Vietnam is quite the underrated destination for travellers, we must say. There’s vibrant Ho Chi Minh City, impeccably preserved Hoi An, and Hanoi with its many dark historical landmarks. And then, there’s Hue, where the meandering Perfume River (lined with magnificent royal tombs) and the stately Citadel anchor its colourful history as the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945).
While Hue may be a destination (rightly) known for its rich history and culture, dig a little deeper and you’ll uncover other gems, like a lush landscape and incredible cuisine – which has been featured in-depth by the likes of Anthony Bourdain in his widely popular TV series, ‘Parts Unknown’. There are many sides to this multifaceted city, and a trip here won’t be complete without experiencing it all. So whip out your itinerary, and start filling it up with the essentials:
Explore The Citadel
A prime sightseeing attraction in Hue, the Citadel is a expansive complex that dates back to 1805. Once ornate and majestic, it underwent extensive damage during the war between the French and Viet Minh, as well as during the Tet Offensive. While reconstruction works have been carried out, they are a long way from being complete, so visitors will chance upon beautifully restored buildings alongside untended, weed-strewn structures.
The complex is worth a visit for its rich history, and its capacious grounds allow for a peaceful, leisurely stroll. For the full experience, getting a guide is recommended – but if you prefer to roam about on your own, there is the option of reading off from the information area and signages dotted all over the Citadel.
Visit the Tombs of Emperors
As the capital of Vietnam between 1802 to 1945, Hue was home to the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty – the last family to rule Vietnam as a monarchy. While there are seven known tombs in total, we’d suggest visiting just a couple of these sites.
The tomb of Tu Duc is the most popular of the mausoleums; its scenic grounds, dotted with intricate buildings is easily mistaken for a park. Completed while Emperor Tu Duc was still in reign, the tomb contained lakes, hills, pavilion and a theatre, and served as a place where he sought rest and respite away from the palace. The tomb of Minh Mang is just as expansive, and boasts well-landscaped grounds (complete with lakes and canals) and a symmetrical design.
The tomb of Gia Long may be out of the way, but the lack of travellers lends the complex a tranquil atmosphere, and its picturesque surroundings makes the journey to the tomb almost as enjoyable as the visit itself. Featuring a fusion of Asian and European elements, the tomb of Khai Dinh sets itself apart with its distinct, unusual design. Its architecture is rich in details: paintings and mosaics adorn the interiors, stairways are built extensively throughout the complex, sculptures of mandarins, dragons and elephants pepper the grounds and in the centre of an opulent temple stands a bronze, life-sized statue of the emperor, who was known to have led a lavish lifestyle.
Pro-tip: the tombs tends to get busy with tour groups, so it’s best visited during the early hours of the morning.
Get to the Top of the Thien Mu Pagoda
A good bout of climbing is required for a visit to Thien Mu Pagoda, thanks to its elevated hilltop location – but it’s worth the effort to take in the site’s serene ambience, vistas out to the Perfume River and close-up views of the striking seven storey octogonal structure of the Phuoc Duyen Tower.
Take a Tour of the Hue DMZ
A border area that separated North and South Vietnam until the end of the Vietnam War, the DMZ – short for demilitarised zone – was once ravaged by bombings and witnessed raging battles, as well as innumerable deaths of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese. Now a popular day trip destination, the area is home to key historical sites like the Vinh Moc Tunnels, a remarkable tunnel system that housed an entire village, and survived the U.S. bombings, and the Khe Sanh Combat Base, the site of a much publicised battle between the American forces and North Vietnamese.
A private tour of the DMZ is recommended, as group tours tend to involve long, tedious drives and short stopovers at key sites. Touring with a well-informed guide makes all the difference, so have a quick chat with your guide to assess his command of English and knowledge of the site before you book a tour.
Check Out Bach Ma National Park
For a different kind of sightseeing, hop into a car from Hue for a one and a half hour drive to Bach Ma National Park. Spread out over 40,000 hectares, this sprawling national park is known for its stunning landscape, biodiversity and excellent hiking trails. Nature lovers will revel in the wide-ranging variety of activities here: there’s trekking, camping, swimming in the streams and birdwatching – and even waterfall abseiling for the more adventurous souls.
Street Food Feasting
All at once savoury, spicy, tangy and sweet, Vietnamese dishes are a delightful mishmash of flavours, colours and textures. While the city is known for bún bò Huế, a spicy dish of rice vermicelli and beef, there’s plenty else to be savoured – from bowls of banh canh (a noodle soup with crab and tapioca), to servings of banh tranh trung, a crunchy street snack made with rice paper, ground pork, egg and fried shallots.
If you’re comfortable with riding a scooter, you’ll easily be able to zip around on your own in search of street food finds. The bustling Dong Ba market and its small, muddy lanes may seem like an unlikely venue, but it houses a number of street food stalls – one of which has been reviewed by Bourdain. Foodies with a curiosity for discovering the history and cultural background of local dishes will enjoy guided tours by Taste Of Hue,Hue Flavours and Vespa Adventures.
Cover photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis.