Emperor Minh Mang Went Down the River

“Alla fine del gioco, re e pedone finiscono nella stessa scatola.” (When the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.) An Italian proverb

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University

Here are my favorite photos of the Hue Imperial Citadel, Emperors’ Tombs and the streets and markets of Hue, all from my early August travel to the city. Some thoughts follow the photos.

Hue Imperial Citadel – Home and Administrative Center of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945)


Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang



Hue Streets and Markets



While living in their gilded Citadel in Hue, I wonder if the Nguyen Emperors were aware of their own mortality. From time to time, perhaps while being carried around in their palanquins or while enjoying one of their genteel court games, did they stop to think that they would be gone one day? Would they have lived their lives differently if they had?

At the end of their lives, Emperor Minh Mang and all the other Nguyen emperors were floated down the Perfume River and buried in ornate tombs south of the city. And all their wealth and power could do nothing to stop that.

And those merchants intently counting their cash and tallying their books in the third section of photos above? That woman smiling over her case of gold jewelry (my favorite photo of the day)? And those lovely fields of flowers in the Citadel photos? All will be gone one day.

Along with those hard working Japanese salarymen and women who take on average only 7 vacation days a year (and the Americans who take on average only 11). The Vietnamese couple who run a kebab stand for 14 hours a day near my apartment too. And the itinerant shoe shine boys who troll the streets of central Saigon all day long looking for customers. Along with all the phenomenally wealthy and tragically fucked up rockstars. And all the world’s people, who spend an average of 7 hours a day looking at screens (phones, tablets and television).

One day of course everyone and everything will be gone. Including you and I.

How many of us stop to think, “One day I’ll be gone. What do I really want to be doing in life?” I don’t mean to be dramatic but I think it’s really useful to do this from time to time. For me, strolling through the splendid sadness of the Imperial tombs in Hue presented another opportunity. These finely lacquered buildings and ornate grounds are great, I thought, but they did nothing to stop the inevitable. In the end, all those big powerful emperors ended up in big beautiful boxes.

Given that our time is limited, how do we really want to be spending it? What are the things that really matter? How can we spend more time on those?

Do we really need to be spending so much time working and piling up money? Do the gadgets and cars and clothing really need to be upgraded quite so much? Do we really need instant notifications from Facebook (or any other app)? (On their deathbed, does anyone regret not spending more time on Facebook?) Is there any real reason not to travel? Or to put off any important personal goal? One day we’ll be gone so why not go for it while we’re here?

From time to time reminding ourselves that we’ll be gone one day is an excellent way to clarify what’s really important. You don’t even need to walk among the tombs of Hue to do it.


I credit Steve Jobs’ inspiring 2005 commencement address at Stanford University for encouraging me to think this way. Enjoy the full speech below.

I’ve also been influenced by reading the top regrets of the dying. Here is a list of those from mindful.org.

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