Hue, the 19th century Imperial capital and once the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, was the third destination on our tour through Vietnam. Hue might not be as big and as popular as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but it has just as much if not even more history and some incredible food. It was Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Hue in Parts Unknown that put it on the map for me and, being just north up the coast from Hoi An, it didn’t make sense to skip it.
Getting to Hue
If you travel by road to Hue from Hoi An it takes just under three hours, so flying didn’t make much sense for us. Our hotel helped us to book a car to take us over the Hải Vân Pass, a scenic route through the coastal hills with amazing views out over the sea. Taking this route also means that you can stop along the way at some local historical and cultural sites. Our first stop was the Marble Mountains where we visited a temple with beautiful caves and pagodas built into the side of the mountain. Naturally, there are plenty of shops selling marble goods and our driver was keen that we visited one first before looking around the temple. We indulged him for a few minutes before politely taking our leave.
The Imperial city
The Hue Citadel, also sometimes called the Forbidden Purple City, is a walled complex of historical buildings dating back to the 19th century when Hue was the capital of Vietnam. We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the grounds on our last morning in the city. A large amount of the complex was bombed and most of the buildings destroyed in the conflicts throughout the 20th Century, but what remains is colourful and striking, although not purple as the name might suggest.
Thiên Mu Pagoda
A little further out of the main town is the Thiên Mu Pagoda with a prominent 7-story pagoda and beautiful gardens. Like a lot of sites it wasn’t particularly peaceful as there were a lot of tourists. It didn’t take all that long to walk around, but we took our time ambling and bought a local snack from the neighbouring market.
A little way out of the center of Hue are a number of royal tombs holding the Nguyen kings. We weren’t originally planning on visiting them, but after a bit of research we realised they’re actually pretty cool. Each of the tombs was designed by the king it would eventually hold and so they are all different and reflect the nature of each king. Our hotel helped us organise a driver to take us to three of the main tombs. The most striking of the three was the tomb of Khai Dinh designed with an extravagant fusion of French Versailles-like and Vietnamese styles. Apparently he wasn’t the most popular king as the taxes he implemented to pay for his tomb were astronomical. The other two we visited were the tombs of Minh Mang and Tu Duc. These were more subtle yet still grand, and I imagine a very peaceful setting to be laid to rest. I’m glad we got to the tombs relatively early as they still retained a bit of that peaceful atmosphere before too many tourist groups arrived.
Every night, the roads around our hotel became pedestrianised and the whole area took on almost a festival atmosphere with street music, with tourists and locals flocking to the bars and restaurants that spilled onto the streets. There’s plenty of choice for Vietnamese and Western food all along these streets and our favourite bar/restaurant was Gecko Pub who serve a range of both all in a cute interior with plenty of plants. Another called Tipsy Bar serve a great Frozen Mango Daiquiri and pretty good pizzas too.
Throughout Vietnam there are regional foods and Bun Bo Hue, a spicy lemongrass and beef broth with chunks of meat and vermicelli noodles, is famous throughout the country and widely available. We tried the Bun Bo Hue at Quán Cám which was really good. The broth had a great flavour and a perfect level of spice for me, and the beef chunks and meatballs were so tender.
Hue is also famous for its Hue cakes or little dumplings sprinkled with shrimp and crispy shallots, dumplings filled with shrimp, or cakes cooked flat in a banana leaf with seafood and herbs. They make great beer snacks actually!
Lastly, Nem Lui is a dish of pork grilled on lemongrass skewers which imparts a lovely fragrance. To eat them you slide the meat off the lemongrass and wrap it in rice paper with herbs and lettuce before dipping into a sauce. So good!
Have you visited Hue? What were your highlights?