After the craziness of Hanoi and the sweatiness of Saigon, my third visit to Vietnam was to the central region. This encompassed Danang (which is where the international airport lies for all central ‘Nam tourism affairs), Hoi An, and Hue. It was love at first sight when I arrived in Hue, and I simply didn’t want to leave!
First things first: Hue is extremely easy to navigate The main landmark is the Perfume River, with the old city and the Citadel on the north side and the newer city, where my hotel was situated, on the south side. Much of the riverside has wisely been done up as a pleasant promenade and park dotted with bizarre sculptures. Like other Vietnamese cities, Hue is flooded with mopeds and motorbikes, and the driving standards are typically poor. This was the only negative from my time in Hue. Much like Hanoi and Saigon, it isn’t really safe to walk about the streets for fear of being knocked over by a vehicle, so I did most of my backpacking around Hue in a taxi! Most taxi drivers seem refreshingly honest – but make sure they turn the meter on!
For the adventurous among you, Hue has many interesting spots in its countryside that tourists don’t know about. Most people come to Hue for the Imperial City and the Royal Tombs (maybe a beach, too), but rural life in these parts is just as engrossing. Many a scenic walking trail can be found when you get out of the ‘downtown’ area of the city. The famous lanterns, that are normally associated with Hoi An further down south on the coast, are just as regular here in Hue, and many Vietnamese families sat outside their lantern-adorned homes well into the night, presumably chatting about the rigours of life.
You will never go hungry in Hue! The street food scene here is as strong as it is anywhere else in the country, and you can be sure that Vietnamese cuisine is served up in healthy portions here. As you would expect with Hue being a coastal city, seafood is extremely popular, and Bun Rieu Cua (crab noodle soup) is a speciality. I didn’t actually like this soup, although you can be sure that all the locals here joyously slurp on their soup spoons from day to day!
Depending on your point of view, you may or may not enjoy the beaches close to Hue. The nearest beach to the city itself would have to be Thuan An Beach, which is hopelessly undeveloped for tourism. But like I said, for some people, that may be a good thing, because despite the lack of tourist infrastructure (and the relative lack of Russian and Chinese tourists), the beach itself is still pretty glorious and you can spend a whole day here enjoying yourself free of charge! And no dangerous mopeds on the beach to knock you over, either, which is a bonus! There are a few more beaches along the coastline, but these are perhaps not worth the effort to get to if you are basing yourself in Hue.
The former imperial seat of government – and Hue’s prime tourist attraction – is the Imperial Citadel (further reading: All roads lead to the Imperial City). It is a sprawling complex of temples, pavilions, moats, museums, and galleries from various periods of Vietnamese history. Thanks to its size, it is also delightfully peaceful – which is a rare commodity in Vietnam. The citadel was badly knocked about during fighting between the French and the Viet Minh after World War 2, and again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, when it was shelled by the Viet Cong and then bombed by the Americans. As a result of this, some areas of the Citadel are now only empty fields, so don’t expect too much everywhere you go.
The Royal Tombs of Hue are also a brilliant attraction in this part of Vietnam. No traveller should come to this area of the country and not check out these tombs. I only visited 3 of them (I think there are 7 in total), but it was enough to give me an understanding of the level of respect the fallen emperors of yesteryear were given by their peers. I thought the tombs were Hue’s equivalent of Kyoto’s pavilions or Siem Reap’s temples – that’s how impressive they are and how ingrained they are with Vietnam’s history (further reading: The Royal Tombs of Hue).
Away from the beaches and the cultural attractions you can spend a day visiting Bach Ma National Park, which is around a short drive from Hue. You can really become at one with nature and head “into the jungle” here, where if you’re lucky you will spot Asian elephants, as well as the more common gibbons, doucs, and langurs. It really is another side of Vietnam to easily explore when in the Hue region – and don’t forget the DMZ (which I didn’t have time to see, alas), and the grottoes and caves of the Marble Mountains, which are about an hour’s drive in the other direction, heading back down to Danang.
Everybody seems to love Hue – and with good reason! I love Hue, too!