Local Insight: Hue

attractions - Saigon/HCMC: May 31, 2016

A tour of Vietnam would be incomplete without travelling to Hue. Hue is situated on the romantic Perfume River, and once the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital from 1802-1945.

Hue is both geographically central, as well as the location of many of the significant events in Vietnam’s long and complex history. It remains an important spiritual centre, with many Buddhist temples and pagodas. The city is around 90 km south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and was, prior to reunification, the border between North and South Vietnam.

“Hue is both geographically central, as well as the location of many of the significant events in Vietnam’s long and complex history.”

Most visitors to Hue will visit the Citadel, a vast, 19th-century complex, surrounded by moats and two metre thick stone walls. The Citadel encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theatre. Aerial bombing and heavy ground fighting during the Tet offensive, between 30 January and 3 March, 1968, destroyed most of the Imperial City. In spite of the extensive damage, the site still attracts thousands of visitors annually, because what remains provides a glimpse of what must have been an extraordinary palace.

Imperial city Hue

Boat tours on the Perfume River are quite popular. Visitors, however, often report an underwhelming boat tour experience - price variations, visitors expecting to depart only to be kept waiting on board, and a general lack of spoken English. Many now engage the services of a private and tour operator, such as I Love Hue, who conduct history day tours and food night tours. For something a little different, cycle through picturesque rice fields to Thanh Toan village, 12 kms from Hue. Here visitors will find a unique 200 year old, tile roofed, wooden bridge, which is well worth the visit.

Perfume river

The other main destinations are the Thien Mu Pagoda, and the royal tombs of Khai Dinh and Tu Duc. There is also the Tiger’s Arena, on the south bank of the Perfume River, 4 km from the citadel. This is where for entertainment the Emperor and Lords would watch a duel between an elephant and a tiger. 

“For entertainment, the Emperor and Lords would watch a duel between an elephant and a tiger.”

Avoid the tours from Hue to the DMZ, which mean a long day of driving, with only a little time at each stop and nothing much to see at the Khe Sanh air base. Consider two-three days in Hue. Besides exploring the history and culture of the city, there is also the local cuisine to experience. Eateries abound – from street food to upmarket restaurants. The Serene Cuisine Restaurant, attached to the Serene Palace Hotel, has friendly service, is clean and is moderately priced. Try the banana flower and seafood salad, beef in betel leaves and pork hot pot. Vegetarian options are available. A tasting menu of four dishes is VND280,000 for two people.

For vegetarians, a popular restaurant is Lien Hoa, situated next door to a large pagoda on Le Quy Don street, corner of Ton Duc Thang street. The menu is extensive and food is cheap and delicious. Try the chao – a very smelly tofu cheese.

Chao food Hue

As with most all destinations, the weather has a significant influence upon a visitor’s experience, and Hue is no different. In July and August, the high season, expect the hottest months, so plan on sightseeing early and spend the hottest part of the day resting in the shade or air conditioned comfort. 

“In July and August, the high season, expect the hottest months.”

Between October and March, the skies are often heavy with grey clouds, and gloominess pervades the city. The cool temperatures and drizzle make sightseeing of the monuments less appealing. The ideal months to visit Hue are April, May, June and September.