Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, Hue is one of the most popular cities for visitors to Vietnam, largely because of its historical significance. It was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, and despite the ravages of war and weather, the city retains enough of its heritage to impress all who visit. Hue seems to move at its own pace, maintaining a unique cultural identity, and though you’ll see a few new hotels in the European Quarter, there is nothing of the wholesale modernisation that is evident in other Vietnamese towns.
To do Hue justice, it’s advisable to spend a few days here. In this way, you can explore the Imperial City at a leisurely pace and still have time for a boat trip along the Perfume River to visit the Royal Mausoleums in the countryside to the south of town. Also keep in mind that in a country of delectable cuisine, Hue maintains a reputation for being a cut above the rest, so it’s worth nosing out some Hue specialities while you are here.
The city as it stands today was constructed by Emperor Gia Long, who founded the Nguyen dynasty and began the construction of the massive Citadel. The two-metre thick walls stretch around 10 kilometres. They are surrounded by a 30-metre wide and four-metre deep moat that makes the site seem impenetrable. Beside the main entrance to the citadel stands the Flag Tower, which is flanked by nine symbolic cannons made of bronze. Within the Citadel stands the Imperial City, and within the Imperial City stands the Forbidden Purple City. As visitors move from one area to another, there is a sense of growing exclusivity.
The main building of the entire complex is the Thai Hoa Place, where coronations once took place and foreign dignitaries were received. There is a splendid golden throne here set among 80 carved and lacquered columns. Behind the palace, a vast empty space marks the Forbidden Purple City, where a fire in 1947 destroyed most buildings. One building that does remain, however, and is worth a look for its atmospheric rooms, is the Thai Binh Reading Pavilion, which is surrounded by bonsai gardens. In the southwest corner of the Imperial City, another significant sight is the Nine Dynastic Urns– huge containers made of bronze and exquisitely carved with scenes from nature.
Outside of the Citadel, there’s still a lot to see, including several colonial buildings constructed by the French in the late 19th century. The French took control of the city in 1885, but settled south of the Perfume River along Le Loi in an area now known as the European Quarter, and left the Citadel under the nominal control of the Nguyen lords. The former governor’s residence is now a flash hotel (La Residence), while the Quoc Hoc School was once attended by Ho Chi Minh. A statue of him stands in front of the school, and the local Ho Chi Minh Museum is almost opposite.
The Nguyen lords developed a tradition of building impressive Royal Mausoleums in the forested hills to the west of the city, and a pleasant day can be spent on a boat trip along the Perfume River that takes in not only the most important mausoleums, but also the picturesque Thien Mu Pagoda and the Hon Chen Temple. Thien Mu Pagoda is probably Hue’s most memorable icon – a slender, tapering tower of seven levels, while the rooftops of Hon Chen Temple are nestled among dense vegetation on the riverbank.
Each of the mausoleums covers such a large area that it would be impossible to see all of them in one day, but tours generally include three of the most impressive – those dedicated to Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang. The twelve hectares occupied by the Tu Duc Mausoleum show clearly how the emperors attempted to blend the temples and pavilions with nature. Several of the buildings border a large lake, and it’s easy to imagine how the emperor spent his days composing poems in the idyllic landscape before his death.
Khai Dinh ruled from 1916-25, and was seen as little more than a puppet of the French, yet he made sure he was remembered by building a grand structure that fused Vietnamese, European and Cham elements of design. A life-size bronze statue of him stands in the principal temple, where Vietnamese make offerings of incense to his memory. Probably the most splendid of all the mausoleums is that of Minh Mang, where all the main buildings are set on an east-west line and are surrounded by landscaped gardens and tranquil lakes.
Where to stay in Hue
Saigon Morin: Originally built in 1901 by the French, this historic hotel has welcomed such notables as Charlie Chaplin and Somerset Maugham. A recent renovation has taken much of the historic feel away, though the garden courtyard remains a pleasant spot. Rooms from US$74; 30 Le Loi St., Riverside… more details and booking
Imperial Hotel Hue: Hue’s first five-star hotel, opened in 2006, is also the most comfortable place to stay. It features a swimming pool, fitness centre and a smart restaurant, as well as rooms equipped with every facility. Rooms from US$78; 8 Hung Vuong, Street, Hue City, Hue… more details and booking
More on Hue hotels and guesthoues.
Where to eat in Hue
While walking the streets of Hue, keep your eyes open for street stalls sellingbanh khoai – a tasty pancake stuffed with prawns, pork and beansprouts. Several Hue restaurants also specialise in what they call ‘Imperial Cuisine’, which consists of several courses and is often accompanied by traditional musicians serenading diners. More on Hue restaurants and bars.
An Dinh Vien: This huge place offers guests the chance to play at being emperor while dining on typical Hue dishes. Customers dress up in robes and headdresses and are serenaded by court musicians and are served with beautifully-presented dishes that sometimes look too good to eat. Open: 10:00-22:00 (daily); 7 Pham Hong Thai st., Hue City, tel: +84 5 4382 4076, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to Hue
Hue is connected to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city by bus and train, but most visitors prefer to fly as the overland journey from south or north takes a day out of their schedule. The airport is located 14kms south of town.