Hué (pronounced as hway) evokes the relics of the glorious Imperial Vietnam with its magnificent tombs and pagodas. This enchanting city blends the sleek glass façade modern hotels with the 19th Century Citadel . Hue owes its beauty to the Perfume River meandering its way through the city.
Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage Sites ; the cradle of Vietnamese culture with educational, cultural, and political significance in Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty till 1945. The Perfume River also adds to this unique feudal city a setting of natural beauty.
In 1802, Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen dynasty moved his capital from Hanoi to Hue to unite Northern and Southern Vietnam. He began with the Imperial Citadel and the city flourished in his reign. But in 1885 the French attacked the Citadel, burned the imperial library reduced the rulers to mere pawns. The city again bore the brunt during the American War with the US Army raining napalm on the palace. Today the Citadel and Hue still stand as a testament to the grit and fortitude of the Vietnamese.
We travelled by road from Phong Nha National Park. We had booked our vehicle and local Hue travel with the Stop and Go Tours. Ayesha had assigned Yellow as the color of the day . What a coincidence so was our driver ! We travelled on the road for about 3 hours peppered with amusing anecdotes. Eg: Tirtha was very clear we were travelling from south to North and the sea was on the other side!
Where we stayed
I had initially booked the Saigon Morin Hotel as recommended by Lonely Planet as a lovely riverfront heritage property. But Ayesha found the amazing Silk Path Grand Hue Hotel. The Silk Path Grand Hue Hotel captures the essence of Hue through a broad French boulevard with a winding canal , colonial mansions, traditional garden houses and the train station.
The property was sans crowds Not being the peak tourist season. The restaurant was ginormous. We seemed to be the only ones for dinner and next morning for the luxurious breakfast. I also need to mention our interesting spa experience as well. We wanted four massages all at the same time albeit in separate rooms. English is a funny language which communicates different meanings to different folks. The spa manager was perplexed and then concerned at our request since she was unable to understand the separate rooms. We arrived at the said time and burst out laughing. The poor souls misunderstood us and arranged all four beds together separated by screens in one large room. It was really hilarious nevertheless the massage was very good.
Where we ate
The Hue cuisine is based on aromatic well cooked dishes with spicy elements reflecting the royal preferences of yore.
Madam Thu: Taste of Hue
Madam Thu Restaurant is a local restaurant located in the hostels area of the city and named after its owner. Although quite frugal looking , Madan Thu is a crowd puller. The outside portico is quite lovely to sit and we visited in the late afternoon. You should try the sampler and then go on to order each of the items. The delectable treats are Stuffed rice pancake (Banh Khoai), Grilled Pork around lemongrass stalks (Nem Lui), Grilled Pork Vermicelli, Crispy Fried Spring Rolls with the peanut sauce. This is a must visit to try out the local cuisine whether at lunch or dinner.
Madan Thu donates 2000 VND for every meal sold to underprivileged children in and around Hue.
Les Jardins de la Carambole
Les Jardins de la Carambole is a nice chic French restaurant opposite Madam Thu. We visited this place for dinner on our second day in Hue. It is in a gorgeous colonial-style building in the old quarters. The menu majors in French, Indo Chine and Vietnamese classics with friendly staff.
Places to visit
A foreword, wear a large sunhat and shades, loose cotton clothing, rain jacket (yes it can rain anytime) , drinking water and walking shoes . All pagodas and monuments forbid bare shoulders and bare knees .
Khải Định Mausoleum
Emperor Khải Địnhof the Nguyễn dynasty chose the slope of Chau Chu Mountain to build his “home in the other world”. It began in 1920 and was completed 11 years later, by his successor – Emperor Bao Dai.
The Royals believed in a burial in Hue for the good feng shui; due to the natural elements – hills as a protective screen in front of the monuments as “a blue dragon” to the left and “a white tiger” to the right to guard the main entrance from evil spirits.
The Khải Định mausoleum is the most magnificent of the monuments truly an architecture marvel symbolizing a convergence of Oriental and European influences. A dark Concrete patina covers the imposing exterior using modern materials like concrete, slate and wrought iron with Gothic influences and the side walls with the enormous sculptures of dragons with bejeweled eyes.
The Honour Courtyard
This will remind you of the Terracotta Army in China; the statues of the mandarin honor guards are a mixture of Vietnamese and European features along with the horses offers a great viewpoint.
Thien Dinh Palace
The Thien Dinh Palace is the most remarkable place in this complex . The bronze statues of the King sculptured in Paris capture your imagination. It is like riot of colors exploding in your face with the mosaics and ceramics inlaid with elaborate glass and porcelain designs. The intricate painting on the ceiling with the nine dragons amidst fleeting clouds will take your breath away. Our guide showed us the murals of the Four Seasons, Eight Precious Objects, and the Eight Immortals.
There is a gold-mottled concrete canopy with a gilt bronze statue (cast in Marseilles) of the emperor Khai Dinh, and his remains are interred below the statue. Amidst the deep Western influence, the landscape does resonate traditional Vietnamese sensitivities with the natural elements of trees, wood and water.
Minh Mang Mausoleum
The next mausoleum we visited was the Minh Mạng mausoleum set in exquisite green gardens with traditional Oriental architecture inspired by Confucianism. This mausoleum is located on Cam Khe Mountain at the confluence of the Ta Trach and Huu Trac rivers merging into the Hương River or the Perfume River.
This tomb structure was planned during Minh Mang’s reign but built by his successor, Thieu Tri, this majestic tomb, on the west bank of the Perfume River. This is the most majestic of all Nguyen Dynasty royal tombs, Minh Mang Tomb as a complex of 40 structures including palaces, temples, pavilions amidst a lush woodland setting.
The straight line of sight runs from the Great Red Gate to the foot of the Surrounding Wall behind the King’s tomb. Here too lies an Honour Courtyard with mandarins, elephants and horse’s stone statues. Next you reach the square Stele Pavilion, where the stele “Thanh Duc Than Cong” inscribed with the King’s biography. Sung An Temple, where King Minh Mang and his wife are worshipped, can be accessed next through Hien Duc Gate.
From a stone bridge across the crescent-shaped Lake of the New Moon is a grand staircase with dragon banisters leads to Minh Mang’s tomb which opens only once a year on the anniversary of the emperor.
Thiên Mụ Pagoda
Thien Mu Pagoda was founded in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang, the governor of Thuan Hoa province. It is quite notable for being the fulcrum for several political demonstrations. The Austin motorcar in which the monk Quảng Đức traveled to his self-immolation in 1963 is kept here in the Thiên Mụ Pagoda after leaving offerings, set himself alight chanting the word ‘Buddha’ a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace). The journalist Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Quảng Đức during his self-immolation won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year and we saw the photo in the museum in Saigon.
The Buddhist Pagoda has priceless architectural relics. The pagoda is on a small hill overlooking the Perfume River.
The stupa Thap Phước Duyên, has an 21m-high octagonal tower representing Taoist cosmology and influences modern Mahayana Buddhism and the seven-story pagoda is an icon of Hue. Each of its stories is devoted to a Manushi-Buddha (Buddha in human form).
We also saw the stele or stone tablet perched on the back of a massive marble turtle denoting permanency and the enormous bell in the other pavilion weighing about 2 tonnes. The actual temple is a modest building in the inner courtyard. You will cross the 3 gates with the Buddhist guardians’ deities. You will also be able to see the image of the Celestial Lady (Thien Mu).
The way out has a few shops selling local crafts but this is a striking image which caught our fancy – the kitten with its grubby paws hiding beneath a conical poem hat and the tiny dog who was petted by us.
No visit to Hue is complete without a boat ride and an evening walk by the Perfume River. The Sông Hương or Hương Giang River is around 80 kilometers long . Commonly referred to as the Perfume River as it meanders through forests of aromatic herbs and brings with it the sweet pure and fresh aroma. One of the major activities is the dragon boat ride from the ancient monuments to the city. We drove down in the morning to see the monuments and returned by boat from the Thien Mu Pagoda. A solo female Croatian Traveller was looking for a ride to the city and she joined us as well .The city night lights yield a ethereal beauty to Hue. We walked by the embankment of the river to our dinner crossing locals with their families enjoying the breezy evening.
Hue Imperial Citadel
This is one of Vietnam’s seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a must-see attraction for tourists. The Citadel dominates the spirit of Hue, and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city. Ten main majestic gates lead to the Imperial City of Hue segregated into The Citadel the Forbidden City. Do visit this in the afternoon to view the imagery in the afternoon light.
This massive structure was planned in 1803 by Gia Long founder of the Nguyen Dynasty and executed by Minh Mang from 1805 to 1832 involving thousands of workers and millions of cubic meters of rock. Located on the northern bank of the Perfume River and covering an area of 520 hectares. It has a circumference of 10 kilometers with the height of 6.6 meters and 21 meters thick with forts accompanied by cannons, artilleries and ammunitions UNESCO recognized this in 1993 and is actively restoring and preserving the remnants.
The Imperial Enclosure is a citadel-within-a-citadel and contains the emperor’s residence, temples, and palaces with the main buildings of state. Today only a fraction survives after the rampant bombing in the French and American Wars.
The central structure is the Hue Citadel area serving as the administrative centre of southern Viet Nam during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Citadel also houses the Imperial Residence, the Hoang Thanh (Imperial City), the Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Purple City) and other royal monuments.
Ngo Mon Gate
Ngo Mon Gate is the principal entrance to the Imperial Enclosure. It faces the Flag Tower and is an iconic feature of Hue. It is a grandiose structure with a fortified lower level and an architecturally elaborate upper-level dating back to 1833. The name Ngo Mon literally translates to Meridian Gate. This served as the stage for royal appearances on important occasions, like the declaration of the lunar calendar. Atop the gate is Ngu Phung (Belvedere of the Five Phoenixes with a huge drum and bell).
The emperor used the central passage with yellow doors and the bridge across the lotus pond . While the ministers used the other sides of the gate .
Thai Hoa Palace
This palace served as the place were the emperor. He would receive his official visitors from an elevated throne .DO note the incredible ironwood columns painted in a dozen coats of brilliant crimson and gold lacquer and restored in the 1990s.
Halls of the Mandarins
Elaborate ceilings and wall murals adorn the halls . Once upon a time the mandarins had their offices and prepared for ceremonial occasions here.
Tu Vo Phuong Pavilion
The Two storey Pavilion above a moat served as the defense bastion for the northern part of the Imperial Enclosure . It combines European and Vietnamese styles especially the roof dragons.
Dien Tho Residence
A pretty corner of the complex with its low structures beautiful flowers and pond served as the residence of the Queen Mothers in 1804.
Nine Dynastic Urns
Colossal bronze urns commissioned by Emperor Minh Mang between 1835 & 1836 . They are adorned with decorative elements of landscapes, flowers, rivers and animals .
Purple Forbidden City
There is almost nothing left of the once- glorious Purple Forbidden City. This was an ensconced structure reserved for the personal use of the emperor and has been entirely destroyed in the wars. All we get to see today are the crumbling remains.
We rounded up our tour with some cold coffee at the Highland Coffee airconditioned shop in the premises to cool us off .
Dong Ba Market
This is the biggest commercial center of the Thua Thien – Hue province covering about 15,600 square meters. The market preserves the elements on ancient Hue along with the modern urban city . We did see the elements on an ancient market along with what serves the daily needs of Vietnam today. This is also the best place to buy souvenirs and traditional crafts in Hue for back home like Phu Cam conical poem hats, Hien Luong scissors, bronze articles of the Duc guild, Phuoc Tich pottery, Bao La rattan products, Ke Mon jewelry, Nam Thuan sweets, Tuan tea, Huong Can mandarins, Luong Quan-Nguyet Bieu pomelos, and Tinh Tarn lotus not to forget delicious specialties, such as mussel rice, rice noodle with beef, leaf cake, shrimp spring roll, Khoai cake, Dauvan pudding.
We did buy a variety of coffee beans and also ground coffee, rice paper, Pho noodles and local spices . Ayesha and I did buy large sunhats. And of course, Tirtha with us, he did bargain, bargain and bargain. Tirtha does it so professionally even if there is a language barrier by just whipping out his phone calculator.
It worked out for us but a tip on the best time to visit the market is after 3:00 pm. It is not crowded. Avoiding being the first buyer of any shop especially if you choose not to buy anything, popular belief is it creates bad luck for the business.
Hue is home to national treasures with the temples, pagodas, tombs, and monuments although many historic structures were destroyed by the American troops. The city is quite a melting pot of fast-paced urbanization and cultural assimilation. Recommend spending at least two to three days in this picturesque riverfront town.