HUE TRAVEL GUIDE
Hue is in the central region of Vietnam and is the former imperial capital.
Hue is intimately connected to the imperial Nguyễn Dynasty, based in Hue, who ruled from 1802 to 1945, when the Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favor of Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary government. The city went through tough times during the Vietnam War, when it was conquered by the Viet Cong and held for 24 days, during which the VC slaughtered around 3,000 people suspected of sympathizing with the South, being a highschool graduate or Christian. In retaking the city American forces initially didn't use artillery or air support to avoid damaging ancient buildings but due to heavy casualties these restrictions were relaxed and the city largely destroyed.
Hue is easy to get a grip on. The main landmark is the Perfume River, with the old city and the Citadel on the north side and the newer city, including most hotels and restaurants, on the south side. Much of the riverside has wisely been done up as a pleasant promenade and park dotted with bizarre sculptures. The tombs are located further south in the outskirts of Hue.
Hue's weather is infamously bad: the Truong Son Mountains just to the south seem to bottle up all the moisture, so it's usually misty, drizzly or outright rainy. Things get even wetter than usual in the winter rainy season, especially from February to the end of March. To be safe, bring along an umbrella any time of year. Don't forget to bring a sweater and jacket in winter as it can get rather chilly, with temperatures falling to as low as 8 degrees at night. Alternatively, when the sun makes an appearance for a day or a week, it can reach 30 degrees.
It's usually quite dry during the summer months, when the temperature can reach the high 30's. Summer rains can be heavy but brief, and often arrive unexpectedly, whereas February rains can last for weeks. The best description for the weather in Hue would be "changeable".
The former imperial seat of government and Hue's prime attraction, this is a great sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, museums and galleries, featuring art and costumes from various periods of Vietnamese history. Thanks to its size, it is also delightfully peaceful - a rare commodity in Vietnam. It is pretty huge; plan to spend at least 3 hours there.
The citadel was badly knocked about during fighting between the French and the Viet Minh in 1947, and again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, when it was shelled by the Viet Cong and then bombed by the Americans. As a result, some areas are now only empty fields, bits of walls, and an explanatory plaque. Other buildings are intact, though, and a few are in sparkling condition. For the rest, while restoration has been going on for 20 years, there is still quite a long way to go. Allow several hours to see it properly. Entry 150,000 dong for adults 30, 000 dong for children 7-12 (april 2015) (for foreigners, less for locals of course) and it is open 06:30-17:00. Inside you can pay $1.50 (75,000dong) to dress up in the King or Queen's clothing and sit on the throne for a fun photo opportunity.
· Ngo Mon The main southern entrance to the city, built in 1833 by Minh Mang. The central door, and the bridge connecting to it, were reserved exclusively for the emperor. Climb up to the second floor for a nice view of the exquisite courtyard. The Ngo Mon Gate is the principal entrance to the Imperial Enclosure. The Emperor would address his officials and the people from the top of this gate.
· Thai Hoa Palace. The emperor's coronation hall, where he would sit in state and receive foreign dignitaries.
· Truong Sanh Residence Translated as the "Palace of Longevity", the Truong Sanh Palace was the residence of King Tu Duc’s mother, Empress Tu Du, under the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19th century. It lies in Tu Cam Thanh, one of the two major parts of the Hue Citadel. Currently under renovation, the project, estimated to cost almost VND 30 billion (roughly US $1.8 million), includes the restoration of Lach Dao Nguyen, the Palace's protective moat, decorative man-made rock formations and mountains, bonsai gardens, and the palace gate. The restoration is expected to be completed in 2009, but this is doubtful. While not officially open to the public, it is possible to enter the grounds and should be seen, as even in it's overgrown state, it's beauty is recognizable.
· Forbidden Purple City. Directly behind Thai Hoa Palace, but it was almost entirely destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive and only the rather nondescript Mandarin Palaces on both sides remain.
Hue Jungle Crevice. When the Viet Cong briefly over ran Hue they rounded up 3000 of Hue's citizens and officials. Fearing the prisoners would slow them down in hot retreat, they tied them up and pushed the people over the cliff into the crevice.
Tombs of the Emperors
The other great attractions in Hue are the Tombs of the Emperors, which are located along the Perfume River south of the city. They are accessible by taxi or bike from the city, but the best way to see them is to hire a river boat and go for a cruise. Plan to make a full day of it, although if you rent a car, it will take only a few hours to see those worth seeing.
Group tours usually cost about 200,000 VND, which includes a lunch aboard the boat. The lunch consists of small portions of rice and vegetables, you are given the option to order more dishes at a cost. The cost of the tour does not include admission to the tombs (100,000 dong apiece for foreigners as of April 2015 - ensure you count your change carefully if paying by large denomination note as short-changing can occur) or the cost of a motorbike from the wharf to each tomb. If you're with a group, the price should be set by the tour company at roughly 25,000 dong for each round-trip. Choose a tour with as few stops as possible. Some companies lard up their itineraries with visits to silk farms and a few pagodas, promising to fit everything in neatly, however tour companies aren't noted for their time management, and you'll wind up rushed along and frustrated for at least one of the tombs.
If you're traveling on your own, boat hire or a motorbike and driver should cost somewhere around US$20, again not including tomb admissions. All of the tombs can be walked to from the wharfs in anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour. The paths are mostly obvious, but you still probably shouldn't try it without a map or a terrific sense of direction. Most of the tombs are open from 7:30AM or 8AM to 5:30PM, depending on the season; note that the tour groups arrive around 10AM and leave around 3PM in order to get back before dinner, so plan accordingly to avoid the crowds. You'll be glad you did.
The tombs are also easily reached by bicycle, although there is a shortage of good maps of how to reach them. Ask your hotel about bicycle rentals and maps, and be cautious on the crowded and potentially potholed roads. This is probably the most inexpensive (and enjoyable, if you enjoy cycling) way to reach the tombs.
The tombs themselves are worth the cost and effort. They mostly date from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when the Emperors had been reduced to figureheads under French colonial rule and had little else to do than build themselves elaborate tombs. The finest of them are the Tomb of Tu Duc, the Tomb of Minh Mang and the Tomb of Khai Dinh, all of which are excellent examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. The older ones have been allowed to crumble into picturesque semi-ruin, although some are now being restored.
There is no discount for Vietnamese visitors, the rather hefty admission price is the same as for foreigners.
In order of age:
· Tomb of Gia Long (20km) - the most remote of the tombs, quiet and fallen into disrepair as Gia Long, the first Nguyen emperor, was notoriously despotic. As of Sep 2015 it is rumored to be closed for visitors.
· Tomb of Minh Mang (12km, 7am-5.30pm, 100,000 VND) - Possibly the best of the lot, situated inside a wall and covering several hectares. Woodland and water make it a very relaxing place to be- Minh Mang was definitely a country boy at heart! The main buildings are arranged on an east-west axis, including a courtyard surrounded by warrior statues and several temples and pavilions. Several bridges cross two lakes before the axis ends before the vast burial mound (which is circled by a fence). If you're dropped off by boat, note that there is a stretch of souvenir sellers to navigate during the short walk to the mausoleum entrance.Same goes for the car/coach/motorbike park, but they are only trying hard to earn a crust. Bike park is only 5000 dong. Expect to spend around an hour.
· Tomb of Thieu Tri (8km, 7am-5pm, 40,000 VND) - built in 1848. This Emperor and his wife were the most revered and loved throughout the country. Although he only ruled for 7 years, he was the most sorely missed. In a time of strife and economic problems, he was careful with the country's Treasury and made sure to improve his people's living standards. His last will was that he be placed in a tomb that was not extravagant, parting ways with the tradition of creating lavish final resting places for their Emperors. The tomb is still mostly being restored, so as of Sep 2015 there is not much to see, expect to spend no more than 15 minutes.
· Tomb of Tu Duc (7km, 7am-5pm, 100,000 VND) - Constructed from 1864 to 1867, the complex served as a second Imperial City where the Emperor went for "working vacations". Tu Duc's contemplative nature and poetic spirit is reflected in the landscape and arrangement of the 50 buildings that at one time stood here. A vast, sprawling complex set around a lake, with wooden pavilions and tombs and temples dedicated to wives and favored courtesans (Tu Duc had 104 to choose from). The courtesans' quarters are in ruins, with only outlines and crumbling walls left amid waves of overgrown grass and silence, but other areas are stunningly well-preserved. The Emperor's tomb itself, tucked away in the back, is surprisingly modest - the final courtyard is nearly empty with just a stone coffin in the middle. (The tombs of Empress Le Thien Anh and Emperor Kien Phuc, who briefly ruled in 1884, are also located here.) Try to dodge the crowds for this one. Expect to spend an hour and half.
· Tomb of Dong Khanh (8km, under construction, still free as of Sep 2015) - built in 1917. Only the entrance gate and a temple facade is ready. Expect to spend no more than 5 minutes.
· Tomb of Khai Dinh (10km, 7am-5pm, 100,000 VND) - dating from 1925, this is the best preserved of the lot and, while comparatively compact, quite grand at first sight. While it follows the classic formula of forecourts leading up to the tomb of the Emperor, complete with statues in attendance, architecture buffs will spot some European influences. The tomb itself is completely over the top with incredibly detailed and opulent mosaics of cavorting dragons. Try to get to this one early, as it is a favorite stop for Asian tour-bus groups. Also, you may want to leave the tourist path and head up the hill on the right side of the tomb, where a small temple stands. You will have a great view of the tomb and the valley it faces. Expect to spend around an hour.
· Thien Mu Pagoda (4km) - perched on a bluff over the river and housing some very fine gold and silver Buddha images. The Thien Mu Pagoda overlooks the Perfume River and is the official symbol of the city of Hue. Thien Mu means "elderly celestial woman", and refers to an old legend about the founding of the pagoda. Brimming with opportunities for great photos.
· Phu Bai Airport is a must-see if you are interested in the war. The airport was a dirt strip during the Indochina War. Then, during the Vietnam War, an American garrison was assigned there and built up the airport with concrete bunkers, a paved airstrip, and a few other luxuries. The airport was vital in keeping Hue supplied during the Eastertide Offensive of 1972 when "Charlie jumped the line". The airport retains the original buildings built by the Americans; however, they have been retrofitted for use by the Vietnamese.
· Thanh Toan Bridge - a few kms out of the city is this beautiful wooden footbridge. It is a great place to observe rural life, and is often full of locals escaping the sun. While it might not be worth the trip on its own, it's definitely worth a stop if you are in the area.
Hue is famed for its Imperial cuisine, originally prepared for the emperor and his retinue. Although the emphasis is more on presentation than taste, an imperial banquet is well worth trying.
The most famous local dish is bun bo Hue, a noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil. Another tasty local treat is sesame candy, which is peanutty, chewy and quite tasty if fresh, and goes for under 10,000 dong/box.
Nem Lui is a dish of sweet, minced pork around bamboo sticks grilled over hot coals. Banh Khoai is a "pancake" filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork. Bun Thit Nuong is delicious barbecued pork served with vegetables and noodles.
Banh Beo is a sort of an appetizer. Sticky rice with shrimp and pork dipped in a sweet fish sauce. Add chilli to the fish sauce (if you want) then pour it on the 'rice'.
If you are a streetfood-lover then Hue is the right place for you. For breakfast, you can get a hot and filling soup between 20-40,000 dong. Don't be afraid to try one of the places with tiny plastic chairs - if you see locals eating there, it's probably good. If you are more into sandwiches, try the pork and vegetable filled baguette that can be bought for around 15 - 25,000 dong from any of the hot-dog carts.
There are also some french-inspired bakeries, some selling excellent croissants and pain au chocolat (expect to pay around 20,000 each). Local baked goods include decent donuts for 3,000 a piece. Pancakes are also a good choice.
There are lots of small cafés in Hue. Going out for coffee is a favorite local pastime. Most Hue people wouldn't think of starting the morning without meeting friends over a glassful. Most coffee shops open for business in the morning, close down from about 10:30 or so until late afternoon, then open again for the after-work and evening crowds. Do try the local style, iced, either with condensed milk, or black, which means with sugar. In the South, the iced coffee comes in a tall glass with lots of ice and lots of syrupy milk. In the Central area, the glass is much smaller, and the coffee is usually stronger. If you don't look Vietnamese, you may be served a weaker coffee, or if you order cafe nong (hot), they will also give you an extra glass of hot water to pour in. Do try your coffee first, to taste it the way the locals like it. Something like an iced, sweet espresso, with chocolaty overtones. Generally 6,000d-8,000d for Vietnamese people; 10,000d+ for foreigners.