Travel guide: the ancient city of Hue Vietnam by Daniel Fraser of Smiling Albino
Hu? is something rare in Vietnam: a well-preserved town with stunning architecture that survived communist city planning. Situated along the beautiful Perfume River in Central Vietnam, Hu? is a must for glimpsing the intricate relics of the imperial dynasty that ruled the country from 1802 – 1945.
The Asian city of Hue is a lovely riverside city nestled within surrounding mountains beneath Vietnam’s great Hai Van Pass, with abundant with canals, fishing communities and traditional artisan workshops, rural wood craftsmen. The city has decent nightlife and a handsome selection of shops, boutiques, restaurants and art galleries. There are dozens of great pagodas and tombs, parks and riverside walks and lovely colonial-era buildings. Hu?’s small size makes getting around (and out of town!) quite easy and rewarding.
Unfortunately, most people only visit the main guidebook highlights of Hue, such as the main Citadel and primary tombs, and leave with only a partial view of the beauty that lies within Hu?. Yet beyond its outstanding tombs and pagodas, there are other hidden gems that should not be overlooked.
Hue’s Imperial Emperors built great tombs as eternal resting places, as heavenly palaces for their bodies and souls to enter the afterlife. Often the tombs reflect the nature or personality of the Emperor himself. Seeing all of them would be time-consuming – and confusing. It’s best to prioritize and visit tombs that provide a contract against the dramatic Tombs of Khai Dinh, built between 1920-1931, and Tu Duc, built between 1864-1867.
The brilliance of Hu?’s architectural variety is seen by merely comparing Khai Dinh’s gothic-like fantasy pavilion with both Vietnamese and Western elements and the serenely Vietnamese heavenly garden palace Tomb of Tu Duc. Two Emperors from different eras whose unique personalities and styles are reflected in their tombs.
Using a motorcycle or bicycle to access these tombs is much more fun than going in a bus or van, and allows you to breathe in the scent of the frangipani along the entrance to Tu Duc’s Tomb, among others.
Bicycles can be found at several roadside shops on backpacker strips such as Pham Ngu Lao Street. A full day for under $10US rental is fair, and you can cover a great deal of ground this way.
The Tomb of famous Emperor Minh Mang is perhaps the most spectacular of all with flowered gardens, lotus ponds, staircases and heavenly pavilions all blending into the natural surroundings.
Minh Mang rule from 1820 – 1840 and his tomb is the largest – and most popular in Hu?. It will be the most crowded and requires a 15-minute commute from town. If time is short, a visit to these two tombs is generally less crowded and equally fulfilling.
Getting out of Hue
One of the nicest things about Hue is the lovely surrounding countryside filled with canal-side villages, rolling hills, small rivers and fishing corners. Take a bike or motorcycle and explore southward between Phu Thu and Vinh Tan villages where you’ll encounter thousands of tombs, memorials to the fallen, and monuments to national heroes.
This region saw thousands of civilians perish during the Vietnam War, and spawned thousands of boat people who fled Central Vietnam in the late 1970s. Some didn’t make it, some never returned and some came back decades later to erect elaborate memorials to their ancestors as a sobering testament to the sacrifices of Hu?’s past.
One particularly lovely setting is the Thanh Toan Village, a small fishing and agricultural town along a canal featuring an impressive covered bridge.
Most motorcycle drivers know this route, and you find it on your own with a map and basic language skills. The flat terrain and quaint village life is ideal for cycling. There is a little village workshop, which shows farming techniques used centuries ago, and in some cases still use, such as traditional fishing and rice farming methods.
Art and a beer stroll
The backpacker ‘hood in Hue is a reasonable place for good shopping and decent art. There is, of course, plenty of tourist fodder, especially the overly abundant lacquered pictures of conical hats and water buffalo, but these items are distinctively Vietnamese, and the artists in Hue have mastered the craft.
There are several decent galleries on Pham Ngu Lao and Doi Cung streets, with a couple of well-known local artists opening fancier galleries featuring higher-end art and some brilliant abstract pieces. Make an evening out of it and pack a beer to go and stroll through the various galleries after the sunsets.
Picnic within the Citadel walls
Most often the Citadel is visited in a blinding one hour tour bus rush, but this can’t do justice to the undeniable charm of the area that lies within. There are several Hue restaurants that can pack a great lunch. La Carambole for example, located at the far end of Pham Ngu Lao St., has sandwiches and easy to pack Vietnamese subs or spring rolls, etc.
Sit under one of the many magnificent trees around the Imperial enclosure and enjoy a mid-afternoon snack, where you’ll see students on bicycles whizzing past, cyclo drivers pedaling a slow rhythm and the fantastic afternoon light along the citadel walls. This is the Hu? that shouldn’t be rushed.
If you hang around the citadel gates long enough you’ll eventually find a friendly local or university student practicing their English, which offers a chance to engage locals without the hard sell found at the doors to the main sights.
I recently stood looking at a concrete bunker next to a great stone citadel gate. An elderly man approached and explained how it was built by the US during the war to prevent nearby Viet Cong troops from entering the citadel. It was interesting primarily because for in the previous 48hrs in Hue I had actually managed to forget that the war actually happened!
This is part of the allure of Hue. It is a magical place lost in time. Savor that charm over a long lunch and a coffee with a view.
Don’t go to Hue without sampling the Huyen Anh Dumpling Restaurant. A hidden little place, partway between the Citadel and Thien Mu pagoda, has the most outstanding Bun Out (rice pancake grilled pork dumplings) and Bun Nuoung (dry noodle soup with bean and peanut sauce) in central Vietnam! Best to visit just before or after lunch. (Huyen Anh Restaurant 52/1 Kim Long, Hu?)
So, while in Hue, of course, you should visit the Citadel, and the well-known pagodas like Thien Mu. But that’s not all! There is more to the experience than the town and former Nguyen dynasty fortress itself. Stick around for a few days, hire some wheels, explore the countryside, dig into local eats and you’ll find out more why the grand Emperors liked it here so much.
Daniel Fraser is co-founder of Smiling Albino, a luxury Southeast Asia adventure travel company with operations in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal. Learn more about their unique Vietnam travel packages by visiting Smiling Albino.