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Hue

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Hue (Huế) is located in central Vietnam and is the former imperial capital.

Guardian statues at the Tomb of Khai Dinh

Understand

Hue is intimately connected to the imperial Nguyễn Dynasty, based in Hue, who ruled from 1804 to 1945, when the Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in favour 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; the VC slaughtered around 1,000 people suspected of sympathizing with the South, and American bombardment before retaking the city probably killed just as many if not more.

Orientation

Hue is easy to get a grip on. The main landmark is the Perfume River (Huong Giang), 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. If you do not like Hue, then you should visit Daklak Province. One of the finer highland cities of Vietnam, Buon Me Thuot is the capital of the province. Once you are there, remember to visit Y-Niem Cafe & Nightclub. It is simply the best region. Take my advice.

Climate

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, and things get even drippier than usual in the winter rainy season. Bring along an umbrella any time of year.

Get in

By plane

Hue's small Phu Bai airport fields daily flights to and from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but flights are quite often disrupted by poor weather and it's 40 minutes away by taxi. Danang's airport, only two hours away by car now that the Hai Van Tunnel is open, is busier and more dependable. The airport is relatively out of date as most of its structures were built by the American garrison during the Vietnam War.

By train

Several trains a day to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Danang (4 hours) etc. The journey down south through the Hai Van Pass is particularly scenic, and from Danang you can take a taxi or motorbike to Hoi An.

A second-class sleeper ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue costs 455,000 dong and offers a wonderful travel experience. The traveller gets to sit, lie and sleep in a very small cabin for 23 hours with five other people (nearly always Vietnamese), eat four plain but tasty and filling Vietnamese meals, listen to a fine selection of Vietnamese pop songs on the PA, and see some incomparably beautiful countryside, particularly in the last section between Da Nang and Hue. It's an excellent way to see the country and meet ordinary Vietnamese, who are unfailingly friendly and helpful, even to travellers who have not bothered to learn a word of their language. The trip is especially recommended if you like babies.

By bus

Public buses from all the bigger cities connect to the main bus station (Ben Xe Hue). Although open-tour buses take you directly to the hostel area, they charge more and tend to keep you from contact with locals.

  • Sinh Cafe, 7 Nguyen Tri Phuong St, [1]. Direct buses to Hoi An cost US$2 and leave twice daily: the 07:30 service crosses the Hai Van Pass and makes three stops, stretching travel time out to 6 hours, while the 13:30 service goes through the tunnel and manages the trip in four. Pick-up directly from your hotel.

Get around

By taxi

Like other Vietnamese cities, Hue is served by metered taxis (sedans), and un-metered cyclo-taxis and motorbike-taxis.

Taxi drivers are usually reasonably honest, but do make sure they turn the meter on: trips start at 13,000 dong for the first 2 km and then tick up at 8,000 dong/km. A metered trip out see two tombs, with waiting time, should come to around 200,000 dong (US$15).

With cyclos and motorbikes, you need to know where you are going and how much it should cost, or you will be overcharged. The drivers do not see this as cheating - you are rich and they are poor. No trip in Hue should cost more than 20,000 dong.

By bike

Hire a motorbike and join the locals as they swarm across the bridges and along the main roads at a leisurely pace. Available for around USD5/day from hotels and shops.

Cycling is also a good option, offering a great range of possibilities for no more than USD1/day.

On foot

Central Hue is quite compact, so you can reach most of the sights easily on foot. However, you'll need some transportation to get out to the emperors' tombs.

See

Imperial Citadel

Courtyard of Ngo Mon, with the Thai Hoa Palace in the background

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. It is also delightfully peaceful - a rare commodity in Vietnam. 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. Some of it is now empty fields, and 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 US$8, open 06:30-17:00.

  • 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 principle 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.
  • 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.

Tombs of the Emperors

The tomb of Khai Dinh on a misty morning
Lake and pavilion at the tomb of Tu Duc

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, which takes between four and six hours and costs between 30,000 dong (for a group) to 150,000 dong (for a boat all to yourself). This cost includes an excellent lunch, but does not include the admission to the tombs themselves, which is usually 55,000 dong, or the cost of a bike trip between the wharf and each of the tombs, which can range from 30,000 dong to 150,000 dong, depending on how hard you bargain. All of the tombs can be walked to from the wharf, with the walk taking anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour. The bike operators are pretty shameless about overcharging tourists so be prepared to be firm - you shouldn't be paying more than 50,000 VND and even that is overcharging you. The tombs themselves are worth the cost. 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 fine examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. Khai Dinh's tomb dates only from 1925 and is well preserved. The older ones have been allowed to crumble into picturesque semi-ruin, although some are now being restored.

  • Tomb of Gia Long, 40 km from Hue. The most remote of the tombs, quiet and fallen into disrepair as Gia Long, the first Nguyen emperor, was notoriously despotic and about as far from Communist ideals as possible.
  • Tomb of Khai Dinh, 10 km from Hue. Dating only from 1925, this is the best preserved of the lot and, while comparatively compact, impressively 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.
  • Tomb of Minh Mang, 12 km from Hue. In this opulent complex, 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). The mausoleum features large gardens and lakes: a pleasant place to sit and relax. 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.
  • Tomb of Tu Duc, 7 km from Hue. 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 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.
  • Thien Mu Pagoda, 4 km from Hue. 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.

Phu Bai Airport

If you are in the area to see relics from the Vietnam War, Phu Bai Airport is a must see. The airport was a dirt strip during the Indochina War, then during the Vietnam War, an American garrison was assigned there and built the airport up building concrete bunkers, paving the airstrip, and added a few other luxuries. The airport was vital in keeping Hue City supplied during the Eastertide Offensive of 1972 when "Charlie jumped the line". The airport retains the original buildings built by the Americans, however, they are retrofitted for use by the Vietnamese. If you have time if you are flying into the city, it would be worthwhile to check out the airport and the grounds.

Do

  • DMZ - Hue agents offer inexpensive tours of the Demilitarized Zone, supposedly a buffer between the North Vietnamese Army and the Americans during the Vietnam War of the 1960s, but which saw intense fighting. Well worth a day trip, sights include former airfields, bases, part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and tunnels used by the locals to hide.

Buy

Eat

Bún bò Huế at Bun Bo Hue

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 bún bò Huế, a noodle soup served with slices of beef and lashings of chili oil. Another tasty local treat is sesame candy (mè xửng), which is peanutty, chewy and quite tasty if fresh, and goes for under 10,000 dong per box.

Budget

  • Bun Bo Hue, 11B Ly Thuong Kiet. This eponymous eatery specializes in its namesake dish. 15,000D gets you a bowl with a generous, mouth-meltingly soft if fatty cutlet plopped on top.
  • Mandarin Cafe, 12 D Hung Vuong. The owner is also a good photographer and many of his pictures hang on the wall. Worth a look.

Mid-range

  • Little Italy serves the best pizza and pasta in town - call 054826928 for home delivery.

Splurge

  • Tinh Gia Vien, 20/3 Le Thanh Ton, tel. +84-54-522243. Wonderful old Hue-style nha vuon garden villa on a quiet side street, formerly the residence of a princess, converted by a bonsai enthusiast into a restaurant serving Imperial cuisine. There are three set menus at $10/12/15, the main difference being — to quote the menu — a "big", "bigger" or "biggest" fish, but all sets have 11 courses and are guaranteed to fill you up. The food wins full points for presentation, but is unfortunately somewhat toned down for the foreign palate.

Drink

Bars and clubs

  • DMZ Bar & Cafe, 44 D Le Loi. Stays open late.
  • Café on Thu Wheels, 1/2 D Nguyen Tri Phuong. It's a little bar owned by the charming lady Thu.
  • B4 Bar-Cafe, 75 D Ben Nghe. A charming Belgian-Vietnamese owned bar, with a welcoming interior and free pool.

Sleep

Lots of cheap traveller hotels and mid-market hotels as well. The largest cluster is along the short lane of Pham Ngu Lao, not quite as backpackery as its Ho Chi Minh City namesake but still a definite tourist magnet.

Budget

  • Binh Duong I + III Hotel offers rooms from USD5, including hot water & satellite TV.

Mid-range

  • Asia Hotel. Opened only in December 2004, but despite the token modern TV the the fittings seem much older. The rooms are well enough equipped though and the rooftop restaurant and pool have nice views. Rooms from a slightly overpriced US$30, including a decent buffet breakfast.Eat on the side of the streets for the best tasting meals is my recommendation.

Splurge

  • Saigon Morin, 30 Le Loi St. Hue's grand old hotel, opened by a Mr. Morin from France and running strong for over a hundred years. Excellent riverside location, white-washed colonial charm and a pleasant inner courtyard, although the rooms could use a little fine-tuning. Rates from US$100.

Get out

  • Hoi An - this old merchant port is 100 km away (about 4 hours by road or train) and can also be visited as a day trip, with Marble Mountain and China Beach as potential stops along the way



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