Hue City Guide
In this Hue city guide, Hidden looks at Hue (pronounced hway), an awe-inspiring coastal city in Central Vietnam, about 700kms from Hanoi and 1,100kms from Ho Chi Minh City. Hue is widely regarded for its citadel, an elaborate set of complexes containing the remnants of the 19th Century Nguyen Dynasty. Filled with pagodas, royal tombs and the crumbled remains of the once-proud home of its royal residents, Tu Cam Thanh – The Forbidden Purple City.
The monuments here are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contain more than enough attractions to put your culture craving heart at ease. Other than this jewel of a site, Hue is still modernistic, offering delights more present than its 19th Century tombs.
Quick History of Hue City
Hue’s oldest ruins date all the way back to the 4th Century A.D., though these aren’t found on-site, but are kept in Long Tho Hill, 3kms from the city. Hue owes much of its brilliant history to its status as the capital of both the Đàng Trong Kingdom, 1738 to 1775, and the Nguyen Dynasty, the last of the Vietnamese monarchy.
The Nguyen Dynasty was one that valued education and culture. The first king of the last dynasty, Gia Long, brought poets, philosophers and artists to cultivate Vietnamese culture. He furthered this by ordering the writing of important books in national history and geography to educate the people and even refused diplomatic relations to stamp out European influence.
Chinese Influence on Hue City
Vietnam was still largely under the influence of China though as Gia Long established Chinese institutions and even forced Vietnamese bureaucrats to wear Chinese gowns. Confucianism was hailed as the ruling ideology. This was merely the beginning for a hugely influential kingdom, one with many tragedies and triumphs to tell. One where emperors lived lavishly and watched tigers battle elephants for entertainment, surrounded by rare treasures of orange pearls and jade chess boards.
The Nguyen Dynasty ended in 1945 when Bao Dai, the last ruler, abdicated his throne. Handing the symbols of his authority over to Ho Chi Minh’s representatives, a golden seal and a ruby-studded sword, the king proclaimed “I would rather live as an ordinary citizen of an independent country than be Emperor of a nation of slaves.”
The Imperial City is, unfortunately, a shadow of its former self. Much of it was left destroyed through battles with French colonial powers in 1947 as well as the American forces during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Best Time to Visit Hue City
Hue can be considerably warmer than other central cities with maximums of 35 degrees celsius in its hottest months, July and August. This also happens to be a prime tourist season. So if you feel boatloads of sweaty tourists might detract you from the time-travelling effects of the citadel, avoid these months.
After that temperatures drop off but in exchange for heavy rainfall, as much as 500mm in October and November! Overall, the best time to visit would be January through to March. Rainfall decreases as the country enters its dry months and temperatures can be cool without getting unpleasant. The lowest temperatures in January are 17 degrees celsius with March making it up to 28 degrees celsius.
Getting to Hue
Hue is accessible by a number of ways. If you’d rather skip all the suspense of driving, Hue’s Phu Bai airport is located 15kms from the city centre. The airport only serves domestic flights, those from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Trains are also available but vary in pricing depending on how fast you’d like to travel, Express trains taking a couple of hours or cheaper options can take the whole day. Buses are also available and by far the cheapest option but also the slowest.
Here’s Hidden’s detailed account on getting to Hue if you’re coming from Hoi An
Getting to Hue by Train
Taking the train is probably the best option in the compromise between budget and comfort. It’s very easy to book online, though certain agencies or hotels will charge you a fee.
Hidden Hint: Booking at the station is simple enough but be prepared to pay in cash as most don’t accept cards.
“The Reunification Express” trains pass through Hue city daily with the trip taking around 13 hours from Hanoi and almost 20 from Ho Chi Minh City. A first-class sleeper costs around 1,500,000 VND (65 USD) and the second class isn’t much less. But the tall may need to fold themselves a little to fit in the second class berth. Hue’s railway station is located at 2 Bui Thi Xuan Street, about 15 minutes away from the city centre, taxis are readily available just outside.
Hidden’s written a detailed article about the train trip from Hue to Da Nang for further reading:
Getting to Hue by Air
Flights from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City take just over an hour to reach Hue city and are relatively cheap (1,000,000-2,000,000 VND (43-86 USD)). Hue’s Phu Bai Airport handles daily flights from Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City and Noi Bai in Hanoi. It also serves flights from Dalat and Da Nang. Taxis from the airport to the city centre are available for around 350,000 VND (15 USD). But use your negotiation skills if you haven’t pre-booked.
Getting to Hue by Bus
Some travellers in Hoi An attempt a day trip to Hue but Hidden doesn’t recommend this. It requires six hours total travel time and leaving you bewildered by the immensity of the city without a chance to grasp it. This place is worth two days minimum.
A bus from Hoi An to Da Nang would be the first place to start, 40,000 VND (1.75 USD). After that, the bus to Hue city will take about three hours costing 70,000 VND (3 USD). Da Nang’s Central Bus Station regularly services this route daily and it’s easy to book on arrival at 201 Ton Duc Thang, Hoa An Ward, Cam Le District.
If you’re coming from Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi there are buses available. However, it is a long winding journey devoid of certain comforts. If you are a determined budgeter though the bus does the job for as little as 300,000 VND (13 USD)! In Ho Chi Minh, Hoang Long and Futa Bus lines service this route at the Mien Dong Bus Station. From Hanoi head to the Nuoc Ngam Station where you’ll also find the Hoang Long Company.
Read our full article here if you wish to get back from Hue to Hoi An by motorbike.
Where to Stay in Hue
The Purple Hue BnB Central
Well equipped with double rooms, private bathrooms, and a good Vietnamese breakfast, this BnB serves you nicely. Purple Central Hub opened in mid-2019 so the rooms and facilities are brand new. There are other properties by the same team so pick the one with the best location for your plans. Run by a sociable family with a background in charity work and an eye for great design.
The location includes a craft beer stocked bar and a terrace making sure you’re more than prepared for a night in after a long day of travel. Its situated in a convenient spot, being 200m from the walking streets and local market, 700m from the Perfume River and within a 2km radius from both the bus and train station as well as the Imperial City. Airport pick up, 15km away, Wi-Fi and housekeeping are all available.
Hue Riverside Villa
The perfect location if you’re not willing to splash your cash on a fancier option, but would like to be right on the edge of the Perfume River, or at least one of its tributaries. Hidden away down an alley and just past a quaint tree-shaded cafe, is Kora Cafe, you’ll spot its brick-faced reception area.
Its rooms stack next to each other, so not all offer a riverside view. But you can head down to their relaxing garden which places you right by the body of water. There are three options for private rooms. All have a double bed but vary in size (biggest is 28m2 and the smallest is 18m2). There’s also a connected family room with two double beds.
It offers complimentary bicycles, Wi-Fi and breakfast. Laundry, tour booking and airport transfers are also available. The Imperial City is just over 2kms away, but their complementary bicycles can come in handy if you don’t feel like walking.
Restaurants in Hue City
Hue is renowned for its wide variety of aesthetic food. Some of this can be attributed to Emperor Tu Duc who was famously an extremely fussy eater.
The Ancient Hue Royal Gallery Cuisine
If wandering through the citadel hasn’t satisfied your need for royal pretense this might be the place for you. Situated inside the Ancient Hue Garden Houses, occupied in its 19th Century wooden house, is a famous destination, able to fit a large number of guests who are invited to dress in royal attire.
Its most spectacular aspect is its food, modelled after animals, plants and even mythical creatures like the Phoenix. This artistry in and of itself is enough to enthral you. But if you feel like pondering over something less edible the restaurant actually contains an art gallery featuring abstract paintings, crafts and ceramics. If this isn’t enough, customers also take in a martial art performance known as Kinh Van An.
As a side activity the restaurant also offers cooking classes that take you on a boat trip to the famous Dong Ba Market. This is definitely a pricier option but worth it as the restaurant is renowned for its vivid recreation of royal cuisine and faithfulness to its inspiration. Definitely, a worthwhile experience if you’re so inclined.
You see the popularity of Hanh Restaurant by the crowds flocking here every night. Hanh delivers Hue specialties like nem lui and banh beo to happy tourists in the city and loyal Hue residents alike. A large tray of banh beo sets you back 70,000 VND (3 USD). The little dishes of soft flour cake topped with dried shrimp and pork crackling are doused in fish sauce and scooped from the dish with a spoon.
The staff here are friendly and efficient with quick service considering the number of tables. After eating, take a moment to check out the glass cabinet of plasticine superheroes. The owner’s son, often found in a corner making wonderfully intricate models of his favourite characters.
What to Do in the City of Hue
Duyet Thi Duong Royal Theatre
This restored theatre, found within the citadel walls, is the oldest in Vietnam. Its conception was in 1826, thanks to Emperor Minh Mang, it became the leading performing art centre in the Nguyen Dynasty. Performances of royal dancing, opera and music are on display.
Performances occur twice daily at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., lasting around 45 minutes. These times are subject to change as the website isn’t regularly updated and tickets can’t be booked online. It is best to stop by during your visit to the citadel and confirm times. However, if you’re low on time and can’t make a whole show, the theatre may still be of interest as it holds vibrant displays of theatre masks, instruments and other props, accompanied with English descriptions. You’ll find it guarded by an elaborate red and yellow three-gate entrance with only the middle one open. A must-see for those interested in how Monarchs kept themselves entertained between tiger fights.
Boat Trip on the Perfume River
The Perfume River crosses through Hue city with various tributaries sprawled throughout the city. In the Autumn months, orchard flowers cover the river from upstream, giving it a dreamy aroma and its signature name. Urbanisation means that the scent may not be as potent as it was 100 years ago when it got its name. But still, a boat trip makes for scenic views and is by far the preferred mode of transport to visit the tombs and pagodas littered all over.
Hidden suggests the Thien Mu Pagoda Tour by Dragon Boat. Its great value for money tour takes you to the tallest pagoda in the country. The tour lasts three hours and leaves you plenty of time to do your own exploring during the day. You meet at Footsteps Travel Hue at 3 pm. Booking is easy enough to do through TripAdvisor and costs you just over 1,000,000 VND (4.30 USD).
What to See in the City of Hue
Finally, the highlight of anyone’s trip of the city would be visiting Hue’s two most significant sights, the Citadel and the tombs of Gia Long, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang. Conveniently, sites come in a package tour ticket for 360,000 VND (14.50 USD)/adults or 70,000 VND (3 USD)/kids. This ticket only grants you access, so for a more informed visit then a tour guide is an additional cost.
The Imperial City
Navigating this place may seem daunting without a guide as multiple gates and walls divide it up into different citadels inside bigger ones. But an unguided musing is also deeply emotive. The Forbidden Purple City and the Imperial Enclosure sit inside the epicentre of the larger citadel complex. The former is recognisable by the large moat that runs around it. Therefore the grandeur of the atmosphere is epic. It is easy to be whisked away, along its many connecting bridges, towards something that once held such majesty. Various businesses scattered inside the complex, blur the line between past and present. Many buildings have been fully restored, making the experience that much more sensational.
The Imperial City gets crowded so for a meditative visit, arrive when it opens at 7 a.m. However, if you’re travelling between April and September consider seeing one of the nightly dances, as the citadel stays open till 10 pm.
It’s free to wander around initially but you’ll have to pay to see the good stuff. Once you reach the Imperial Enclosure it’ll be 150,000 VND (6.50 USD) for an adult ticket and 30,000 VND (1.30 USD) for a child. Add an extra 150,000 VND for a tour guide. The site isn’t what it used to be after bombings by both the French and the Americans but the rubble, weeds and cracks have the atmosphere of another historic setting.
The Imperial Tombs
These grand resting grounds might be the most legendary way to satisfy your morbid side. Take Emperor Tu Duc’s, for example, its forced labour and grand expense were close to starting a coup, until this was found out and subsequently squashed. Tu Duc’s tomb is the most popular and you can see why it’s a beautiful example of composed landscaping and harmonic architecture. Tu Duc himself designed this site as his escape to write poetry.
This one costs you 150,000 VND (6.50 USD)/per adult and 30,000 VND (1.30 USD) per child. But if you’re planning on seeing the other tombs then a package deal is the best option. The tombs are scattered as far as 10kms away from each other. However, this is managed through a bus/boat tour or, more enjoyably, by renting a xe om (motorbike taxi). The tombs vary in atmosphere and aesthetic with some being forested and zen or feel gothic like the walls of Emperor Khai Dinh’s.
Furthermore, if after all these exploits you’re still in the mood for time travel check out our comprehensive guide on Hue’s abandoned water park!