A mix of old and new seated in the heart of Vietnam is Hue, a UNESCO heritage city, where the olden dynastic days of Vietnam still lingers on. Once a glorious capital city during the reign of the first and only Nguyen Dynasty from 1800 up till 1945, Hue today is primeval remains of ancient days of old which are only lost to be forgotten by new. Within this defunct and derelict city of former imperial administration are many Instagram-worthy photogenic sceneries, cultural spots, intriguing art and architecture, as well as traditional local cuisines that are all waiting to be discovered by the world out there. And just maybe, Hue can rise from the ashes of war and be noticed once again.
The present spirit that keeps Hue spontaneously going is the many famous historical sites and picturesque scenery in and around the area. With a short but rich history dating back to even before the Nguyen era, this dynastic empire is rarely heard of in the outside world due to the lack of written historic records and contact with foreign powers except the French. The top site or place of interest that spell bounds travellers to Google, web-search, and even Pinterest about Hue is to know more of its lost grandeur of Vietnam’s Purple Forbidden City; a.k.a the Imperial Palace.
I myself am drawn to Hue by the mystery and intrigue of the palace too. During my recent trip to Vietnam, I headed north to Hue to escape from haphazard river of motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh and to simply relax and enjoy the slow pace and laid back lifestyle of this ancient city.
Here’s is my ultimate Hue travel guide and let’s get the journey started.
◊ Travel Period
Avoid both hot and rainy seasons. Spring starts from February to April and is the best time to visit Hue. With its cooling daily temperatures ranging around 22 degrees Celsius, you get to enjoy the city comfortably without getting burnt from the tropical heat and humidity. This is also the season of the lowest rainfall and the highest flower blooms. Thus all your planned walking or trekking itineraries will not be affected.
The official language spoken is Vietnamese. Most people from the hospitality and retail industries are able to understand and converse basic English. As for local street food stalls and small market shops, it is best to bring along your best friend ‘Google translate’.
◊ Local Currency
The Vietnamese Dong is the official currency but USD is more well loved and preferred. Banks and ATM withdrawal machines are widely available with foreign exchange counters. Certain shops, cafes and bars do accept credit cards. However, it may include a small surcharge.
◊ Daily Expenses
Excluding accommodation, transport and entrance tickets to places of interest, a budget of 200,000 VDN (USD 9) is good for a day’s expenses.
There are several options in getting to Hue. As for me, I flew in to Ho Chi Minh and transferred to another domestic flight to Hue from the domestic flights’ terminal. The duration is about an hour thirty minutes. This is slightly cheaper as compared to heading in direct from Singapore. Depending on your dates of travel, always do a comparison between direct flights from your destination and domestic flights from within Vietnam. You’ll never know when a surprising fare deal might pop up.
There are several flights operated by Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet and Jetstar Pacific from Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi to Hue’s Phu Bai airport daily. To get to the city centre, you can easily get a taxi outside the arrival hall. Taxi fare approximates about 360,000 VND (USD 17) but always negotiate before boarding. Another way is to check with your hotel directly for airport transfer. Based on my experience, it is way cheaper as I am picked up by my hotel driver who waits for my arrival and takes me straight to my hotel without any detours.
As Hue is situated in between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi on the north-south train line, travelling to Hue by train along the infamous Reunification route is a great choice for many backpackers. However, the journey takes eleven hours. Train tickets come in different rates, depending on its speed and class. The train station in Hue is ten minutes away from the city centre. Train schedules are available at the train station and most of the hotels and tour agencies. Always check your train departure availability at least a day in advance to avoid any disappointment. Prevent yourself from falling prey to scam or paying more by purchasing your train ticket only at the train station.
A road trip across the picturesque Hai Van pass to Hue is another way for a non-stress travel. Take in the beautiful scenery along the scenic route or maybe even stop for a few snaps of killer Instagram photos. Depending whether you are travelling from north or south, Hue is located right before or after Hoi An. Most people visit Hue from Hoi An as a day trip as it is just a three hours drive away using the tunnel route.
Hue City Centre is pretty small. Thus you can get your little two feet active and explore the centre on foot. The Imperial Palace is also located nearby from the city centre right across the Truong Tien bridge. Walking there is definitely doable with a nice weather backing you for support. The street in Hue are not as notorious as Ho Chi Minh as there is less traffic from vehicles and motorbikes.
However, to visit the famous tombs, you will need to hop on a transport as they are located way out of the city centre. For the adventurous you, you can consider renting a bike from the hotel or bike rental shop to tour Hue yourself. A bike rental costs approximately USD 8 a day including helmet. This is a great way to explore Hue intimately as there are many fantastic hidden scenery and locations that are not accessible by car.
Alternatively, taxis are also cheap. The taxi works on metered fare and can be hailed easily along the main street. Most of the hotels also provide private car rental services, with driver included. But of course, the costs is undeniably higher but at least your hotel staff instructs the private driver exactly where you need to go. Some hotel staff are courteous to also confirm your destination with the taxi driver for you.
◊ Luxury Stay in Hue
Indochine Palace – Pamper and treat yourself to a royal-like staycation. Featuring its world class impeccable service, this luxuriously stylish hotel features classy spacious rooms and fantastic dining options in the heart of Hue, with easy access to everything. All of it’s well designed rooms comes with either a balcony, lake or pool view.
Saigon Morin Hotel – Excellently located in the centre of Hue, this French colonial hotel overlooks the Perfume river and the Truong Tien Bridge. The Dong Ba market and Imperial Palace are situated right across the bridge and river. From the hotel’s top notch room facilities to outdoor swimming pool to dining options, it has gained the love of many travellers who want to indulge in a blithe city life.
◊ Comfort Stay in Hue
Serene Shining Hotel – This is where I stayed. Located in the city centre, within a short walk from the Huong river and Nhu Y river, Serene Shining Hotel is the definite shining star in Hue. Offering from the heart services by all the friendly, courteous and spontaneous staff, you are sure to feel at home and want to stay for another few more nights. Simplicity is the definition for this hotel and full fledge facilities are provided for from in-room housekeeping to dining.
◊ Budget Stay in Hue
Share Dorm Hostel – Where strangers becomes friends and where everything revolves around cost savings! Strategically located, this superbly clean and comfortable hostel features a nice bar where travellers get to meet like minded people. Big cosy bed aside, this best value hostel also offers bike rental where you can hit the road without fuss of getting a transport around.
◊ Airbnb in Hue
For those travelling in groups or with family, Airbnb is a good choice to find a perfect ‘temporary’ home away home. Be it an apartment or shared room, Airbnb has you covered. There are tons of options for you to choose from that will suit your budget and travel itineraries.
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When it comes to delicacies and cuisines, you are at the right place. Food in Hue are generally very affordable with a wide array of variety from authentic local to western fusion. Cafes and restaurants, street foods stalls and mobile food trucks are dotted on almost every street and corner. Some even provide small stools for you to sit while you grab a quick bite.
Hanh Restaurant – A humble restaurant located in the city centre that is easy to locate. Hanh restaurant has won the heart of many locals and tourists with its cheap, typical local dishes. Its popular menu items that are flying over the cyber space is its Nem Lui and Banh Beo, as well as the five course set menu that costs just VND 120,000 (USD 6).
Banh Mi Trang Tien – ‘Banh Mi’, the Vietnamese version of ‘Subway’, wrapped generously with Vietnamese preserved meats and greens. A huge half foot long meaty overloaded Banh Mi cost only VND 20,000 (USD 1) and is a perfect dinner on its own already. This stall has no actual shop space but is located under the one of the park’s gazebos next to the Truong Tien Bridge. Expect a long queue when night falls as Banh Mi Trang Tien is famous among both locals and tourists for its economical, stomach filling , and mouth watering sandwich.
Quan Chay Thanh Lieu – A homely vegetarian restaurant that serves tasty local style vegetarian food that will bring back memories of the good old days. The food are well loved by tourists who went back day after day. Not too sure if they ever increased their prices since their first day of operation but a plate of fried rice costs only VND 15,000 (USD 0.60) and a big hotpot costs VND 40,000 (USD 1.75). So, be sure to order more!
Che Hem – Che is a local Vietnamese dessert that has a special smell of lotus seeds. This sweet soupy dessert consists of several colourful ingredients like taro, sweet potato, different kinds of beans, mixed fruits and coconut milk. In Hue, there are 36 different types of Che and each has its own unique flavour. Situated at the end a small alley away from the main road, Che Hem served a variety of Che at VND 10,000 (USD 0.50) per cup and is definitely worth going after for.
Imperial Palace – The icon of Hue and the greatest heritage of Vietnam. The imperial palace was also known as the Purple Forbidden City and was once the central administrative capital of the kingdom of Vietnam. Most of the curtain walls and citadel gates still stand today after many years of neglect and wars, but most of the throne halls and supporting complexes were destroyed with no blueprints or details for its reconstruction. Recently listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, tourism dollars is what helps keep the restoration effort in progress. The entrance ticket here alone is VND 150,000 (USD 7) per pax but a combo ticket that includes this entrance ticket as well as two other royal tombs’ entrance tickets costs VND 280,000 (USD 13). Do note that visitors are required to wear covered clothing with shoes.
Khai Dinh Tomb – The renaissance synergy of French and Vietnamese art moulded in all but grandeur for a king who was obsessed with the French. Built on a hill side, this is one of the most beautiful and intricately designed royal tombs that incorporated both European and Vietnamese art in architecture.
Minh Mang Tomb – The longest reigning emperor of Vietnam but yet the most controversial. Emperor Minh Mang was loved by many for his staunch and critical attitude that staved off western and European nations from colonising Vietnam, keeping Vietnam independent compared to other kingdoms including China who ceded islands and land to western colonists. However, Minh Mang martyred and prosecuted many religious leaders and believers with genocidal extermination exercises throughout Vietnam which eventually instigated France to intervene. One of the largest royal tombs surpassing even his father’s (Gia Long), Minh Mang’s body was never buried there eventually for fear of tomb raiders and being desecrated by his enemies. No one knows where Minh Mang was finally buried even until today.
Dong Ba Market – The oldest market to survive and outlive even the Nguyen dynasty itself. Dong Ba market is situated near the river banks of the Perfume River and had traders from China all the way to Europe come and trade at its shores. This market has since expanded with a more concrete structures but houses hundreds of small retail shops within with inventory stocked to the roofs. Best place to buy cheap souvenirs, authentic imitation goods, consumables, and even cheap eats (if your stomach is strong enough for the challenge). Do negotiate to 80% of their asking price and persist politely and the retailers will be more than happy to oblige for a win-win situation.
Thuy Tien Water Park – Hidden deep within the hill enclosing a natural lake, this water park was abandoned almost immediately after its construction was completed. A sad waste of money, the park is completely forsaken and unmaintained. Till today, it still remains unknown to many. Curious travellers come here to trek or motorbike around the huge lake while some come for the view of the monster that resides within… To enter the park, pay or bribe (whatever you call it) to the security guard stationed at the entrance with a little entrance fee of VND 10,000 (USD 0.45).
Next Read: Secrets Of The Lost City Of Hue
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