Often overlooked to popular Da Nang and Hoi An nearby, once considered its cultural, religious and educational heart, Hue, Vietnam remains a fragment of Vietnam’s former dynastic rule. Hue is usually a stopping point for those travelers making there from North-South or South-North. Many tourists make a stop for a day or two to take a look at the ancient city. Hue served as Vietnam’s capital for over a century under the ruling Nguyen family, from 1802 to 1945. Straddling the Perfume River many of the 13 rulers left a mark on the city in the form of tombs, a massive Citadel and several notable pagodas. The biggest draw here is the Citadel, which is a Chinese style town and settlement dating back to the 1800’s.
What to See
The Imperial City
The Citadel was the centre of the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam which only ended in 1945. Since then, the Hue Citadel has seen two wars and been virtually destroyed and rebuilt. You can spend a good few hours exploring the various temples, gates and courtyards, some of which are quite detailed and beautiful. The Citadel was originally modelled after the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, China. Its construction began in 1804 under Gia Long, the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. It is composed of three walled ramparts, each enclosing the other and, in essence, forming a city within a city. Once inside the first set of walls, you will notice nine ceremonial cannons that were placed there in 1802. The Nine Cannons are named after each of the five elements and the four seasons.
The Royal Temple of Tu Duc
This temple site is full of Colourful temples surrounded by elegant lily ponds. It is said that Emperor Tu Duc built this mausoleum in advance of his death, and some people say that all 200 of the men who helped bury Emperor Tu Duc were beheaded to keep the location safe from grave robbers. Not only did Tu Duc have 104 wives, the forced labour involved in building his tomb caused an uprising which was suppressed.
Thein Mu Pagoda
The Thien Mu Pagoda is the most famous and oldest pagoda in Hue. Built in 1844 by Emperor Thieu Tri, it features golden Buddha images at the base, along with a big bell cast in 1710, and a stone turtle holding a marble stele inscribed in the 17th century. This pagoda is also famous for being the home monastery of the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who, in 1963, traveled to Saigon and burned himself to death at a busy downtown junction to protest against the then government. The Austin car he used to drive down to Saigon is on display within the pagoda too. Thien Mu Pagoda is 3.5km west of the Phu Xuan Bridge (the railway bridge).
Hue has long been recognised as being rich in Vietnamese history. Visitors interested in its history should take a bit of time to admire the emperors’ tombs and most of them are located in large and beautiful grounds. Such important tombs include Tu Duc, Minh Mang, Khai Dinh and Gia Long. The emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb is one of the most grandiose tombs in Hue. Outside the stone has been speckled with mildew and dirt and the stone statues stand in waiting aged only by the weather. Inside the tomb is a very different affair, the interior of the main building is extravagantly decorated with mosaics and ornate artwork. This Tomb also shows the European and Oriental influences which appealed to Khai Dinh who was not popular because of his close relationship with the French government.
What to eat
A traditional Vietnamese dish which is synonymous with they city of Hue is Bun Bo Hue which is a dish associated with the royal court. This soup and noodle dish has a unique and distinctive flavour. It is well balanced with sweet, salty, sour and spicy elements. Noodles are combined with the dark, flavoursome broth and a ion of meat all topped off with fragrant fresh herbs. Another dish that is unique to Hue is Com Hen comprising of hot mussel and chilli broth poured over rice mussels and variety of vegetables and herbs. This dish, like many traditional foods in Hue, is known for being extremely spicy so although the main ingredients, apart from the broth, are cold, this dish is fiery in flavour.
How to reach
The best way to reach Hue is take a bike/car from Da Nang and go via the Hai Van Pass. This is the most famous pass in central Vietnam, and stretches 20km between Hue and Da Nang. It was most famously depicted in the road trip calamity that brought motorcycling Vietnam into the spotlight on the Top Gear Special by Jeremy Clarkson and friends. The pass slopes up 500-meters and makes up about 20kms of the road connecting the provinces of Hue and Da Nang. Historically this location acted as the divide of regional kingdoms between the Champa and Dai Viet. Today the area is untied, but the Hai Van mountain range will forever protect the southern side of Danang from the cool northern winds, keeping it warmer.