As a self-confessed history buff, one of the main attractions of Vietnam for me was the intrigue of its legendary past. Royal Emperors of old, majestic historic monuments, and temple upon temple of colourful photo opportunities… it all sounded rather appealing to my inner nerdy self.
Cut to Hue: Vietnam’s former capital city and the third stop on our cross-country tour of Vietnam. Once home to the Royal Nguyen dynasty, this is Vietnam’s very own “Forbidden City” and warrants at least a day to explore. Luckily, it’s located just beyond the iconic Hai Van Pass in Central Vietnam, making it the perfect stopover on any travel itinerary.
From majestic pagodas and royal tombs to towering skyscrapers and a buzzing nightlife scene, this is a city where the old collides with the new. With only 24 hours to explore, you’ll have to pick and choose your must-sees and grab a good pair of walking shoes because there is a LOT to take in…
Where to stay
Hue was the cheapest city that we stayed in, in Vietnam, and you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding affordable accommodation. Location is going to be your top priority if you’re only here for a day or two, so try to find somewhere that’s within reasonable walking distance of the city’s main attractions.
After reading review after glowing review, we opted for Hotel La Perle, located about a 25 minute walk to the Imperial City and within minutes of great restaurants and bars. At just £19 per room, we had a first-rate experience, thanks to the most fantastically lovely and attentive staff you could ever wish to meet (PLUS the friendliest, little village dog who waited to greet us at reception each day… I kid you not, it took all my might not to sneak him home in my suitcase…)
What to do
Hue is well known for its myriad of historical landmarks and monuments, rightfully earning it its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. With just 24 hours to explore, you’ll want to focus on a couple of key points of interest rather than trying to squeeze everything in.
The city is divided by the Perfume River, with the historic attractions located to the north. Save the modern part of the city for sun-down – there’s not much to see here that can’t be found in other Vietnamese cities, so you’re best sticking to the historical sites during the day and saving the city life for night.
Morning – Explore The Imperial City
Hue’s legendary Imperial City is where the Nguyen Emperors lived, worked and reigned until 1945, when the Communist government took over in North Vietnam, uprooting centuries of dynasty rule.
The Imperial City is one of the most important tourist attractions in Hue and you’ll need a couple of hours to fully appreciate this sprawling walled complex of temples, gardens and colourful royal buildings. Sadly, much of the city was destroyed in the Vietnam War but there is still plenty of history to explore.
As you approach from the outside, you’ll spot several bridged entrances leading into the walled grounds. You’ll have to pay an entrance fee of 150.000 VD (approx £5) at the gates and then you’re free to roam the complex, as you wish.
Once inside, you’ll find a maze of grand buildings, incense-filled temples and colourful palaces. Guided tours are available at an extra cost but we decided to just wander at our own pace to take it all in.
Be sure to look out for the Red Hallway – one of the most photographed spots in Vietnam. You may be waiting forever to get a clear shot but it’s so worth it to walk in the steps of royalty!
Afternoon – Tour the Royal Tombs
There are 7 royal tombs in Hue, marking the final resting place of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. Each one has its own unique and decadent feel, which is not surprising as the emperors spent most of their lives planning their burial sites, down to the last detail.
The tombs are located around the outskirts of the city therefore you’ll only have time to visit one or two in a day. We booked a small-group afternoon tour with a local company, through our hotel, and this was a brilliant way to understand the history of the tombs and their resident emperors – it’s also much easier than trying to transport yourself to remote locations around the city.
The first tomb we visited was the Tomb of Minh Mang – the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty who ruled over Vietnam in the 19th century. Legend has it that Minh Mang spent 14 years trying to find a suitable location for his final resting place before settling on this idyllic site. He died before realising his grand vision for his burial site and it took two more years after his death to get the design just right.
Today, the site is an oasis of calm with beautiful sculpted gardens and lotus flower ponds separating the majestic temples and colourful structures.
We had the place pretty much to ourselves, which made it all the more atmospheric. One of the benefits of paying extra for smaller group tours is that you get to spend time wandering around and taking your photos at a more comfortable pace, rather than getting hurried along or having to peer over several dozen shoulders to get a glimpse of the sights!
The second tomb we visited was the Tomb of Khai Dinh – the young, flamboyant emperor who took his inspiration from the Gothic architecture of Europe and France, in particular. The grey imposing structures of this site are in stark contrast to the traditional colourful design of the other emperors’ tombs but are stunning in their own right.
What sets this tomb apart is the stunning scenery that surrounds the site. As you make your way up the many, many (!) stone steps, you are rewarded with the most breath-taking panoramic views of the rolling Vietnamese countryside all around you. You can even spot the famous towering, white female Buddha statue in the distance!
Be sure to check out the main building itself, where the walls and ceilings are ornately decorated with colourful murals and photos of Khai Dinh himself, whose body is entombed far below the building.
After visiting the tombs, we made a quick stop at a conical hat and incense-making village, where we got to have a go at making colourful incense ourselves (I quickly learned that this was NOT my forte…!) before being transported back to our hotel.
Where to eat and drink
After a long day of sightseeing, you’ll be gagging for some good food and a cold beer… I wasn’t expecting much from the food scene in Hue, especially after being in Hoi An – Vietnam’s food capital for 4 days – but we ate so well for so cheap during our short stay in the city!
Madam Thu is a great laid-back little place, serving up traditional Vietnamese dishes at ridiculously low prices (I’m talking £5-6 to feed both of us, with beers… yep, you heard me correctly…) If you try just one dish, go for the crispy spring rolls – hands down, the best I tried in Vietnam!
I’d also highly recommend Elegant Restaurant for overall experience – with indoor and outdoor seating, it’s the perfect place to sit and watch the city go by, whilst enjoying great, traditional Asian food. The owner even came over to serve us personally and chatted to us all about our travels and the U.K. He made sure that our glasses and plates were never empty and even served up some seriously tasty home-made ice-cream for us “on-the-house”.
To wind up your whistle-stop tour of Hue, head to one of the city’s buzzing backpacker bars for a £1 mojito before heading back to your hotel for the night.
Travelling to Hoi An after Hue? Check out my post on how to make the most of your time in this beautiful “lantern town”.