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 favor 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, during which the VC slaughtered around 1,000 people suspected of sympathizing with the South, and then subject to an American bombing campaign to retake the city.
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.
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.
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. The airport is relatively out of date as most of its structures were built by the American garrison during the Vietnam War.
Danang's airport, only two hours away by car now that the Hai Van Tunnel is open, is busier, better connected and more dependable.
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.
Public buses from all the bigger cities (including frequent services to Hanoi and Saigon) connect to the main bus station (Ben Xe Hue). Most open tour buses include Hue in their itinerary, connecting to Hoi An or Da Nang to the south (4-6 hours) and Hanoi to the north (13-16 hours). The overnight Hanoi route is popular with locals, but beware of motion sickness among them.
There are also frequent bus services to Savannakhet and Vientiane in Laos. Buses leave at 06:00 and 18:00. The trip to Savannakhet takes about 12 hours and cost around US$12, to Vientiane about 20 hours and US$15-20. The vehicle can be anything between minibus, air-con bus to a local 30 years old bus. You'll probably have to change bus 3-4 times during the trip and toilets (aside from squatting in the jungle) are seldom available. Tickets can be bought in any booking office in the center of Hue.
Like other Vietnamese cities, Hue is flooded with cyclos and motorbikes, as well as a few meter taxis. Taxi drivers are usually honest, but make sure they turn the meter on: trips start at 13,000 dong for the first 2km and tick upward 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, all of the usual disclaimers apply: negotiate a price ahead of time, and don't be afraid to walk away if they're asking too much. No trip in Hue should cost more than 20,000 dong.
Hire a motorbike and join the locals as they swarm across the bridges and along the main roads at a leisurely pace. They're available for around US$5/day from hotels and shops.
Cycling is also a good option, with plenty of bikes available for no more than US$1/day.
Hue is quite compact, so you can reach most of the hotels, restaurants, and the Citadel easily on foot. You'll need to arrange transportation to reach the emperors' tombs, though.
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. Thanks to its size, 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. As a result, some areas are now only empty fields, bits of walls, and an explanatory plaque. Other buildings are intact, though, and a few are in sparkling condition. For the rest, 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 55,000 dong open 06:30-17:00.
Tombs of the Emperors
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. Plan to make a full day of it.
Group tours usually cost about US$2, which includes an excellent (really!) lunch aboard the boat, but does not include admission to the tombs (55,000 dong apiece; cheaper for locals, of course) or the cost of a motorbike from the wharf to each tomb. If you're with a group, the price should be set by the tour company at roughly 25,000 dong for each round-trip. Choose a tour with as few stops as possible &mdash some companies lard up their itineraries with visits to silk farms and a few pagodas, promising to fit everything in neatly. Tour companies aren't noted for their time management, though, and you'll wind up rushed along and frustrated for at least one of the tombs.
If you're traveling on your own, boat hire or a motorbike and driver should cost somewhere around US$20, again not including tomb admissions. All of the tombs can be walked to from the wharfs in anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour. The paths are mostly obvious, but you still probably shouldn't try it without a map or a terrific sense of direction. Most of the tombs are open from 7:30am or 8am to 5:30pm, depending on the season; note that the tour groups arrive around 10am and leave around 3pm in order to get back before dinner, so plan accordingly to avoid the crowds. You'll be glad you did.
The tombs themselves are worth the cost and effort. 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 excellent examples of Vietnamese Buddhist aesthetics and architecture. The older ones have been allowed to crumble into picturesque semi-ruin, although some are now being restored.
In order of age:
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/box.
There are plenty of cheap traveler hotels and mid-market hotels in Hue, as well as a couple of expensive giants. The largest cluster is around the short lane of Pham Ngu Lao (including Le Loi, Hung Vuong, and Chu Van An). It's not quite as big — or backpackery — as its Ho Chi Minh City namesake, but still a definite tourist magnet.