Hue, Central Vietnam. It’s one of the most popular tourist cities in Vietnam, spread along the banks of the Perfume River. It was our first stop after Ho Chi Minh and we were looking forward to a more relaxed and pedestrian-friendly experience than the south had given us.
The main attraction in the city itself is the Imperial City. It’s walls still stand tall and strong and light up in shades of purple and gold at night. The city center is cosy, with two or three main streets filled with restaurants, massage parlours, tailors, tour agencies and souvenir shops.
Around the city itself there are tens of historical sites, including tombs, statues and pagodas. Before visiting, we didn’t realise that Hue saw one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War and as a result, a lot of historical places were damaged or destroyed. Nevertheless, the city and its surroundings are full of natural and manmade beauty that you could easily spend a whole week admiring.
You can buy one ticket that will give you access to the imperial city and three tombs for 360,000. These can be bought at the entrance to any of the sights. The imperial city and two tombs will cost you 280,000. The bundle ticket for 360,000 is the cheapest option if you’re planning on visiting the tombs. A ticket to the imperial palace alone costs about 150,00 and tombs are 100,000 each.
The Imperial City
The Imperial City in Hue is a thirty-minute walk or a two-minute ride from the new center. The 2km by 2km territory is surrounded by a moat and the surrounding walls rise up quite imposingly, giving a sense of authority and supremacy.
As you enter the walls, the peacefulness and beauty of the area become immediately apparent. Giant fish swim gently through the lily pads. Rows of trees and bushes, neatly pruned are lined in an orderly fashion. The soft pinks and striking reds of the surrounding buildings seduce you – you definitely sense that this was a place of great importance.
The first building you enter provides a small and enjoyable history lesson. You study images and artefacts which testify to the former greatness of the people who once resided here.
After this, you exit into the center of the grounds – a series of courtyards, fields and performance areas that are now a shadow of their former, magnificent selves. They are flanked with blood-red corridors, colourful temples and mini-museums that you can wander your way through.
The excessive amount of wealth that the former elite enjoyed is phenomenal but the current state of the city, beautiful but slightly run-down and empty, is a reminder of the inherent impermanence of life, that even the greatest empires collapse.
We spent about 1 hour strolling around the palace, although those with an interest in history could quite easily lose their whole day within these walls. Getting a guide to take you through is a sensible idea so you can really appreciate what you see. We DIDN’T do this and as a result weren’t really sure what we were looking at and why, although it was extremely beautiful.
Khai Dinh Tomb
By motorbike or private car, however you want to reach the following three tombs is fine. Just make sure you see them. For us, these tombs were much more impressive than the imperial city.
Khai Dinh Tomb is a large, dark structure that rises fiercely out of the surrounding forest. Three sets of imposing staircases lead you up past statues of elephants, horses and solemn warriors. Everything is in fantastic condition, clean and the intricacy of the stonework is mesmerizing.
You climb higher and enter the tomb itself. It is asking to a giant mosaic. The colourful tiles symbolise the grandeur of he who was buried there in the form of birds, flowers and other psychedelic images. A golden statue of the man himself sits regally upon the burial place. He looks out with a rather bland expression on his face despite being surrounded by abundance.
Minh Mang Tomb
The site that is called Minh Mang Tomb spreads across a rather large territory. It is 700m in length, containing not only the tomb itself. There is also a series of stone bridges, red gates, a courtyard with beautiful stone elephant, horse and mandarin statues and a beautiful pavilion.
There are also temples and palaces located here, making the total number of constructions here 40. They are all in fantastic condition, having been restored, cleaned and beautified to appeal to the tourist eye.
Minh Mang ruled for 20 years and is remembered as leaving the country with a strong and prosperous future.
Walk through the charming buildings, over the fish-filled lake and absorb the serene atmosphere. We spent about an hour enjoying the scenic views here but we could have spent more had our feet been less sore and our stomachs less empty.
Tu Duc Tomb
This site is also spread over an extremely large territory. It boasts a lake with an island with enough space for the emperor to hunt small game. In fact, it is said that the cost of building was so high that taxpayers organized a coup during its construction. The coup was quashed and tomb was completed.
There is a pavilion to the left of the lake where the emperor would relax with his (many) wives and concubines. Numerous temples, chambers and courtyards follow. They have all been restored and now serve as museums and spaces for tourists to dress up in royal attire and admire the surrounding architecture.
As with all of the tombs in Hue, it is quite pleasant to walk around and absorb the tranquil atmosphere and imagine the decadent excess these people lives in.
To keep the exact burial site of the king safe, all workers who buried the king were beheaded upon their return.
Chua Tu Hieu
A small pagoda and burial site in the forest outside Hue, Chua Tu Hieu is a nice stop for some peace and quiet between tombs. As you enter the site, there is a giant pond with giant fish who you can feed for good luck. Be careful! The lady who sells crackers there will ask for extra money once you have bought the crackers and may even whack you on the shoulder if you say no.
From the fish pond, you can mosey up to the small cemetery that is covered in moss and thus very slippery. The area itself is extremely peaceful and it’s nice to wander among the shade of the tall trees while admiring this ancient area. Just watch out for the aggressive old ladies!
Standing Buddha Temple
A giant white lady stands on a hill, just outside the city of Hue. She looks blissfully over the rural area below, one hand raised in Vitarka Mudra, symbolizing intellectual discussion and argument. Orange dragons curl around here feet and the Buddhist flag flies proudly beside her.
This temple is popular amongst students and they often come here to pray before important exams. The statue is relatively new, built in 1969, and entry is free. It is a soothing place, good for reflection and meditation. There is also a giant Buddhist drum nearby that you can play if you so desire.
How To Get To Hue:
Flying by plane is the quickest and most comfortable option. Vietjet and Vietnam air are reliable companies and we have never had any problems with them. Flying is, however, more expensive than other means of transport and doesn’t offer the cultural insight or the nice views that road travel provides.
From Ho Chi Minh to Hue by Plane:
We flew in from Ho Chi Minh as we were planning to work our way down south from Hue. We flew with Vietjet. Tickets for one person, one-way cost 89$ and the flight itself took about 90 minutes.
From Hanoi to Hue by Plane:
A flight from Hanoi to Hue will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes. There are multiple flights with multiple airlines every day. The price can be as cheap as $53 or as expensive as over $200, depending on the day and time you fly. Try flying mid-week to reduce the cost.
Vietnamese trains are a unique experience! If you choose to travel by train, you will be thrown in to local life. Don’t get me wrong, the trains are punctual, tickets are easy to buy and the network extends from north to south. It is possible to travel almost anywhere (or to a train station nearby).
The only drawback is that they can be a bit grubby and you will be surrounded by people from all different walks of life; snoring, farting, loud talking, coughing etc. are all part of the vibrancy of train travel! For more about train travel in Vietnam, check out our next post. Subscribe so you don’t miss out!
If possible, make sure you choose a sleeper so you can lie down, read, have a snooze and just be generally more comfortable than you would on a bus.
From Ho Chi Minh to Hue by Train:
This is not the most popular route for tourists as you do miss a lot of cool places like Hoi An, Nha Trang and Da Nang. However, if you’re like us and are using Hue as a base for heading south, you can catch the train from Ho Chi Minh. The journey takes no less than 18 hours and the soft berth (which you’ll want for such a long trip) costs about $71.
In our opinion, it’s better to fly and save your time (and possible money) and discomfort. Trains from Ho Chi Minh leave five times a day. Check out the timetable HERE for more information.
Train tickets can be booked at most hotels, at the train station itself or online using Vietnam Rail’s website or 12Go.com. For the pros and cons of each method, check out our guide to travelling in Vietnam by train (coming soon, subscribe here).
From Hanoi to Hue by Train:
The train from Hanoi to Hue takes about 14 hours. If you are travelling by train, choose the overnight option to save on accommodation. You can catch the 19.30, 20.10 or 22.00 train from Hanoi that will see you getting into Hue in the morning, ready to explore the city.
Travelling by bus can be fun. The views are great, the price is competitive and it will definitely be an adventure you won’t forget. However, buses are often overcrowded, slow, smelly and uuuncomfortable. Nevertheless, each traveler chooses their own way and if a bus is what you want, then you have a few options. Bus tickets to almost any city in Vietnam and SEA can be booked in hotels and at tour agencies. If you want to book yourself, use 12Go Asia.
Where To Next:
From Hue, you can head south down to Da Nang via the well-known Hai Van Pass. You can also continue north onto Dong Hoi or Hanoi. Check out the train timetable HERE for all your options.
If you’re looking to go by bus, it’s often better to book on the ground. The prices are cheaper, you can ask questions and shop around.
Da Nang/Hoi An from Hue:
You have a choice here of local bus or tourist bus. Local bus might sound more authentic but there have been reports of tourists being charged exorbitant prices, not being able to communicate properly with the driver and unsafe driving.
If you still wish to choose this option, you can head to the Mandarin Café in Hue and they can arrange the tickets for you there. A ticket north to Dong Hoi will cost at least 90,000 Dong and buses leave twice a day. You can head down to Da Nang for at least 60,000 and buses also leave twice a day.
The tourist bus is your safest option here. They can be booked at every guesthouse or tour agency and you can also book a transfer from your hotel to the bus station. If you want to book yourself, use 12Go Asia. A bus down to Da Nang will cost you 150,000, Hoi An for 140,000 and even Hanoi for 280,000.
There is no train station in Hoi An, so you’ll need to catch a taxi to Da Nang and go from there. However, the distance between these two cities is so small that you are much better off taking a bus or private car. Trains from Hue to Da Nang take no more than 3 hours and tickets can be bought for as little as 140,000 dong.
By Private Car:
From Hue to Da Nang it takes about 3 hours by car if you don’t make any stops at all. However, the Hai van Pass that you will be travelling along is considered one of the most picturesque roads in Vietnam. You will probably want to stop at least a couple of times for photos. We made the trip in about 5 hours. If you’re looking to go right through to Hoi An, just add another 40 minutes on.
We booked our private car through our hostel and it cost $60. There were 3 of us and we considered it a good option because the price was shared between the three of us. It worked out to be only slighter more expensive than the bus and we had our own car for the whole day.
Where To Stay in Hue:
In Hue, we discovered a gem. A beautiful homestay right beside the Imperial Palace and local markets. They offer a delicious breakfast for $2, cumquat tea and dried coconut on arrival. It’s only a 30-minute walk or $2 taxi ride to the center. Plus, the house is in a relatively residential area, meaning you step out the front door and into real, local life. Our host organized all our tours, a lovely driver and was always welcoming and friendly. We would definitely recommend staying here if you are visiting Hue!