photos: Nguyen Cong Khanh

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