The former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is centrally located in the country, making it the natural location to rule the former empire in the days of the Nguyen dynasty. As such, there are many attractions related to its former status, such as the monstrous Citadel, where the emperor resided and the affairs of the past empire were run.
That Hue is in the state that it’s presently in is truly miraculous, given that the U.S. military leveled much of this city in the process of taking it back from the Viet Cong. And yet, here it is today, a charming stop halfway to Hanoi or Saigon on the picturesque Perfume River, not only with historical pieces from its imperial past, but also some of the most distinctive regional cuisine in the country.
Just be sure to pack your umbrella and a sweater before checking out this amazing place in Central Vietnam, as the mountains that surround it grace it with the most precipitation of any city in Vietnam. In the winter rainy season, it can pour for weeks on end, and nighttime temperatures can drop to as low as a bone-chilling 8 degrees Celsius.
Of all the attractions in Hue, the Imperial Citadel dominates them all. A gargantuan fortress built to protect the emperor of Vietnam and the government that ran its affairs, the Citadel consists of many temples and pavilions in addition to the emperor’s palatial living quarters, surrounded by walls and a deep moat. While portions of the complex were damaged in the wars of the 20th century, restoration is ongoing to this day, and many buildings are pristine condition, compared to where they were 30 years ago.
Just south of the city of Hue are the Tombs of the Emperors, where the imperial leaders of years past lie in elaborate stone mausoleums. There are six tombs in total, varying in their state of repair, and their extravagance, which was based of the philosophy of the ruler in charge at the time. Access can be had by taxi, but it is recommended you take a boat cruise down the Perfume River to the tomb sites, as lunch is provided, and you often get to visit other sights along the way, such as pagodas and silkworm farms.
On the topic of pagodas, one that you should be sure to check out during your stay in Hue is the Thien Mu Pagoda. The complex was named for the apparition of an elderly lady, would foretold the building of a pagoda to pray for the country’s prosperity. After hearing this, the first lord of the Nguyen Dynasty ordered its construction in 1601. With the pagoda tower rising to the height of seven stories, it is the tallest of its kind in Vietnam, and contains many stunning Buddha idols within its chambers.
If your muscles are aching after a long ardous night bus journey here from Hanoi, seek relief for your body at one of two local hot springs – My An, which is 7 kilometres from town, and Thanh Tan, a little further away at 13 kilometres from the centre. My An has high amounts of sulphur in the water, which is renowned to have medicinal properties. However, it the smell is too much for your delicate nose, you would be better served by going to Thanh Tan, which lacks the smell, but is also a wild hot spring, which is worth considering if that sort of thing bothers you.
Besides its many historical sites, Hue is a gourmand’s paradise, as the cuisine here was originally designed to please the imperial emperors. Be sure to try Bun Bo Hue, a close cousin of Pho Bo, but with chili oil and shrimp paste thrown in to complement the noodles and beef slices, and if you’re not in the mood for soup, then Bun Thit Nuong (BBQ pork served over vegetables and noodles) or Banh Khoai (a savory pancake stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork) will fit the bill nicely.
Finally, if you have time on your journeys for this and are confident in the saddle of a motorbike, be sure to try one of the Top Gear inspired motorbike tours over the breathtakingly beautiful Hai Van pass. A mountain range that juts into the South China Sea between the two aforementioned cities, it offers spectacular views of the deep blue ocean on one side, and a dark emerald green cloud forest, rising up the sheer mountainous walls on the other.