As Vietnam’s former Royal Capital, be prepared for grand (ruined) cites that used to be the home to the Nguyen dynasty and their even grander tombs! Lying approximately in the middle of the country, Hue was in a precarious position during the war as it lay on the border between the North and South. It suffered much damage from both sides but the decadence of bygone years is easily imagined as you explore this history rich region.
Where we stayed
Valentine Hotel – Spacious Rooms, Good Location
Having booked online we were advised that the hotel would pick us up from the train station, and we gave our arrive time to confirm. Unfortunately they forgot, but luckily for us a taxi driver waiting at the station listened to our problem, called the hotel after 10mins of waiting and explained he would take us and the hotel would pay him and put me on the phone to the hotel to confirm.
On arrival we were greeted with a welcome drink and despite it being 9am (we had arrived via overnight train from Hanoi) were allowed to check into our room. We booked a double with air con and so being given a triple meant we had a massive room with plenty of space, a very large bathroom by Asian standards, ac & fan and fridge. The wifi router was directly outside our first floor room and we had great access the whole time we were there.
For breakfast (included in our rate) was ordered the night before and you could pick from omelettes (with different fillings: ham, mushroom etc) fried eggs, or beef noodles and was served with bread and a choice of tea, coffee or small bottle of mineral water.
They also offer a laundry service for 30,000 vnd per kilo and was quick, but we did need to rehang our stuff in our bathroom to dry it fully (but this seems to be normal practice everywhere we have had washing done)
As we left the hotel to explore the area the staff gave us a local map and pointed out not only ‘sights’ and routes to them but also where there was a huge supermarket (about 1km away) that sold anything you could ever think of over two huge floors allowing us to buy supplies at very cheap prices.
The hotel is located about 5 mins from the main block of restaurants, tour offices and bars, 10-15 mins from the perfume river, bridge and night market and 30 mins from the Imperial City.
We found the in house tour desk service to be very expensive compared to other outlets and shopped around before going with a different agency. The staff saw us leave knowing we had not booked with them but we didn’t feel any hostility.
Where We Ate
As with the rest of Vietnam, small cafe’s are the way to go. There is lots of choice and I wouldn’t recommend anywhere in particular – but I do recommend two of my favourite dishes: Bun Bo Hue (often just Bun Bo locally) – the central Vietnamese take on the ever popular pho, it is a rice noodle soup with beef, pork and the delicate aroma of lemongrass which is spicy, sweet, sour and salty at all the same time. (The difference between pho and bun bo is use of cylindrical rice noodles as opposed to flat ones); and Crispy Banh Kho – a pan fried crepe stuffed with pork and shirmp – perfect for any meal of the day!
What we Did
Hue Imperial City (Citadel) – Great Way to Witness a Past Civilisation
At 80,000 vnd entrance I was a little bit taken aback (especially as the price for Vietnamese was 55,000 vnd) but hadn’t realised that all the main historical sites are housed within the city walls.
There didn’t seem to be any detailed maps available or even on sale and we were thankful we had downloaded a few free apps which contained not only a decent map but information about the various sites, temples and ruins contained within the imperial city walls and the forbidden purple city within. (City Walks and then download Hue guide)
In the building directly behind the entrance (The Palace of Supreme Harmony) there are two LCD tvs in the back portion of the palace. These show the construction of the arena and reasons for the emperors conducting fights between elephants and tigers on one screen and on the second, a digitised reconstruction of the whole citadel as it used to be. This was a great short film to watch as gave you an overview not only of how big the site was but where the buildings actually stood and their purpose.
Some parts of the site are well cared for, with the best maintained buildings found in the front left quater of the site; however I would recommend an anti-clockwise loop through mostly ruins, ending your tour in the well maintained section which houses the 9 Dynastic Urns.
It’s true that there is a lot of work to be done to restore the entire site, but it is really worth a few hours of your time now and a little bit of imagination to bring an old civilisation back to life.
Nine Dynastic Urns – A must see in the Imperial City
No way to get a clear picture of all nine together due to (very pretty) bonsai trees obscuring the view and I would have preferred more information about them near to the site.
There were multiple Vietnamese people at the site whilst we were there who didn’t seem to give the urns the respect they deserved, but maybe that was just me thinking there was/should be more to them than purely decorative.
A must see once inside the Citadel.
Forbidden Purple City – Interesting & Still a Sense of the Forbidden
As you walk through the archway, and although most of the walls now stand in ruins, you still get a sense of the ‘forbidden’ old city that very few were allowed to enter.
Inside the walls is mostly ruins and so watching the digital reconstruction in the Palace before entering really helps you to visualise what it used to be like.
The Flag Tower – Tallest in Vietnam
The flag looks very impressive when blown out full in the wind and makes for a great back drop to photos any where around the citadel: you can get a great shot from the welcome pavilion with Phu Van Lau in the foreground, and once in the citadel don’t forget to turn around outside the Palace of Supreme Harmony to get a shot of the Noon Gate (main gate) with the flag towering above
Firstly – it is much cheaper to book a group tour with one of the many tour/travel agencies once in Hue. I checked on various tour sites prior to our arrival and what they wanted to charge was absolutely extortionate. (Up to $90 USD!!) Second – I wouldn’t recommend booking a private tour with the multiple dragon boat drivers who are offering you the whole boat on the banks of the river. They will be very pushy and from talking to other travellers, its slow cruise to nowhere. To get the most out of the day both on an off the river, I recommend a tour combining a dragon boat, Thien Mu Pagoda, Lunch and a couple of the tombs. The two of us paid 320,000 VND (approx 10 GBP or 18 AUD) an 8 hour tour on a double headed dragon boat which transferred to a coach to visit the tombs including lunch and were in a group of 18. We had ample times at all the sights (summaries below) and a very stress free day going from site to site.
Thien Mu Pagoda – Lovely Pagoda
The views up to the Pagoda from the river were stunning and it was just as beautiful walking up the steps and to the Pagoda itself.
The grounds were well kept and stretched back to a smaller pagoda behind a few temple buildings. Whilst we were there we were lucky enough to see the monks chanting before their lunch, which was a little bit surreal but gave a great sneak peak into the daily rituals of monks.
Within the pagoda grounds is also the car which transported a famous Vietnamese monk who on arriving in Saigon set himself alight in protest. A true relic of the struggle the Vietnamese people have faced over the years.
A peaceful Pagoda on the banks of the Perfume River
tomb of Minh Mang- Tranquil Overindulgence
It is set in quite a large area in a valley with a giant pond covered in water lillies and surrounded by pine trees.
Although built in the 1860s it still has that ‘lived in’ feel not present in the other tombs whose sole purpose were as mausoleums to their residents and homes to former employees.
Granted, possibly the most over indulgent way of spending a small fortune, on not only your future burial site but sanctuary away from the already exclusive Forbidden Purple City inside the Imperial Citadel; the site is one of beauty and worth spending some time soaking in the tranquility. You can see how Tu Duc would have enjoyed spending time there.
Tomb of Tu Duc
We visited as part of a day tour (by boat & bus) and really benefitted from the tour guide. He had a wealth of information about the site and the dynasties and through his explanations brought the site to life (as much as you can a ornamental grave site!)
The site is one of the largest, built over different levels including well tended gardens and lakes making for a very tranquil setting.
There are also information plaques next to most of the buildings or ruins of buildings which tells you what it was and what it was used for. The final plaque describes the 3m high wall which surrounds Minh Mang’s tomb, which is also in an underground complex. You can take a peak through the gates but can only see an overgrown hill. Apparently the gates are opened once a year on the anniversary of his death, but be prepared for crowds on this day.
A lovely place to wander through and experience the deference felt and monuments built for past emperors (entry fee 80,000 vnd for foreigners, 55,000 vnd for Vietnamese)