Hue gained prominence in 1802 when Emperor Gia Long founded the Nguyen Dynasty. In an attempt to unite both Northern and Southern Vietnam, Hue was selected as the dynasty’s seat, and the impressive Citadel was built; reflecting and sharing many similarities with the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The dynasty’s power began to crumble when the French attacked in 1885, burning the library and pillaging everything of value. The Nguyen Emperors were permitted to remain as puppet rulers under the French authorities until 1945, when a brief Japanese occupation finally brought the dynasty to its end. During the American-Vietnamese War the Citadel suffered massively and was heavily damaged. In recent times, however, a huge effort has been made to restore the Citadel to its former glory. Work is ongoing, making it a fascinating and popular attraction. The historical significance of Hue during its heyday is not forgotten, and the city is regarded still as a cultural and academic centre. The city is also famed its delectable royal cuisine and signatory local dishes; a fantastic complement to its tombs, mausoleums and fascinating historical sites.
The story goes that when King Hung Vuong VI became fed up of eating the same rice dishes he held a competition between his 22 sons to choose his successor. The king would pass the crown to the son who produced the best and most unusual dish. The old capital of Hue is now known for its creation of delicious bite size morsels of delicate rice cakes, dumplings and a huge variety of intricate and imaginative sharing dishes.
Getting to Hue and Accommodation
We arrived here by open tour bus from Hoi An via the stunning coastline north of Danang. The bus collected us at 7.15am stopping at Marble Mountain en route, dropping off in Danang and with a break at a holiday complex at the beach. We were in Hué by 11.30am. There are other services which go direct without any stops but the coastal scenery is well worth seeing.
Hue has an airport with daily flights to and from Hanoi and HCMC. We flew to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines on departing from Hue. This 45 minute flight only cost $55 US which is preferable to a 14 hour bus journey. Vietnam Airlines provide an excellent service, the biggest worry is the lunatic driving from the hotel to the airport. Hue’s airport is only 14km from the city and the hotel provided the car and driver for $7US, there is also a minibus which leaves from outside the office of Vietnam Airlines a couple of hours before flights. A further transport option is to travel by train as Hue is a stop on the Reunification route between Hanoi and HCMC.
On arrival we headed to the Binh Minh Hotel (12 Nguyen Tri Phuong St) which we can highly recommend with a range of rooms from $15-$30US. A number of backpacker budget places were round the corner in an alley next to Omar Khayyam’s Indian restaurant. This is just a 3 minute walk from the Sinh Cafe bus terminal along the same street at number 7.
With hindsight we’d recommend that you walk a little further to the eastern end of Le Loi street just beyond where all the river boats are docked. Here you’ll find several streets parallel to one another containing a wider selection of accommodation and a few bars and restaurants geared to tourists.
Hue Attractions and Getting Around
All the main sights lie in and around the fortified Citadel. This lies across the Perfume river to the north of the city whilst most accommodation and restaurants are to the south. You can walk across the Trang Tien Bridge (go and see it illuminated at night) to the Citadel but will constantly be harassed by cyclo riders wanting to take you to the Citadel or on a city tour. This is all good natured but can become annoying if you’d really prefer to walk, a pastime that none of them can comprehend.
In the 1968 Tet offensive during the American war many of the Citadel’s palaces were destroyed. Then under the new Communist regime from 1975 to 1990, its buildings were considered to be ‘politically incorrect’ as they represented the feudalism of the former Nguyen dynasty. It then dawned on the local government that the Citadel might be of interest for tourism and in 1993 UNESCO recognised the Citadel’s Monuments as a World Heritage Site.
Today only a small number of the original buildings are still intact but it is still a place well worth visiting and restoration work is progressing at an impressive pace. On leaving the grounds take the northern exit and walk up to the Tinh Tam Lake where the Emperors used to come to relax. You can take a cyclo back to your hotel on the other side of the river. We probably paid over the going rate at 40,000 Vn (= $2.50US) but seeing the poor old bloke struggle to move our weights makes you feel very sorry for him.
Hue is a good place to rent a bicycle to look around and to head out to the Royal Tombs a few kilometres out of town (though the traffic is horrendous). Another recommendation is to rent one of the river boats either for a simple cruise up and down the Perfume river or you could charter one and get them to take you to the Royal Tombs. We were quoted 350,000 Vn per hour by one of the touts on the river bank which immediately dropped to 60,000 Vn (under $4US) when we laughed at him. For this we simply headed west for 30 minutes then returned to our starting point. The wife of the driver was delighted as she had a captive market to sell her many products to!
Excursions from Hue
The main day excursion from Hue is to the royal tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. These tombs as well as some important Pagodas lie between 2km and 16km south of the city and are built on or near the banks of the Perfume river. Sinh Cafe open bus tour offers boat trip along the river with lunch included for a mere $8US per person. This includes the magnificent Thien Mu Pagoda and several of the most important tombs. Although the day trip is very cheap at first sight, you’ll find that you need to jump on the back of a motorbike taxi to get to some of the tombs and pagodas and there are also entrance fees so the cost mounts rapidly. An alternative is to rent a bike and take a day touring the area south of Hue where most of the tombs and pagodas are located.
If you’re comfortable on the back of a motorbike or want to ride one yourself then arrange a private tour with Mingh at a bar called Cafe on Thu Wheels (it’s in the alley next to Omar Khayyam’s Indian restaurant). It’s a good meeting point for backpackers with plenty cold beer and live English football.
The other main excursion is to the demilitarised zone (DMZ) north of Hue. Between 1954 and 1975 the Ben Hai River separated North and South Vietnam and on either side there was a 5km stretch of land called the demilitarised zone, ironically this became the one of the world’s most militarised zones!. Full day bus tours are available from Hue via Highway 1 which includes the Vinh Moc Tunnels or via Highway 9 which follows the Ho Chi Minh Trail.