Hue in Central Vietnam is one of the country’s most captivating destinations. The former imperial capital is memorable for her tree lined boulevards and slower pace of life. The Perfume River that flows right through the city, dividing the commercial side of town from the Ancient Citadel and the quaint neighbourhoods further afield. Not only is Hue rich in history, with stories of emperors, court intrigue, power grabs and outright, vicious warfare, but there’s a peaceful atmosphere in the city, and nature isn’t far away. The coast is only around 30 minutes away by car, while to the west and southwest, urban life gives way to forests and rivers.
It’s easily reached by bus, train or plane, and has its own airport. The busier city of Da Nang is only a two hour journey away, or 3-4 hours if you take the scenic, coastal route along the famous Hai Van Pass.
Take a minimum of two days for your stay in Hue to avoid rushing things.
8am: Wander the grounds of the Citadel and the Imperial City
Head across the perfume river to Hue’s centerpiece, The Citadel. The Nguyen Dynasty ruled their empire from here from 1802 to 1945, when North and South Vietnam were born. It’s unmissable thanks to the enormous flag of Vietnam that flies above the fortified walls. Even if you’re not a history buff, the Hue Citadel is an impressive place - sprawling grounds surrounded by high walls and intricate archways.
As you walk around, keep an eye out for bullet holes and other signs of damage in the external masonry -- In 1968, Hue was the amphitheater for one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam war. As part of the Tet Offensive, North Vietnamese forces launched a series of synchronized attacks throughout the entire country. Right here on the now idyllic streets of Hue and the Citadel, American and north and south Vietnamese soldiers fought viciously for more than a month.
When you’re done exploring the Citadel, don’t forget to stroll around the surrounding neighborhood for a glimpse of residential life for Hue’s local citizens, where there are friendly faces, cafes perfect for people watching, and picturesque photo opportunities around every turn.
11am: Fill up on the local speciality, Bun Bo Hue
Make sure to walk up an appetite, for Hue cuisine is widely thought of as the best in the country. Bun Bo Hue is a flavoursome broth-based dish of Vermicelli noodles and aromatic beef. First things first, it’s pretty different from Pho! The noodles are a good deal thicker and a touch chewier, and while lemongrass is the most dominant flavour, it is undercut with a good deal of salt and spice.
Keep an eye out for signs at street food stalls, but if you’re not willing to take any chances, stroll over to Bun Bo Hue My Tam at number 3 Tran Cao Van for the goods.
1pm: Hue’s Temples and the Abandoned Water Park
Rent a bike or book a tour west of the city centre to Hue’s litany of ancient temples, including the tombs of Tu Duc and Khai Dinh. When you’re done temple hopping, head to the newly famous Abandoned Water Park at Thuy Tien Lake. Take note before going though, that while the water park is officially “Permanently Closed”, security will usually grant you access for a small payment of approximately 5 USD (100,000 VND). The surrounding forest is dense and lush, while the decrepit features of the water park itself make it a spooky, ghostly place.
5pm: Cruise up the Perfume River on a dragon boat
Watch the sun go down over the citadel from the river. Boat tours in Hue are easy to arrange and can be done so through a tour agency, or just by seeking one out on the riverfront. Beware though, that opportunistic salespeople may overcharge you for the trip. Depending on your arrangements, you can get a meal and drinks included. If river cruising doesn’t appeal, head over to the Imperial Hotel and sip a cocktail on the rooftop as evening descends over the ancient capital.
7pm: Nightlife near Pham Ngu Lao
The loop made up by Pham Ngu Lao, Vo Thi Sau, Chu Van Anh and Le Loi Street is Hue’s most traveller-friendly area, with scores of pubs and eclectic restaurants to choose from. Chances are your hotel isn’t far from here so it makes a good place to spend the rest of the evening eating and drinking. Don’t go overboard though - day two has plenty of activity!
8am: DMZ Tour
A quick history lesson: France gave up control of Vietnam, then known as Indochina, in 1954, and the countries of North Vietnam and South Vietnam were established. The border between the two was formed around 100 km north of Hue. During the Vietnam war, control of this central area was crucial to both sides, and so heavy warfare ensued, the lasting effects of which can still be seen today.
On a full day tour of the DMZ from Hue, you’ll get an in depth education on the war between Vietnam and the USA, explore the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, visit combat bases and battle sites including Khe Sanh, the scene of one of the war’s most ferocious and famous battles. Not only that, you’ll marvel at the scarcely believable beauty of the Quang Tri prvince countryside as you roll through it.
7pm: Fine dining in stunning surrounds at Ancient Hue Garden Houses
A magical hotel hotel restaurant away from the activity of the tourist centered streets. The Ancient Hue Garden Houses serve up high quality Vietnamese and Asian cuisine in a dimly lit, atmospheric ancient style mansion. The entire place has a period feel to it, while the lush gardens and ponds make a wonderful place to sit, dine and sip wine or beer on a balmy evening. Don’t just order one dish though - go all out while you can! Eat banquet style, just like the royals here once did, and try the 9 course dinner.
In terms of atmosphere and relaxation, there are few greater places to eat in Vietnam.