Hue city was home to the Nguyen Dynasty as the final imperial capital of Vietnam (1802–1945). It boasts many cultural heritage elements, both tangible and intangible. Recent years have witnessed a growing urbanization, making unfavorable impacts on Hue’s ICH safeguarding and promotion.
No comprehensive inventory of the ICH of Hue city had previously been conducted, until a new inventory project started in late 2021. In March 2022, I visited and studied the Tuy Ly residence (Phủ), located on Nguyen Sinh Cung Street, Hue city. This is one of the most salient and complete examples of Nguyen Dynasty residences, having the typical values of buildings of that period. Originally, the Nguyen kings ordered the construction of the Tuy Ly residence so princes and princesses could live independently once they turned 18 years old. It is situated in a dry, high location and is close to the local communities, but also adjacent to the river to offer access to boats as a means of transport.
The traditional architecture of the main gate at Tuy Ly residence © Nguyen Ky Nam
Once the Nguyen Dynasty came to an end in 1945, the residents no longer received entitlements like farmland and money, as their ancestors did. The Tuy Ly residence fell into disrepair through storm damage and natural degradation. Fortunately, the Nguyen community has been donating money and efforts to maintain and conserve the Tuy Ly residence. Specifically, the residence roofs have been retiled recently to avoid leaking.
Among various ICH elements such as music, woodblocks carving, traditional cuisine, festivals, and knowledge, the practice of ancestor worship has played a crucial role in the Nguyen community in Hue city for generations. This imperial custom was inextricably linked to the founder of the Nguyen Dynasty, King Gia Long. Regarding worship, he said: “I want to let you know that I cannot forget my forefathers had already supported me a lot. Therefore, I have been worshipping them for a long time and I consider this practice my fundamental belief.” By maintaining ancestor worship, the Nguyen community show their respect and gratitude to their forefathers. This is consistent with the Vietnamese tradition that, “When someone is born, they become indebted to their ancestors, and the debt can be paid by undertaking specific ancestor worship practices.” In addition, members of the Nguyen family tend to stick with one another, thereby shaping a solid bond for generations. There are some notable characteristics in the worship space, rituals, and ways of transmission.
In terms of worshipping areas, there are two primary spaces: the main house and the sub-house. The main house is designated to worship Tuy Ly’s mother and for Buddhist worship. The sub-house is dedicated to the worship of Tuy Ly and his wife, and to welcome guests. Both spaces are decorated formally and well maintained by the family members. Notably, some portraits, paintings, objects, and poems related to Tuy Ly are also arranged and displayed in this space.
When it comes to the worship rituals, there are special annual occasions such as the birthdays and death days of the worshipped people, on which many family members tend to gather and hold ceremonies. While some people are busy with their working lives, they still manage to return to the family to practice worship rituals at the residence. The main ceremonies are held one day prior to the birthday or death day of the worshipped person. People of all ages attend the worship activities. The younger family members are taught to prepare food, wine, flowers, and other items for the ceremony. They are also given proper training to be part of the ceremony organizing team.
The worshipping spaces for Tuy Ly’s mother © Nguyen Ky Nam
Interviews were conducted with some people with questions about their feelings and experiences. Many agreed that they feel extremely happy while attending worship ceremonies at the Tuy Ly residence. For instance, one woman, aged 45, supposed that: “Worshipping those who died in the Nguyen community is not an obligation, but a way to express my respect to the family ancestors. Therefore, I have been taking part in such events for many years.” Another 21-year-old female student shared that: “By maintaining the worshipping custom, I have been given more luck and strength. Whenever I come across difficulties, I will go to the residence, burn incense, and share my problems with ancestors. I finally find some measures to overcome the problems. I really appreciate it.”
The worship practice in the Tuy Ly residence reflects a fundamental Asian philosophy: through various ways, the living can stay connected with or link to the dead. The relationship between the dead and the living also reveals the mutual trust and reciprocity between ascendants and descendants in the Nguyen community.
The Tuy Ly residence has long been a place where consolidation and togetherness among family members have been celebrated. In summary, the space at the residence has been critical for the Nguyen community to maintain, safeguard, and promote ICH values, particularly the long-established and precious practice of imperial worship in Vietnam. The residence has been made open to public, allowing elements of this custom to be introduced and promoted to a large number of Vietnamese and foreign visitors.