This fascinating town, steeped in history, appears to be suspended in a period of time which cannot be defined by a number alone. Neither in the present day nor stuck in the past, this fascinating city tells the story of hundreds of years preserved in brick and stone. Hue has been the cultural, political, and geographical epicentre of Vietnam. It has lived through times of great eminence and great turmoil, and today the city has a beautiful yet solemn romance encased in its walls. Although the turbulent past is clearly etched on the scarred buildings, a little searching will be rewarded with the untold stories that hide in the moss covered stones and the mildew plagued walls.
Stelae of Doctors at Quốc Học – Huế High School for the Gifted.
In 1802, the Nguyen Dynasty emperor Gia Long moved the capital to Hue where it remained until 1945. Initially, the city flourished with the leader bringing the finest scholars and artist from all over Vietnam to work in the imperial city. During this time, this citadel was constructed according to oriental philosophy. The planning began in 1803 and the grand project was completed in 1832. However, during a particularly brutal assault in 1885, the French attacked Hue destroying much of the citadel, burning the library and seizing many valuable items.
The city again came under attack in 1968, in what has been described as one of the worst battles in the Vietnam war. Known as the Tet offensive, the 26-day battle saw bloodshed, death and destruction annihilate the city. The gravity of these fierce battles can be seen in the bullet-marked walls and tank damaged buildings.
The city’s war-stricken past usually takes centre stage, detracting from the wonderful culture of the people that have inhabited it over the years. However, Hue still retains a scholarly air about it with its rich and unique artistic culture. This can be seen in the distinctive style of music, Nha Nhac, recognised by UNESCO.
Hue also has a romantic ambience that rises from the beautiful and fragrant Perfume River and radiates through the city. The prominence of Buddhism also means that the city is decorated with numerous ornate temples and pagodas, each one intricately designed and set amongst attractive gardens.
See and Do
The main draw of this historic city is the remains of the Imperial Citadel. Located on the north bank of the Perfume River, only a fraction of the original citadel still remains. This grand architecture and harsh stone walls once housed Vietnamese royalty. It was a private sanctuary of luxury and protection for the elite.
A moat fed by the Perfume River encircles the citadel, the first line of defence against invaders. The complex itself is set up in concentrical rings. The outermost layer is the Kinh Thanh Hue (Hue Capital Citadel) which is heavily fortified with 24 defence bastions atop the stern grey walls. Inside this sits the Hoang Thanh (Royal Citadel) where the royalty would go to pray, relax and study. It once contained numerous ornate temples and gardens and hosted many lavish celebrations. The regal Ngo Mon Gate was previously reserved only for the king, but now it is open to visitors. At the core of the complex is the secret and exclusive Tu Cam Thanh (Forbidden Citadel) whose innermost secrets were only accessible by the emperor and his family.
Khai Dinh emperor of Vietnam
However, the beautifully designed gardens, pagodas and houses have, over time, fallen victim to destruction. The French assault on Hue began the damage to the magnificent complex which would escalate in the years to come. Another major blow to the architecture came in 1968 during the brutal Tet Offensive. The political status and close proximity to the demilitarised zone made Hue a prime target for American bombers as well as fierce ground battles. Although some restoration work has taken place, the scars of the battles fought here are still visible in the crumbling walls and bullet holes. The years of neglect have also taken their toll, with the dulled, chipped paint and the mildew and mould that has crept across the walls creating an evocative atmosphere.
Although there is still much to see at the citadel the fascinating stories that once played out here go somewhat untold, one option is to have a knowledgeable guide who can share this captivating past with you.
The Perfume River, which originates from two sources in the Day Truong Son mountain range, slaloms gracefully across the city of Hue. Along its path, it passes many of the city's main attractions such as the tombs of bygone Emperors and ornate pagodas and gardens. The river takes its romantic name from the fragrant scents that radiate from orchids that bloom here in Autumn. After reaching the peak of their beauty, the flowers into the water filling the air with a heavenly scent. Here there is the option of taking a boat tour on a colourfully decorated wooden boat or, if you want to explore independently, you can hire a small row boat. The river becomes a glassy mirror by night, reflecting the lights that are dotted along its bank.
The Huong River in Hue.
Hue is also known for its strong Buddhist beliefs which means there are many tranquil temples and pagodas throughout the city to explore and take a moment to reflect. The oldest of Hue's temples is the atmospheric Thien Mu Pagoda which overlooks the Perfume River. The Thien Mu Pagoda is an impressive seven stories tall making it one of the tallest in Vietnam.
The structure sits within a beautiful garden surrounded by vivid green trees creating an enveloping atmosphere of serenity. The ambience somewhat masks the pagoda's role in Buddhist activism in Vietnam. The infamous and haunting image of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who self-immolated in protest of the Diem regime, hangs on the wall behind his blue rusty Austin. This stark memorial acts as a reminder of the upheaval that was once faced here.
Thien Mu Pagoda, a very serene place.
Another interesting and elegant pagoda is Tu Hieu Pagoda. It became famous for its connection to Thich Nhat Hanh who entered the monastery here at the age of 16. The Buddhist Monk then went on to receive worldwide recognition for his activism. The imposing gates lead into lovingly kept grounds which feature a lotus pond. The monks gather here daily to recite their daily meditations, their chanting resonating throughout the area and into the pine forest that surrounds the pagoda.
Another place to witness the poise and dedication of the Buddhist monks is at Bao Quoc Pagoda. The peaceful spot sits at the top of Ham Long, a small hill on the south bank of the Perfume River. The pagoda is home to a training monastery that has been in practice since 1935.
Another way to immerse yourself in the regal history of Hue is by visiting the tombs of the elite leaders that chose to be buried here. The emperor Khai Dinh's tomb is one of the most grandiose tombs in Hue. Outside the stone has been speckled with mildew and dirt and the stone statues stand in waiting aged only by the weather. Inside the tomb is a very different affair, the interior of the main building is extravagantly decorated with mosaics and ornate artwork. This Tomb also shows the European and Oriental influences which appealed to Khai Dinh who was not popular because of his close relationship with the French government.
The tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh.
Another tomb worthy of a visit is the emperor Tu Duc's tomb. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens where the emperor used to enjoy spending his time. Inside the gardens, there is a glassy, lily pad strewn lake with a small island where the emperor used to enjoy hunting. The complex was designed by Tu Duc himself although he was never actually buried here in fear of grave robbers stealing his valuable treasures.
Not far from Hue is the glorious Bach Ma National Park. Once a French hillside station, this stunningly beautiful area was also a victim of the wars that plagued Hue. The protected area sits in the Annamite Mountain Range which has a great level of biodiversity owing to its varying terrains.
Culture and Arts
Because of Hue’s political standing as the citadel of the Nguyen Dynasty, over the years it attracted many great scholars, artists and followers of Confucianism.
One such art form is that of Nha Nhac, the Vietnamese court music. Nha Nhac, which translates as 'elegant music' was developed throughout the Le and Nguyen dynasties and has been recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This refined style of music and dance was performed at the majority of official events and ceremonies. The performers wore uniforms of lavish costumes with detailed decoration. Performances involved singing and dancing accompanied by orchestras playing traditional Vietnamese instruments. This sophisticated ensemble was polished over the years and performers were required to perform precisely and flawlessly as this was not only a form of entertainment but a method of communication with the gods.
The perfect setting to experience the rich traditional culture of Hue is the Royal Theatre which opened its doors in 1826 and has recently been restored. Visitors can now experience the captivating cultural performances that once amused Vietnam's elite. Visitors are also free to stroll around the theatre when there are no performances with an array of interesting artefacts on display to spark the imagination.
One place you can view Hue's artistic contributions throughout history is the Royal Fine Arts Museum which showcases some of the finest examples of art from the Nguyen Dynasty. Here you can get a glimpse into the refined style of the Vietnamese Royalty and see how artistic taste changed throughout time.
The gate entrance to Quốc Học – Huế High School for the Gifted.
A more unusual setting for a taste of Hue’s culture is the National School which was founded in 1896. This distinctive red, French-era building is famed for its impressive list of alumni. Previous students include the national treasure, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. Other well-known students Members of the infamous Ngo family, the head of which was President of South Vietnam from 1955 until 1963 when he was assassinated. The school is still an educational institution but visitors are welcomed to explore the charming grounds when classes have finished.
Food and Drinks
A traditional Vietnamese dish which is synonymous with they city of Hue is Bun Bo Hue which is a flavoursome dish associated with the royal court. This soup and noodle dish is akin to pho but has a unique and distinctive flavour. It is well balanced with sweet, salty, sour and spicy elements. Noodles are combined with the dark, flavoursome broth and a ion of meat all topped off with fragrant fresh herbs.
Com Hen, a traditional Hue dish.
One dish that is unique to Hue is Com Hen a dish comprising of hot mussel and chilli broth poured over rice mussels and variety of vegetables and herbs to create a rich and delicious medley of flavours. This dish, like many traditional foods in Hue, is known for being extremely spicy so although the main ingredients, apart from the broth, are cold, this dish is fiery in flavour.
Another delicious food found in Hue is Banh Khoai. This a delicious crispy pancake seasoned and coloured with turmeric and stuffed with pork, shrimp and vegetables. The delicious parcels are served with the usual accompaniment of well matched dipping sauces and garnishes. Banh khoai can be found throughout the city and can be enjoyed in a restaurant or from one of the many street stalls.
Festivals and Events
Hue's rich royal and political past have left a long legacy of interesting and exciting festivals. During the feudal reign, the King organised and attended many festivals throughout the year each celebrating a different aspect of Vietnamese culture.
The first day of the new lunar year begins with a special day of trading in Phu Vang District Hue City. This day is less about making money and more of a chance to ask for luck in the upcoming year. Traders from all around gather for the most significant day of trading throughout the whole year.
Following the traditional Tet holiday celebrations, people in the Phu Mau Commune in Phu Vang gather for the Wrestling Festival. This lively and exciting event is held on the 10th of January according to the lunar calendar. It brings the people together to promote health and strength for the year ahead. It is a chance for the local people to start the new year off well by refreshing their health and spirits.
On the 12th of January, people come together to celebrate the Fishing Festival and remember those who once fished in the surrounding oceans. Crowds of people head to Thuan An Beach to join the activities of traditional games based around fishing, worshipping the gods and praying for an abundant fishing crop. After taking part in the colourful and exciting games, people head to waterfront to watch the displays put on by the rowing boats.
One of the more solemn festivals throughout the year, known as the Losing of the War Festival, is held to commemorate the people who lost their lives during the French invasion which began in 1883. Around the city, there is a sombre and evocative atmosphere as families gather to pay their respects to the people who died during the assault. Twenty days of brutal battles resulted in the loss of many lives and culminated in the French occupation of the citadel. This festival began in 1885 and is held annually on the 23rd day of March in the lunar calendar. Families all over the city place large tables outside of their houses which they fill with many different traditional dishes. This not only gives people the chance to remember the casualties of war but also to brings family together and promote unity and safety.
The Boat Racing Festival is held on the 2nd of September which is also Vietnamese National Day. People gather along the beautiful Perfume River to watch the teams of racers compete. Set against the charming back of the National School, Quoc Hoc, this race commemorates and celebrates Vietnam's independence and freedom gained in 1975. This festival is a chance to promote health and strength and show union amongst the Vietnamese people.
These are a mere ion of some of the fascinating traditional festivals that Hue has to offer. Its rich and diverse past along with its religious standing means that Hue has festivals throughout the year to celebrate the many facets of Vietnamese culture and tradition.
A more modern addition to Hue’s endless list of festivals is the massively popular and highly anticipated biennial Hue Festival which celebrates the amazing culture of Vietnam. The programme features amazing performances from a whole host of different artists from all over Vietnam. This colourful, spectacular event draws millions of visitors, all thrilled by the fascinating displays. The festival is held every second year in April and spreads throughout the city filling the streets with colour, music and excitement.
An offshoot of this festival is the Hue International Cuisine Festival which is held in Phu Xuan Park. This maze of delicious stalls fills the air with the mouthwatering aromas of traditional dishes to feed the crowds of hungry festival goers.
Visitors can also experience cooking demonstrations to learn about the preparation and history of the dishes.
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Other highly recommended places in Hue
1 Imperial Enclosure B3
2 To Mieu Temple Complex B4
3 Co Ha Gardens B3
4 Dien Tho Residence A4
5 Dieu De National Pagoda E1
6 Emperor's Reading Room B3
7 Forbidden Purple City B3
8 General Museum Complex C3
9 Halls of the Mandarins B4
10 Ho Chi Minh Museum C7
11 National School C7
12 Ngan Gate C4
13 Ngo Mon Gate B4
14 Nine Holy Cannons B5
15 Nine Holy Cannons C4
16 Quang Duc Gate B5
17 Royal Fine Arts Museum H7
18 Royal Theatre B3
19 Thai Hoa Palace B4
20 Thai To Mieu Temple Complex C3
21 Truong San Residence A3
22 University of Arts C3
24 Alba Spa Hotel G5
25 Gold Hotel H3
26 Home Hotel G3
27 Hotel Saigon Morin F4
28 Hue Backpackers G3
29 Hue Thuong G3
30 Huenino G3
31 Jade Hotel H4
32 La Residence C7
33 Moonlight Hotel Hue G3
34 Star City Hotel H3
35 Stay Hotel G3
36 Com Hen G2
37 Gecko Pub G3
38 Hang Me Me G3
39 Hong Mai C2
40 Les Jardins de la Carambole B5
41 Lien Hoa H5
42 Mandarin Café F5
43 Quan Bun Bo Hue F6
44 Quan Thai Phu C7
45 Ta.ke F5
Drinking & Nightlife
46 Bar Why Not? G4
47 Brown Eyes H4
48 Café on Thu Wheels G5
49 Cafe Tre Nga H2
50 DMZ Bar G3
Hue Backpackers G3
Wounded Heart Tea Room G3
51 Blue de Hue G3
52 Dong Ba Market E2
53 Spiral Foundation Healing the Wounded Heart Center G3
54 Trang Tien Plaza E3
Map of Hue