Hue: The Imperial City

imperial city gates hue vietnam


              Grandiose structures, royal palaces, tombs of emperors, and delicious local specialties are just a few things Hue has to offer.  Hue is a popular stop on people’s tour of Vietnam and rightfully so.  The Imperial City that dominates the northern banks of the Perfume River and the many tombs that dot the area around town are all part of Hue’s UNESCO Heritage Site. 


perfume river hue vietnam
Part of the Perfume River as it winds west of Hue.


              Geographically, Hue is located almost in the center of Vietnam, which has made it an important location throughout its history.  During the Nguyen Dynasty Hue was made the administrative and military capitol of the newly unified Vietnam and the citadel that now dominates northern Hue was built.  It remained the capitol until 1945 when the then emperor abdicated the throne. 


gate citadel hue vietnam
One of the southern gates to the Citadel at dusk.


              Its proximity to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) later played a major role in the Vietnam war.  Hue suffered through hard times when it was occupied by the Viet Cong and subsequently retaken by an American and Southern Vietnamese coalition in the Tet Offensive.  Many of the historic buildings were damaged or destroyed during this time, but artisans are working to rebuild and restore them to their former glory. 


What to Do



              Once the imperial seat of government in Vietnam and now the resting place of many of its former emperors, Hue holds both a significant historical and cultural record for Vietnam’s past.  Although you can easily hit the main points in Hue in just a day, I highly recommend adding a day or two to experience more of what Hue has to offer.


an hien garden house hue vietnam
An Hien Garden House.


              Most of the sights, except the Imperial City, are fairly far from the tourist area of Hue so trying to walk to each place is not really an option.  If you want to tour the area on your own and with your own schedule then renting a scooter is your best option (although you could get by with a bicycle if you have the time to spare).  Keep in mind that the Imperial City and most of the tombs have an entrance fee, so you will have to pay each one as you arrive (cost of each below).  There is also the option of buying a combo pass (good for 48 hours after the 1st stamp) that includes 3 or 4 places; Hue Imperial Palace/Minh Mang Tomb/Khai Dinh Tomb is 280,000 VND/12.73 USD or Hue Imperial Palace/Minh Mang Tomb/Khai Dinh Tomb/ Tu Duc Tomb is 360,000 VND/16.36 USD. 


tour boat hue vietnam
Our tour boat for our ride down the Perfume River.


              If you don’t want the hassle of having to find each place you can always take one of the organized tours.  The tour that I booked through my hotel cost 500,000 VND/22.73 USD and included a boat trip down the Perfume River with a nice lunch, bus transportation, snacks at a Vietnamese candy shop, incense creation demonstration, and entry to An Hien Garden House, Thien Mu Pagoda, Hon Chen, Minh Mang Tomb, Khai Dinh Tomb, Imperial City, and the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities (Tu Duc Tomb was closed for construction).  It wasn’t a guided tour, so once we arrived at each location, we were on our own to explore.  All in all, it was well worth the cost of the tour.


The Citadel



flag stand citadel hue vietnam
Flag stand inside the Citadel.


              The Citadel makes up a large portion of Hue and sits just north of the Perfume River from modern day Hue.  The large walled area was once the outer-most part of the city and is surrounded by impressive brick walls and a moat.  Today the inside of the Citadel is mostly businesses, but during its height as Vietnam’s capital it was the administrative and military center of the government.   Besides viewing the walls, gates, and Imperial City (see below), I also recommend taking a short walk to the right of the Imperial City to visit the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities.  This is a great little museum that has a number of artifacts from the Nguyen Dynasty.


Imperial City



imperial city hue vietnam
One of the Palaces inside the Imperial City.


              The Imperial City is the jewel of Hue and its prime attraction.  Making up a large section within the Citadel, the Imperial City was the residence, throne room, and temples of the emperor and a forbidden city to all but those closest to him.  The size of the site means that it is rarely packed and is a great place to take a leisurely stroll to take in the beauty.  The evening is the best time to take in the site since it will be cooler and the lower light brings out more of the majesty of the place.  Keep in mind that you can easily spend 3 or more hours here so make sure to give yourself enough time to take it all in. 


imperial city map hue vietnam
Map of the Imperial City.  The red buildings are the ones still standing.  The dotted lines are the ones that were damaged/destroyed.


              The enclosure was badly bombed during the Vietnam War and many of the buildings were destroyed or damaged, but restoration to restore this UNESCO site is ongoing.  That being said, there is still a lot to see and experience in the Imperial City and it is well worth the trip.   Due to poor, or lack of, signage, navigation and knowledge of the different sites can be a bit difficult.  It is worth finding a guide online or at least taking a picture of the map inside the gate to help you along. 


Cost: 150.000 VND/6.82 USD (includes the Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities)
Hours: 8am – 5:30pm


Thien Mu Pagoda



thien mu pagoda hue vietnam
Thien Mu Pagoda.



              The Thien Mu Pagoda sits on a hill overlooking the Perfume River and is the symbol of Hue itself.  First built in 1601 the pagoda has been renovated eight times over the years.  Today its major features is the 21m, seven story tower that stand just inside the gates.  The pagoda also houses a modest temple, garden, and the car Thích Quảng Đức drove to his self-immolation in Saigon in 1963. 


Cost: Free
Hours: 8am – 6pm


Tomb of Minh Mang



tomb ming mang hue vietnam
Tomb of Ming Mang.



              The tomb of Minh Mang is one of the best that Hue has to offer.  This walled compound sits astride a serene lake on 15 hectares of wooded land, making it a very relaxing place to take in the views.  The compound is symmetrically designed and is often regarded as a masterpiece of Vietnamese royal architecture.  Starting with a courtyard flanked by warrior statues guarding the way, you steadily climb stairs to the stele house followed by the temple; some of which is under reconstruction.  This is followed by a long bridge to the tomb, which is only open once a year on the anniversary of the emperor’s death.  The lake is also flanked by hills in which buildings, like the emperor’s library, used to sit upon, but these are mostly in ruins now. 


Cost: 100,000 VND/4.55 USD
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm


Tomb of Khai Dinh



tomb khai dinh hue vietnam
Tomb of Khai Dinh.



              The tomb of Khai Dinh is a small but impressive burial compound.  Made with both Vietnamese and European influences the tomb of Khai Dinh has taken grandeur to a new level.  This multi-teared compound features a stele building flanked by statues of soldiers and elephants on the second tier, followed by the tomb on the third.  The whole compound is made of black concrete on the outside, but stepping into the tomb the look complete changes to an explosion of colorful morals.  The tomb of Khai Dinh is worth the visit, but it is also one of the most visited of the tombs in Hue. 


Cost: 100,000 VND/4.55 USD
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm


Tomb of Tu Duc



tomb tu duc hue vietnam
Tomb of Tu Duc.


              Tu Duc’s tomb is another large and popular burial complex in Hue.  This large compound covers 12 hectares of land comprising of a large lake, temples, and palaces.  The buildings themselves might not be as beautiful or grandeur as Khai Dinh or Ming Mang, but the grounds are or beautiful and peaceful.  So much so that the emperor often used these grounds for ‘work holidays.’  The tomb of Tu Duc is a modest structure, but it is also empty.  Tu Duc instead decided to be buried, along with his treasures, in an undisclosed location.  

Cost: 100,000 VND/4.55 USD
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm    


Off the Beaten Path



Thanh Toan Bridge (Japanese Bridge)



thanh toan bridge hue vietnam
Thanh Toan Bridge (Japanese Bridge)


              Located 7 km east of Hue, this classic Japanese footbridge is a nice diversion from the streets of Hue.  Originally constructed in 1776, this bridge has been reconstructed several times over the years, but it is said to still resemble the original construction.  This classic Japanese still bridge is constructed of wood and a tile roof, but also with the addition of a seating chamber on each end so that locals could have a place to rest in the shade of the bridge and cool air of the river. 


Cost: Free


City of Ghosts



city ghost an bang hue vietnam
City of Ghosts


              Located about 35 km southeast of Hue, in the Village of An Bang, lies the City of Ghosts.  The City of Ghosts is a local cemetery unlike any cemetery you have ever seen.  Covering an area of 250 hectares, the City of Ghosts holds an incredible collection of unbelievably ornate tombs.  These large family tombs are covered with very detailed mosaics and designs; some costing as much as $50,000 USD.  If you decide to visit remember to be respectful, as it is a cemetery. 


Cost: Free


Abandoned Waterpark




ho thuy tien abandoned waterpark hue vietnam
Ho Thuy Tien abandoned waterpark


              The Ho Thuy Tien abandoned waterpark is truly an off the beaten path location.  Originally built in 2004 around the Ho Thuy Tien Lake, about 8 km southwest of Hue, the waterpark closed just two years later and has laid abandoned ever since.  Today this abandoned waterpark looks more apocalyptic than inviting, but has grown in popularity for those that want to explore the deserted grounds.  The walkways have now become over grown with weeds, the fish tanks still hold their empty and murky waters, the walls are tagged with graffiti, and the water at the end of the slides is now stale and green.  The largest draw to the park is a large dragon that rises out of the lake that, if you are brave enough to climb its rickety stairs, gives you a great view of the countryside through the jaws of the dragon itself. 


Cost: Technically it’s free since it is closed, but depending on the day, what entrance you use, and how the man that sometimes ask for admittance fee fills it could be 20,000 VND/0.91 USD and 10,000 VND/0.45 USD for parking.


How to Get There

              Hue is one of the major tourist destinations in Central Vietnam and as such is served by multiple transportation options; bus, train, motorcycle, and domestic flights.  Located about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hue is one of the easiest cities in Vietnam to travel to.


Bus

The public bus is by far the cheapest transportation option in Vietnam and with all of the bigger cities offering busses to Hue, it is also very easy.  The cost of the bus will vary depending on your departure destination, but you should expect to pay anywhere from 60,000 VND/2.73 USD from Da Nang to 280,000 VND/12.73 USD from Hanoi.  All of these buses will drop you off at either the southern or northern bus station and you will need to take a taxi to your hotel.  A metered taxi to the tourist area of Hue is about 30,000 VND/1.36 USD.  If you wish to pre-book your bus ticket online, I suggest using the 12Go search box below.


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Train

              The train is also always a great option for traveling Hue.  Unlike the bus, the train takes a more scenic route and allows you to see more of Vietnam’s luscious landscape.  Hue is one of the Express Train stops so if you are leaving from an Express stop you can take this faster option.  Otherwise you will need to take the slower, but still enjoyable, normal train.  The cost of the train of course depends on your departure destination and what seat you decide to reserve.  These seats vary from hard or soft seats to four or six people sleepers.  The cost from Ho Chi Minh City will range anywhere from $35 - $58 depending on the seat option.  It is usually advised to arrive early or buy your ticket ahead of time since the tickets sell out quickly.  If you do not want to go to the train station early you can always opt to buy your tickets online at 12Go (see search box below).  Once in Hue the tourist area is only about a 20-minute walk away. 


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Motorcycle

              Traveling Vietnam by motorcycle is always a great way to get around and many tourists use this mode of travel for their entire trip.  If you aren’t up for buying your own bike for the duration of your trip in Vietnam, but still want to cover part of the trip on one, then the road from Da Nang to Hue is one of the best areas to do it in.  There are many companies that rent one-way motorcycle rentals for this section.  Staying off the main highway is a very scenic road that takes you from the coastline up through the scenic Hai Van Pass.  The pass is very winding, so if you are not skilled with a motorcycle you might look into the motorcycle tours instead. 


Plane

              Hue doesn’t have international flights, but does offer daily flight to/from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.  The Skyscanner search box below will help you find the cheapest flights for your dates.  The airport itself is located 15 km from town.  You can get a metered taxi into town for about 250,000 VND/11.36 USD or take the airport shuttle for 50,000 VND/2.27 USD. 





Where to Stay




              Hue being a major tourist destination has many hotel options that will fit anyone’s budget and requirements.  Whether you are looking for a fancy 5-star hotel or a cheap hostel, Hue has something to offer.  Most of the hotels are located in the tourist area located just southeast of the Citadel.  For the best deals on hotels I suggest using Agoda’s search box below. 




              I stayed 13 days in Hue due to a motorcycle accident and spent everyone of them at the Lucky Home Stay.  It was just under $9/night, was comfortable, and had a free breakfast (you must try their banana pancakes if you stay here).  More importantly, the owner is a super nice and helpful guy.  He gave us tips when we were originally going to tour the area on a motorcycle, then picked us up from the hospital and offered to take us to the international hospital if we need to, and just genuinely helped us during our stay so that we could recover.  The hotel will also set up great tours for Hue, the DMZ, and the motorcycle ride to Da Nang. 


What to Eat



mi xao don hue vietnam
Mi Xao Don from Phuong Nam.


              Hue is a great place for any foody!  Not only do they have all the regular Vietnamese food that you will find around Vietnam, but they also have a list of dishes that are specific to Hue itself.  If you are a lover of street food type dishes, then Hue is the place for you. 


little hoi an hue vietnam


              Due to my accident I ate most of my meals at two restaurants close by my hotel on the fridge of the tourist area.  The closest was the Phuong Nam (corner of Hùng Vương/Trần Cao Vân), a backpacker bar and restaurant hosting mostly tourist, which had good food all around, a menu of Hue specialties, and happy hour.  The second was Little Hoi An (corner of Hùng Vương/Nguyễn Tri Phương), a small local spot hosting mostly locals, which also had an array of great food and local specialties. 


nem lui hue vietnam
Nem Lui from Little Hoi An.


              When in Hue you must try some of the local specialties that range from simple appetizers to a full meal.  The best known, and one of my personal favorites, is Hue’s take on the classic Bun Bo soup.  They also have three distinct dumplings that are specialties of Hue; Banh Beo, Banh Nam, and Banh Loc.  Made from rice or tapioca flour, each has its own distinct taste.  My personal favorite was Bahn Loc, but all are worth a try.  Bahn Ep is another unique specialty in Hue.  Somewhat comparable to an crepe, but instead it is tapioca flour stuffed with different types of ingredients.  Another one of my personal favorites is Nem Lui.  Nem Lui is grilled ground pork on a skewer, served with vegetables, herbs, and rice paper wrapper, which you make like a spring roll and dipped in a special sauce. For more about the food in Hue check out my top 10 must try foods.


pin point map hue vietnam


What was your favorite experience in Hue?

 

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