Hue, the ancient former capital and residence of Emperors, is a perfect location to explore the cultural heart and soul of Vietnam
We arrived on our flight from Hanoi just as night was falling and checked-in to our hotel on the banks of the Perfume River just downstream from The Citadel - pole position! La Residence Hotel and Spa is the former French governors’ mansion, one of Vietnam’s newest boutique hotels exuding an atmosphere of calm, understated elegance with an art deco feel ($160 or 2934,700 VND B&B per room high season). As it was late we ate in the hotel restaurant, Le Parfum Vietnamese and European menu, our fillet steaks perfectly cooked and the service spot on (main courses 111,000-370,000 VND).
After a tasty breakfast of noodles and stir fry (English/continental also available) we were ready for a day of tomb and temple hopping. As a river boat trip is the most tranquil way to travel in Hue we headed for some colourful dragon boats moored near to the hotel. With the help of a map we agreed a route with our 'captain', haggled a little, and balanced up a rather bendy plank where we were welcomed by his smiling wife and two young children. Enjoying the sunshine we lazily journeyed downstream passing water buffalo and lush, green scenery to our first stop; the ancient and beautiful Thien Mu Pagoda (Heavenly Lady). The pagoda was being circled, bizarrely, by hundreds of dragon fly, the sound of their fluttering wings filling the air adding to the magical atmosphere. Positioned right on the riverbank the seven storey octagonal tower (free admission) is an iconic symbol of Hue and nearby stands a pavilion, housing a giant stone turtle with engraved stele, a bronze bell, laughing Buddha and some garishly painted, Disneyesque statues which, surprisingly, represent the Ten Kings of Hell. The monks’ quarters are housed in well-tended gardens and well worth a look. Avoid 1130-1400 hours as the rear area is closed whilst the monks are at lunch.
Back on board we drifted downstream passing fishermen casting their nets and other dragon boats, after about 20 minutes our host mimed a scooter ride and pointed us to small bar/shop on the river bank. Here we negotiated a ‘xe om’ (hug the driver) scooter ride for around 55,000 VND, depending on haggling abilities, to the Tomb of Tu Duc (55,000 VND admission) The tomb gardens are set in a valley of pine trees, the air thick with the scent of frangipani, a lotus lake, stilted pavilions and birdsong make this a tranquil and beautiful stop. As we explored the bridges, pavilions and tombs in this dreamlike haven we were observed by statues of stony-faced Mandarin warriors peeking from trees and terraces. Suddenly, a torrential downpour completely drenched us, at least it was warm rain but the fact that we couldn’t actually get any wetter didn’t stop the locals trying to sell umbrellas and waterproofs! This was early October - rainy season was supposed to end in September, Hue is, however, one of the wettest areas of Vietnam - pack your mac. Back on the boat the sun came out and our clothes steamed nicely in the warmth as we enjoyed our return journey. Back on dry land we walked back through hectic roads full of droning scooters their masked drivers, swarming past schoolgirls serenely cycling home, their white Ao Dais (national costume) flowing behind them; this really summed up Hue - a complete contrast of old and new, calmness and commotion.
Tropical Garden (27 Chu Van An Street; 054-847-143) was our choice for dinner that night. A popular restaurant with lush foliage, bamboo slatting in a semi-outdoor but covered area, which was a bonus as the rain was torrential now. Live Vietnamese music added to the atmosphere and the authentic Vietnamese, spicy, stir-fries and hot, sour soup at around 55,000 VND per dish was tasty although not cheap by local values. DMZ Bar (44 Duong Le Loi Street) was our next port of call, popular with locals and tourists - a great place to have a few beers, and a game of pool, there is also internet access.
The Citadel served as Vietnam’s ancient capital, its flag tower still visible across the city. Next day we passed the Nine Holy Canons and entered the royal city via the Ngo Mon Gate beyond which a bridge crosses over lotus-filled ponds to the Thai Hoa Palace. This pavilion, decorated with dragons, glazed tiles, flowers and mosaics was used by the Emperor as a throne room and for various ceremonies. All built upon the principles of Feng Shui there are many buildings within the Citadel; The Halls of the Mandarins, shrines, temples, Dynastic Urns, a theatre and museum area showing replicas of clothes, even photographs of some of the later Emperors. At the centre behind the Throne Palace is the Purple Forbidden Citadel, reserved for women only – and the Emperor. The whole area is dotted with intricate topiary, ornate gateways and we found ourselves immersed in the dynastic air as we explored this ancient city. (Times - 0700-1730 55,000 VND admission)
We had a couple more hours before our transfer to Hoi An and decided to squeeze in a last cheeky tomb visit to Khai Dinh’s tomb on the slope of Chau Chu mountain (Admission 55,000 VND). We climbed over 100 steep dragon-flanked steps to a platform of life-size stone elephants, horses and mandarins. Up two more flights of steps is a museum containing some of Khai Dinh's possessions and two statues of him. The mausoleum looks fairly uninspiring from the outside but has a surprisingly ornate interior. Colourful tiles and mosaics in ceramics and glass line the walls and the ceiling is covered with painted with dragons. The view from the top tier out across the hills and over the tree-canopy is breathtaking.
A day or two at Hue shouldn't be missed, there are direct flights from Hanoi or a three hour drive from Hoi An. Although not strictly a coastal destination there are good beaches such as Thuan An less than fifteen minutes away. Hue was unlike any other city we visited in Vietnam; its beautiful, serene countryside surprisingly interspersed with elaborate tombs, the lively nightlife and the Citadel with its culture and history invoked a real and poignant sense of what Vietnam was once all about.
Take a look at my other Vietnam guides:
Hanging Out in Halong Bay
Lighting up in Anceint Hoi An