I had never intended to visit Hue. When purchasing my open bus ticket, choosing the number of stops and locations I planned to visit in the agency office that was selling the open bus tickets, my ticket option choice was as follows:
Ho Chi Minh City – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hanoi
I had prepared myself mentally for long, tiring, overnight bus trips and prepped my backpack with canned beans, packaged nuts and seeds, dried and fresh fruit, face wipes and toilet paper! Each bus I boarded I was really for a long, bumpy and segmented sleeping car horn-filled night.
So, it was a surprise after boarding a bus at Hoi An, mid-afternoon, three hours into the trip, at a simple stop along the way to pick up more passengers that I was told I MUST GET OFF!
I must what?! My ticket clearly stated that I was booked for Nha Trang to Hanoi. I told the man organising the passengers this, and he got off the bus, grabbed my bag and placed it on the curb, turned back smiling and said “you must get off now”.
And so I found myself at a bus stop, in a town that I was not even sure of its location, or its name. Where was I and what was I to do? Was there another bus going to Hanoi that I could simply jump on? After finding a travel agent that worked with my open bus ticket company I found that I had to stay the night in order to catch the bus the next day. I then asked the lady working there two questions:
“What is the name of this town?”
She replied, “City is Hue” (she pronounced it Hway).
“Which way are the hotels”
She walked out to the curb, my backpack still sitting there where the smiling man who kicked me off my bus placed it, and pointed “That way, not far”.
After thanking the lady, I walked “that way”, for about 1km and found myself in a strange, not so small yet peaceful town, with many restaurants, a beautiful riverfront, and an all-round hipster vibe with nightlife and day life as vibrant as the other.
And that’s how I ended up spending 6 unplanned, amazing and refreshingly relaxing days in Hue. Now, how can I put my time here in words…
Things to do in Hue – Where is Hue?
Hue, sits on the Perfume River, with the old city on one side of the city, and the new city with hotels and restaurants, markets and shops on the other side.
Things to do in Hue – How to get to Hue?
Hue is a 3-4 hour bus trip from Hoi An (south of Hue), and is a 12-16 hour bus trip to Hanoi (north of Hue). Prepare yourself for the overnight trip from Hue to Hanoi, it is not only exhaustingly long, and quite hot (even though there is air conditioning) but it is extremely bumpy.. so those prone to motion sickness prepare for this also!
There is an airport 15kms out of Hue. Phu Bai (HUI) airport has daily flights to Ho Chin Minh and Hanoi daily (check out Vietjet and Vietnam Airlines for flight information). From the airport, there are taxis and buses that can take you to the centre of Hue. Danang Airport is also an option, being only a two-hour car trip from Hue and having more flight connections. Taxis start from around US$50 for the two-hour trip (Danang Airport to Hue).
It is also possible to catch a train to Hue, from Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City. The train station is about a 40-50 minute walk from the main tourist hub and riverfront of Hue. It’s important to note that tickets are best purchased at the train station, as hotels often overcharge foreign tourists.
When in Hue…
Things to do in Hue – Pham Ngu Lao
Visitors should head to the Pham Ngu Lao area, where you will find a concentration of hostels, hotels, bars, restaurants and travel agents.
Cyclo drivers line the streets along the riverfront, while tourists and locals roam the streets and explore the markets. Hue, is a changing city, I observed it as a city moving towards a tourist-focused town. With cyclo drivers offering weed and hookers! The backpacker tourist hub at night is a mix of drunk packers causing a commotion, street vendors trailing visitors and quiet couples out for the night at a restaurant, all being offered weed by street vendors and other services by working girls 😉
The local cyclo drivers can take you on a tour of the city for around US$10 for an hour, and point out some attractions. You can also quite easily grab a free map at most of the travel agencies or tourist information centres, and walk around Hue on foot, or bicycle, as Hue is not a big city by any means.
The Imperial Citadel is a complex of temples, moats, museums and shops and is around 110,000 dong to enter. Sitting just across the river from the Pham Ngu Lao area, its quite easy to explore by bicycle, or motorbike. Inside you will find a peaceful, village-like collection of temples and buildings inside moats surrounded by water.
It contains buildings where the Emperor would address officials and hold state meetings, the Forbidden Purple City and the Jungle Crevice, which was where the Viet Cong captured over 3000 Hue citizens and pushed them over the cliff here and into the crevice.
Tombs of the Emperors
This is a large group of tombs and temples spread out over a large area, a fair distance from the city. You can get a map of the temples and hire a bike, or I found it easier to hire a motorbike taxi, where I was able to choose the tombs I wanted to visit, as well as the ones he said were important, and not have to bother with maps or getting lost on the outskirts of a foreign city!
It’s also important to note that there are entry charges at most of the tomb entrances, but not all, and my motorbike driver was able to point out all the free sites as well as inform me of the entrance prices of each of the tombs before leaving Hue. And make sure you bring a hat or sunblock, and a large water bottle.
The third option is to go by boat and include a trip over the beautiful Perfume River.
There are vendors at some of the main tomb entrance gates selling various drinks and fruit also.
If choosing to go by bike, do not be afraid to negotiate with several motorbike drivers to find one that you are comfortable with spending a half or a whole day with on your own (and often at sites where there are no other people for kilometres), as well as finding a driver that is negotiable on price and not to mention full of information that he can translate to you in English.
Most of the tombs are from the 19th and late 20th centuries and are an excellent example of Vietnamese Buddhist architecture. Most are surrounded by the most luscious, green and vibrant jungle.
I found the Tomb of Minh Mang absolutely magnificent. Located inside huge stone walls, covering an area of several hectares filled with stone tombs, temples, walls and walks.
The Tomb of Tu Duc is also worth mentioning, where I learnt that there were once over 50 buildings in this complex. There are crumbling walls, lakes, pavilions, temples and many, many tombs. This place was quite busy with many visitors at the site while I was there. It was also very hot. That’s another thing I remember from my time at this temple.
The Royal Tombs are also worth a look and are free entry and very peaceful.
In the Vietnam War, Hue was conquered by the Viet Cong and during this time saw more than 300 people killed, and many buildings were destroyed when the American army used bomber planes in order to retake the city. I went on a tour to what the locals called “American Hill”, and was shown a battleground and underground prison that the American army used to capture the Viet Cong.
This was very interesting, but also unnerving to hear had actually happened at this same place I was standing. Now, so peaceful and full of vegetation, it was a contrast to how I imagined it would have been during the war.
There are many accommodation options from budget hostels to mid-range hotels. Dorm rooms in hostels in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area cost from US5, although it is important to book ahead as hostels as cheap as this quite often are fully booked.
Search Trip Advisor for suggestions on accommodation options that suit your needs, and contact details so you can book ahead if you would like, or simply to choose a few different options and note the name and address so that when you arrive in Hue you can have a look at several options.
You will have no trouble finding food that suits your preference and needs. Among the many restaurants in the Pham Ngu Lao, area are Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, French, and many other cuisines. There are also many restaurants serving only vegan or vegetarian food with prices starting from US$1 for a two-course meal. Alcohol, either beer or cocktails, are readily available and very inexpensive.
Having explored Hue, walked the streets, shopped at several markets, bicycled the roads and old town, temple hopped by motorbike, learnt about the war, and eaten at many of the delightful restaurants, I now find myself in my lounge room, in Australia writing this as my heart beats faster and faster just thinking about my time in Hue… would I come here again… most definitely.