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Hue, a former capital city of Vietnam is based about half way down this long country, situated on the Perfume River. Outside the city there are lots of opportunities to visit some of the former tombs of the late rulers (see Tomb of Tu Duc review for more info), as well as seeing rural life in the region. Tours are offered by many hotels and other sites (we booked from the cafe next to our hotel - the Thanh Lich). On our last day in Hue, we only had a short time before leaving for our afternoon train, so we decided on the Imperial City and then a cyclo ride, and we had a fabulous day.
The main attraction within the Citadel of Hue is the Imperial City, a square gated area that costs about VND60,000 to get in (US$3 or £2) so is very reasonable. There are four gates but I think you can only get in through Ngo Mon gate, which is the main one. The location was chosen by cosmologists to bring harmony. The whole area took approx 30 years to build, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The City area has seen better days - paint is peeling, some buildings cannot be entered and parts of it are missing through bad weather. A lot of it is being restored however. The site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
The vast Ngo Mon gate looks imposing as you arrive outside the Imperial City, there are five entrances, some of which are for the elephants and one for the emperor exclusively. Today there are entrances for locals and international visitors. Above the gate is a pavilion, which I think you can go up into. Once through the gate, you walk across a stone bridge with a river underneath, and some fish towards the Thai Hoa palace. You can't take photos inside the palace, but there are very few artefacts in here now. However the internal décor is very attractive as this was once an important ceremonial room. There is some signage informing you of the sort of thing that went on in here, but is not always in the most obvious place. Thai Hoa means 'Supreme Harmony'. In the back part is a model if the Imperial City as well as a video on a loop about the site, which is worth a watch, it only lasts 7-8 minutes.
When you have finished, exit Thai Hoa Palace at the Forbidden Purple City, the current boundary is shown with a man-made fence as the original has been lost. This enclave was for the royal residential quarters. To the right is the imaginatively named Left House and to the left is the Right House. These open sided buildings are in the process of restoration, the Left House being the most complete, but you get a good chance to see the red and gold lacquer finish as they would have been in the buildings' hey day in the early nineteenth century. Other highlights include the Royal Theatre that has been fully restored and is in regular use. Here you can get a cold drink, and some souvenirs such as books and pictures. Also worth checking out is the Thai Binh Reading Pavilion. You can't go in, as it is not safe, but the gardens have been landscaped recently and make an attractive setting with lily ponds around it. While the external décor of the Reading Room has seen better days, you can still see the detail of the mosaics etc on the roof, which are worth taking time to check out.
Hue was very hot and humid whilst we were there, but I think it is worth planning your day in order to spend a couple of hours meandering gently around the site at your own pace. You can purchase drinks and (I think) ice creams here, and there are toilets (I didn't use them, humidity is dehydrating) and a gift shop. If you want somewhere to eat you will need to leave the site. Overall, this was one of my highlights of my stay in Hue and well worth a visit. A lot of it is being restored, and this will be ongoing for several more years, if not decades, but I don't think this will be hugely detrimental to your visit.
After leaving the Imperial City we decided it was time to experience a cyclo ride. A cyclo is basically a back-to-front rickshaw. The cyclist sits behind the passenger seat. There were four of us, so the two cyclo 'drivers', who were both local men, put a bench across the passenger seat making them split level. This meant someone sat on the proper seat and someone on the bench behind them, with the smaller passenger sitting between their knees. Ideally you would want one to yourself though. The cost of this was VND 100,000 per person which is approx US$5 or £3.35 for an hour. This seemed typical to prices we have been quoted elsewhere and other people paid, so bare this in mind when negotiating with the drivers.
We picked our drivers as we came out of the Imperial City and arranged for our hour trip to take in part of the city walls, some typical city life and return us to our hotel. We did about two sides of the imperial city (which is square) before they took us past the local life. It was nice to be able to see shopping streets and markets that the locals use. In fact we stopped for a five minute break at an indoor market and picked up a few local snacks for our train journey. We also rode down residential streets, seeing houses that would cover most budgets. This was such a unique way to see the city as we would not have wandered as far as this part of town under our own steam. The cyclos allowed us to travel faster than on foot, whilst getting a good feel for the place, that you don't always appreciate on an air-conditioned coach travelling at twice the speed. With the oppressive humidity, our cyclo drivers had to work quite hard and were deserving of their fee and a small tip (typically 10%).
You do share the road with other traffic but it is a lot quieter over the North side of the river where the Imperial City is. Across the river, near our hotel, the roads are a lot busier. The traffic is mainly cycles and motorbikes; there are not many cars or vans. I took a few photos whilst travelling on the cyclo, you will need to use a faster shutter speed in order not to get blurry shots. I found the Sports setting on my Canon to do the job very well.
You can do cyclo rides in any city in Vietnam, and I do think this is a fun diversion for an hour and a unique way to see the city. I do recommend giving this a go if you get the opportunity. On quieter streets you can get out and have a go at cycling too if you wish too!
Hue is a relatively small, pleasant city, adorned with lakes and canals but with a bit of hustle and bustle about it as well. Hue is blessed with some wonderful historical sights including the nineteenth century citadel and the former glory of the imperial city which sprawls across a large piece of land just outside the newer part of Hue, this coupled with the seven Royal Mausoleums situated around Hue, the many Pagodas and the scenes of former battle makes Hue an extremely interesting place to spend a few days.
To fill you in on a bit of history, Hue was held by the North Vietnamese army for twenty five days during the Tet Offensive of 1968, in the chaos of the counter assault the city suffered great damage and many buildings were destroyed or badly hurt. However Hue was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1993 which has really helped the efforts to restore and preserve this fantastic old city.
A great place to start exploring Hue itself is the Perfume River. A wander down its banks and a stroll across the main bridge into Hue itself will acquiant you well with the area and give you a bit more understanding of the city. The imperial citadel stands on the northern bank of the river, here you will marvel at the old splendour of this forgotten city and be taken back to an age where walled cities and battles were commonplace. The billowing Vietnamese flag standing on the citadel is a symbol of the Vietnamese triumph and the maintenance of Hue as part of Vietnam's rich yet troubled history. The citadel in its heyday used to compromise of 148 original buildings however such was the devastation of battle that today only twenty actually survive. It is definitely worth a wander round the inner walls of the citadel however be prepared for a large area of crumbling buildings and old relics which are to understand and distinguish without the help of a guide. Not hiring a guide for the tour of the citadel was a bit of a mistake on my part, although it was good fun wandering around and discovering things for myself I think a guide would have given me a lot more idea of what I was actually looking at and given me a better understanding of the very interesting history connected to the citadel.
Before I move onto to look at the other interesting sights around Hue I just want to mention a cafe called Cafe on Thu Wheels. This characterful little place tucked in down a back road to the south of the Perfume river is an absolute gem. Think friendly staff, 50p for a banana pancake and fresh Vietnamese coffee and excellent motorbike tours which have recieved rave reviews as attested by the writing on the walls in the cafe itself! I went on one of these motorbike tours myself and I can't recommend it highly enough. There was a small moto convey of about 4 motos and you each had your own driver/guide. The tour took us right out into the Hue countryside indeed it wasn't long before the city disappeared and was replaced by glistening paddy fields and farmland. The tour took us right off the main tourist trail and through small back roads, dirt paths and even up a hillside! Although we still saw some of the sights that others would see coming to Hue we did it in the best way possible and I really became a bit of a convert to the motorbike cause!
The tour took us firstly to a traditional Japanese bridge which was interesting for its unique architecture, we wandered over it, took some pictures and investigated the nearby market which was pretty interesting to observe as the locals bartered and haggled for a variety of weird and wonderful things. The next stop was a wonderful Pagoda sheltered amongst the forest and set next to an idyllic little lake. Here we got to observe the Buddhist monks in there morning prayers. This was an honour to be able to watch something so special to Vietnamese culture and see how some people have such belief in religion and set their lives around it. After this sedate scene we headed to another quiet location, this time it was at the top of a hilltop but the attraction was somewhat more sombre being the French and American war bunkers which both took up at different times in the 20th century to wage war on the Vietnamese. Without doubt the star of a fantastic tour was Tu Duc's mausoleum. The mausoleum was set across a huge area of land and had been left mostly in its original state. The number of different chambers, burial grounds and various areas all set around a beautiful sedate was so interesting that I could have spent most of the afternoon there wandering around.
There are a number of tour operators that go out to the Royal Mausoleums and pagoda's on Hue's outskirts, and you can get out to these sights in a number of ways from moto, boat down the perfume river and the good old minibus or taxi. Whatever you do it is worth a trip out of Hue to explore some of the fantastic sights on its outskirts, it gives you a much better appreciation and understanding of the local culture and the history of Vietnam itself.
For accommodation there is a variety of guesthouses available for all budgets on the south of the river from large 4 star hotels to the cosy little budget accommodation such as that at Binh Duong 3 which was still very nice and worth a look plus it's opposite Cafe on Thu Wheels for breakfast! I would also recommend checking out the Mandarin Cafe and Omar Khayyam's tandoori for evening food, both were very good and very reasonable. ATM's are easily accessible around the city and the bus station is just over the main bridge to the north of the river (citadel side). Hue is well worth a visit and those who by pass on their way to Hanoi or Hoi An are missing out on a really interesting and authentic piece of Vietnam.
Hue lies in the centre of Vietnam on the Perfume River and is my favourite Vietnamese city. Most modern hotels are south of the river but the interesting parts are north of it. The old town is well worth a visit with an extensive market and a bus station that when we were there had the full attention a of one colleague who was into old buses ! The main cultural site is the Imperial City, which is a large complex of palaces temples and gardens entered through a magnificent gate. It was showing its age a little – and the fact it was heavily affected by the Vietnam War, when I was there but there were plans to renovate and restore. Other things to do in Hue are boat trips, the coast and the resort of Nha Trang are nearby and this is also a good place to start an excursion to the Ho Chi Min Trail. Go soon before everyone discovers it. .
"Huế (化 in chữ Nôm) is the capital city of Thừa Thiên - Huế province, Vietnam. Between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty. As such, it is well known for its monuments and architecture. Its population stands at about 340,000 people."