Hue: Pronounced (Hway) , is the former capital city of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty. In 1802, then Emperor Gia Long founded the dynasty and moved the capital from Hanoi to Central Hue with the hopes of uniting both North and South Vietnam.
It is a beautiful city of contrasts, where beautifully restored pagodas and palaces sit along side the rubble and destruction from 2 huge wars. Ravaged by these wars, one can only imagine its former glory. The Communist Flag flies high and mighty on the cities famous Citadel shadowing the once glorious Palace to remind the people of the unification of the country.
Located on the beautiful Perfume River, Hue provided an exquisite setting where the Nguyen Dynasty held court for a little over a century , and did it beautifully. As beautiful as the surroundings were, the history of the Nguyen Dynasty was anything but, beautiful. Manipulated by the Chinese Mandarins, controlled by the French, and destroyed by the American ( Vietnam) War, the Dynastic Emperors saw little happiness in this peaceful looking capital.
Never-the-less, the most awe-inspiring structures were built here by the Emperors to both house them in life and house them also in Death and fortunately for history seekers and tourist alike, many of them still stand unscathed.
While first deciding upon my route to visit Indochina , I decided to skip the super south after Ho Chi Minh City, and Venture North Central from the city to a quiet and small Imperial town / Capital of Hue, for a little bit of History.
Our Journey was a 3 day 2 night quick bit tour . I recommend at least 3 nights but 2 is just fine!
Reaching Hue is very easy. There are several options, of course, but I decided the best one for me would be to fly.
Our journey to Hue was our first internal domestic flight on Vietnam Air. Upon researching , I’ve learned that Vietnam Air is the most reliable and comfortable when flying domestic, not to mention, very inexpensive.
I booked online via their website about 4 months prior to traveling. I was able to secure really good business class seats, and I’m so glad I did. Besides a little extra comfort on my very short flights, flying Business Class on Vietnam Air is wonderful. At check in, you have a dedicated line only for business and first class passengers ( no first class on domestic flights) . You also have a dedicated line at security , which is the most lucrative blessing they offer. The lines for economy passengers on Vietnam Air and other airlines is atrocious . It is an easy 45 minute wait, if you’re lucky, and I’ve read all about that on Trip Advisor on how much time to allot oneself getting to and through the airports. With business class seating, you fly by in under 3 minutes if there are people in front on you. You also have more weight allotment and entrance to their Lotus Lounges to wait. You also, have a separate line to board the plane, separate car/ bus/ or special limo type car to enter and exit the plane, and are the first to board and deplane. For sky team members, you also collect full mileage , like for Delta . So trust me, it is cheap, and well worth it to fly business class on Vietnam Air.
We left our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City ( check out Ho Chi Minh City: Saigon Dreams ) Checked in, and were relaxing and enjoying a few Saigon Beers and Pho at the very comfortable lotus Lounge , without a care in the world.
It was so beautiful to fly over lush looking forests and rice patties, and as we descended into the misty air, we landed in Hue no longer than an hour inflight. We were met by our driver who we pre-arranged with our hotel all for about $11 total. Not cheap for Vietnamese standards , but dirt cheap for Hawaii… About 25 minutes later, we were pulling up into the very busy heart of Hue, to our side street hotel.
I searched and searched for hotels, and found many to be a little dated, yet pretty sitting very lovely on the perfume river, however, they just were not me. Instead I found a very lovely little boutique hotel called The Scarlett Boutique Hotel. You can find my review by clicking here The Scarlett Boutique Hotel Review . A very small hotel, we were able to secure a room on the top floor in their largest suite ( the Scarlett Suite) it came with a king sized bed, well adorned room with a small but adequate bathroom. Our view was partial river”ish”, but a lovely view into the home of our neighbor, who was always entertaining. It is located on a small side street off of Ben Nghye street which is a 3 minute walk to the touristy pubs and restaurants and 5 minutes walk to the Perfume river AT first my mother was not very happy with this hotel, as we just came from a gigantic hotel in HCMC. She doesn’t get the concept of a boutique hotel. I instead was in heaven as it felt more personalized, quaint, beautiful, chic, and cool. Our check in was fast, and lovely with some fresh fruit and drinks, and next thing you know, we were in our room freshening up and ready to hit the town. During check in though, we were offered some options for tours. At first I wasn’t interested as I do like to do things on my own time and with my own schedule and itinerary, however, after setting into my room , I thought about how I’m with my mother, and how much she wanted to go on an escorted tour. I gave in and chose an itinerary that looked good and immediately booked a tour for the following day ( more on that later ).
With our tours booked for the following day, and us all freshened up, we decided to walk around the vicinity of downtown Hue, and grab some much needed lunch on Pub Street famous for al their little American inspired pubs, and local and western Restaurants. The beautiful mist we experienced when landing, now turned into light rain, so we grabbed umbrellas offered to us from the hotel, while my mother enjoyed a cigarette and conversation with a lovely Brazilian couple and made our way into town.
Walking out of our hotel we encountered numerous bicycle rickshaws vying for our attention and patronage. These buggers are aggressive, and consistent with their touts, but not so consistent with their pricing. Outrageously priced at $30 for an hour we kindly declined to the first, second, third, and 15th driver trying their hardest to seduce us. The rain was coming down in light drizzles and the mist of the early afternoon made our walk a bit cooler . Like Ho Chi Minh City ( HCMC) traffic is mental. Complete disregard for pedestrians. We soon ended up in Pub town which is comprised of 4 streets and 2 avenues. It was filled with the henna styled, and hair braided tourists, in the shortest shorts known to man, belching Americans and Europeans sporting their 3rd day of no showers. Little boutique stores and some not so boutique tourist shops dotted the alley ways along side a plethora of restaurants and cafes.
After filling our tummies with something quick and light, we made our way out of the infamous PUB street, heading towards one of 3 main bridges along the Perfume River. The touts from the Bikes never stopped, and I watched locals eat from merchants selling their spiciest soups along the very narrow sidewalks . I really wanted to try them out but my mother wasn’t too game. I so wanted to relive Anthony Bordain’s experience here but maybe some other time.
As we made our way towards the Perfume river and older part of town, the architecture started to change dramatically . Here Old French Colonial style buildings became prevalent with its sweet and beautiful high ceiling porches, columns, and marvelous setting in a Vietnamese garden filled with lush greenery and flowers. It was spectacular. The perfume river, now covered in mist was even more alluring, and beckoned us to cross the street, at our own peril of course. As we waited for the hundreds of motor bikes who were whipping past us to die down, an elderly gentlemen in a cane motioned for us to follow him, and that we did, crossing the streets in an imperial style game of Frogger, a bit more elegant than that of HCMC ( Ho Chi Minh City: Saigon Dreams)
The river was on the move this afternoon. Morning rains has given the river some momentum. We attempted to cross over the bridge to try and make it to Dong Ba Market, a famous market in HUE, but my mother wasn’t feeling it, and the humidity was on the rise again. Instead we checked out the day/ night market next to the bridge which hosts beautiful Vietnamese and Chinese crafts for sale by the many different ethnic people of Vietnam. Beautiful ceramics, Vases, woven rugs, paintings, and sculptures were just some of the lovely items on sale here. Along the Perfume river, these permanent craft style stores with their beautiful items only enhance the lovely drama of the area. We stayed and walked around until the sun started to set. It was leisurely and beautiful as we made our way back towards pub street for an early dinner and a rest before venturing out in the evening.
As we arrived on pub street once again, I wanted to try the famous Imperial foods of HUE. The Royal cuisine and the cities absolutely wonderful food, was all due in thanks the self indulgent Emperor Tu Duc (1829-1883) .He was a notorious narcissist, who had 104 wives, and who supposedly demanded of his royal kitchen, a different meal every day for a year. The result of which include dishes with spicy and bold dishes with fresh vegetables all put together in a symphony of tastes and aromas. Famous dishes are bún bò Huế (a spicy beef noodle soup); cơm hến (spicy tiny clams with peanuts, rice or noodles, and clam broth); and bánh bèo (delicate race cakes with a variety of toppings).
We found a little restaurant that was recommended on our map of places to eat by our hotel called Hang Me. Yes, Hang Me, although the only thing hanging were probably ducks. The tricky thing however, is that right nest to the restaurant is their competitor called Hang Me Me . Yup …. of course both were trying their best to get us in their doors, and except for a few locals slurping their soups the places were pretty much empty. We stayed with the original recommendation, and sat down. Please note that we were wrong. We were actually supposed to be eating at Hang Me Me . OMG so confusing. Clueless as to what in the name of all that is good to order, we left it up to the server to choose for us. My goodness were we in heaven. Cocunut filled cakes, steamed Banh Beo ( rice cakes) sprinkled with crispy pork grinds, and a bunch of other dishes I can’t even name or remember. The food was not memorable and though we were really interested in trying Royal Imperial cuisine , we probably would be hunting forever to find the absolute right place. Oh well, check that one off our list.
After about a good 2 hour rest, my mother and I got ready and headed out that evening to check out the International Artisan Festival that was going on in the city. There were performances and food and alcohol booths to check out, but no crafts. There were over 300 artisans present for the festival, but I couldn’t find even one of them. It was a fun little night hanging out in the park next to the Perfume river. My mother enjoyed free shots of Japanese Shochu, and beer and some japanese food they were selling, which made my mom so happy. There were amateur dance performances to techno house music, traditional fan dances and some not so good karaoke. It was a fun thing to do, but we decided to turn in early as we had a 8 am pick up call from the Tour company we booked and we needed to be well rested.
We woke this morning fully rested and immediately sparked up the complimentary and very powerful Vietnamese coffee as we got ready for the day. Today we will be going on a 9 hour tour of the city of HUE and its surrounding Royal Mausoleum tombs, we booked through the hotel. Breakfast was divine! Deep and deliciously sweet fresh fruits, made to order eggs, hot baguette and some side Vietnamese dishes all downed with freshly squeezed Orange, Guava, Passion Fruit and Mango juices. Absolutely divine.
Promptly at 8 am, a representative met us in our lobby along with 2 other couples staying there, and escorted us into our very comfortable tour van. There were a few other stops along the way picking up people at different hotels. There were couples, families and solo travelers. They were an interesting bunch of people. We bonded with a very lovely couple from Singapore, and elderly couple from Thailand whose wife immediately bonded with my mother, 2 sisters from Ohio, a family from Australia, and a family from España. Nice group of people. Our First stop, The Imperial Citadel and Forbidden City of the Royal Palace.
The Imperial Citadel and Royal Palace:
We crossed over the very calm and tranquil Perfume river over the one bridge that reaches into the Citadel. We disembarked our van, and walked past the citadel’s grand stone gates. From here we could see the gigantic Communist Red Flag with a lone star swaying majestically in the wind. Above us, a Hot Air Balloon was getting ready to take off and take in the city from a birds eye view. We waited while our lovely tour guide procured our entrance tickets and after that was all collected we passed through the Yellow Lanterned and GRAND ,Ngo Moon Gate, with guards the Main entrance into the Imperial Enclosure.
First stop opposite the gates is the Thai Hoa Palace where the Emperor would greet Official visitors from his elevated throne. The ponds and gardens leading up to the Palace is exquisite and a very beautiful first glimpse into the lives of the Nguyen Emperors.
Following the paths filled with beautiful foliage and ornate statues , we headed over to the Dien Thoe Residence in the far north of the complex and the gorgeous temple compound of To Mieu where 9 dynastic urns sit in reverence to the past emperors.
After enjoying the tranquil settings of this palace and the memorial Royal Urns dedicated to each former ruler, we headed to the most secretive part of the palace, the Forbidden City. Like its sister counterpart in Beijing , China, the forbidden city was an area of the palace where men were absolutely forbidden. That is of course unless you were a eunuch. This part of the palace was only for the enjoyment of one person, the Emperor. Here a harem of lovely ladies and princesses resided all vying for precious moments in time with the emperor. Here, the power play of female energies revolved around the head of the royal female court, the Empress . Every woman and girl in here had a status and a hierarchy. The courtyard has a more feminine touch and the little city itself an allure of beauty and mysticism.
After our time spent in the ” Forbidden City”, we headed off to the first Theater ever to be built in Vietnam, The Royal Theater. A really ornate and elaborate hall, the Royal Theater, still hosts performances. It was a really pretty place, albeit HOT as there is no air-conditioning. Lit by numerous Yellow diamond shaped lanterns, and the glow of the royal Dragon helps to illuminate the luster of the teak wooden seats and furniture, and royal blood red carpets. It was a nice quick reprieve from the sun outside .
Our Last stop in the Royal Citadel/ Palace of Hue was to its beautiful museum, filled with antiquities and elaborately adorned stately pieces and a lush sculptured garden. Following our visit, we were bombarded by a plethora of school children who attend an international school nearby. Their command of the English language was most excellent, and they were enthralled by my mother. Once they found out that she was Japanese, they quickly practiced their Nihongo… try and find my mother among the sea of smiling faces, you will like her name entails, that Sachiko ( Happy Child in Japanese) is very befitting of her namesake.
Our next stop was to Hue’s most famous Pagoda. Throughout my journey thus far in Vietnam, I have visited numerous Pagodas. However, Western Mind in tact, I kept envisioning a pagoda as a free standing round tower jutting up to the sky. In Vietnam, a pagoda is primarily a place of worship, thus showcasing many different architectural styles. This next Pagoda, fortunately, made all my pagoda dreams come true.
Thien Mu Pagoda: Pagoda of the Celestial Lady
Built in 1601 on the order of the first Nguyễn lords, Nguyễn Hoàng, who at that time was the governor of Thuận Hóa(now known as Huế). The Nguyen Lords were in name, officials of the ruling Lê Dynasty in Hanoi, but was the de facto independent ruler of central Vietnam. According to the royal annals, Hoang while touring the vicinity, was told of the local legend in which an old lady, known as Thiên Mụ (literally “celestial lady”), dressed in red and blue sat at the site, rubbing her cheeks. She foretold that a lord would come and erect a pagoda on the hill to pray for the country’s prosperity. She then vanished after making her prophecy. Upon hearing this, Hoang ordered the construction of a temple at the site, thus the beginning of Thiên Mụ Tự.
In 1695, the Zen Master Thích Đại Sán, a member of the Tào Động sect, arrived from China. He had been invited to come to Huế as a guest of the Nguyễn Lords to start a Buddhist congregation and oversee its development. He was a noted Buddhist scholar of the Qing Dynasty and was patronised by the ruling Lord Nguyễn Phúc Chu and was appointed as the abbot of the pagoda. In the seventh month of 1696, he returned to China, but conferred bodhisattva vows on Chu.
In 1710, Chu funded the casting of a giant bell, which weighs 3,285 kg, and was regarded as one of the most prized cultural relics of its time in Vietnam. The bell is said to be audible 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) away and has been the subject of many poems and songs, including one by Emperor Thiệu Trị of the Nguyễn Dynasty who ruled in the 1840s.
In 1714, Chu oversaw another series of major expansions and construction projects, the largest expansion phase in the pagoda’s history. The main set of triple gates were erected, in addition to different shrines to the heavenly realms, the Jade Emperor, the Ten Kings, halls for preaching dharma, towers for storing sutras, bell towers, drum towers, meditation halls and halls to venerate Avalokiteshvara and the Medicine Buddha and living quarters for the sangha.
Chu also organised for the staging of the vassana retreat which occurs annually between the full moon of the fourth and the seventh lunar month. The tradition had been inaugurated in the time of Gautama Buddha in ancient India to coincide in the rainy season. During this time, monks would stay in one place and pursue their spiritual activities, rather than wandering around and expounding the dharma to the populace, since they were prone to step on living beings during this time due to the water covering their paths. He also organised an expedition to China to bring back copies of the Tripitaka Canon and the Mahayana sutras, which comprised more than one thousand volumes, and interred them in the pagoda.
During the 19th century, the pagoda was patronised by the emperors of the Nguyễn Dynasty, which was founded in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long after his unification of modern Vietnam. His successor Minh Mạng funded further expansion and renovation of the temple. Courtesy of Wikipedia
After arriving next to the beautiful Perfume River, we looked up at the very steep but wide staircase leading up to the Pagoda. My mother, took one look at it and decided that it was a no go, so instead I did the daughterly duty of climbing the steps for our family. First stop of course is the beautiful round tower which everyone immediately refers to as the pagoda. It’s 17th Century carvings are divine, literally. To the left while facing the tower, is a stone statue of a Turtle holding a coin in its mouth. A most auspicious statue. As I continued to wander past the beautifully intricate tower, I came across a few temple looking structures . One where the buddhist monks of the order reside, and another where the faithful and tourist alike may make offerings . There is also an absolutely stunning Bonsai garden. Where miniature trees of all sorts are painstakingly trimmed and nurtured to take its heavenly shapes. But what really is the draw for many here , is the actual car that the most famous self emulating monk who drove to Saigon and set himself on fire in protest of the country banning buddhist monks from practicing their religion. His likeness is viral and the car, an icon of the temple.
After our Pagoda visit, we walked down some steep steps down to the banks of the Perfume River to board the famous Hue Dragon Boats, to casually float down the river to our next destination. Dragon Boats are family owned and operated. The people running the boats actually live on them. They are similar to small Chinese Junks that you could find in Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, but they are more elaborately decorated to resemble a dragon. In a time long gone by, the only person allowed to float and enjoy the beauty of the Perfume river by boat was the Emperor. So you can imagine how royal we felt to be able to do the same, except on a throne of tiny plastic chairs, rusty windows, linoleum floors, and with warm coke , sprite, and trinkets on hard sale. After about 20 minutes peacefully floating down the rivers, my royal self and my entourage arrived back in city center on the banks of the famous Dong Ba Marketplace.
Dong Ba Marketplace
Dong Ba Marketplace is a vibrant and colorful market that sells EVERYTHING. And by Everything I mean everything you can think of to consume . From Salt, pepper, Coffee, to candies, Pig Snouts and Fresh Vegetables. Come with an open mind, and a strong stomach, as the stench leading up to the Meat section requires much bravery. On Anthony Bordain’s show Without Reservations, he actually sits down and has one of his most remarkable meals to date . Unfortunately for us that will not be here. Or is fortunately? The high noon heat was becoming intense , even with it being over cast and drizzling. We wandered through the plethora of little stalls and made our way to lunch, although , after visiting the market, I quickly lost my appetite. Others in my group were having a grand old-time learning all about the different types of fruits, plants, and chili / fish pastes. I was over it. I’m a wimp.
After an actually very good lunch, some of the other travelers left us as they were only paid up for the morning tour. For the rest of us, we were now off to two important sites. The Royal Tombs of 2 very important past emperors. Now I’d love to go into massive detail about them both, but I have completely forgotten the names of the tombs and that of the emperors who lived there. So you must excuse me for being so daft.
The drive to the tombs were a bit long. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at the first tomb. Now like I mentioned previously I can’t remember the true names but I’m going to take really good guess, as I googled a few and compared my pictures.
So with that said, the first tomb we visited was Emperors Minh Mang’s tomb ( I’m pretty sure) This tomb as I recall was the first and most expansive tomb to be built. Another tid bit I remembered is that it does not have the actual body of the Emperor as looters were abundant and anarchist the same, so the actual resting place of this emperor is unknown. This mausoleum area is expansive , with lakes, and temples, and many different beautiful structures. Some Emperors lived their remaining years in their tomb complexes as it is truly similar to living in another gorgeous palace. Look at the foliage, the lakes, the temples and beautiful buildings dedicated to him. It is amazing and we loved it here. Unfortunately for my mom, she couldn’t make it all the way inside as it required a lot of step climbing and at 84, it was a bit too much.
The next tomb , after much google searching while writing this, is dedicated to Emperor Khai Dinh. This tomb is impossible for my mom to see and it begins crossing a very busy roadway to start of at the heart attack waiting to happen super steep steps just to reach the first level . However, after doing so, I was pleasantly surprised to see the commanding views of the green country side. A few more steep steps up, and I reached the top . The tomb is amazing. It is a mixture of French Neo Classical and Vietnamese charcoal grey architecture. The interior is like that of Versailles. Gold, silver, coupled with jade and marble , the interior looked more like a fabulous French King’s quarters than that of a tomb. Never-the-less it is a tomb and he is actually buried there. What a beauty. What it lacks in land , space, and gardens, it makes up for it with opulence.
As our journey for the day came to and end, we headed back to the city with smiles on our faces. This tour was absolutely well worth it. We got to visit the Royal Palace and all its hidden glories, the tombs of the Emperors of said Royal Palace, a remarkable Pagoda, a cruise on the Perfume river on the backs of a dragon ( boat) , wonder through the maze of a famous market where its workers rest next to their produce, a gorgeous light lunch, and finally last stop was a village that made all the incense sticks for the area. But above all, we met some wonderful people who were just excellent company. Trading travel secrets and experiences, as well as learning a bit more of where they come from and sharing where we are from, Beautiful and Soulful Hawaii.
Exhausted from the day, we decided to grab some quick bites at a local french restaurant who’s onion soup was to die for. Such was the end of our 3 day, two night journey in Beautiful HUE… Had I known how full of wonderful mysteries this city and province provided, I would’ve stayed an extra 3 nights just to see it all and enjoy it at leisure. Definitely a MUST see. Tomorrow we are driving the good 4 plus hours to Hoi’an stopping here and there through Hai Van Pass all booked through our Hotel and we are excited.
Thank you again for joining me on this journey.
cảm ơn bạn
( Thank you)