Things to Do in Hue
Home to a colonial-era hill station, the monsoon forests of Bach Ma National Park center on Bach Ma, or White Horse Mountain, which rises 4,757 feet (1,450 meters). Waterfalls, crumbling villas, hiking trails, and a wealth of wildlife, including pheasants, langur monkeys, and muntjac deer, make a magnetic spot to spend a day—or longer.
The Perfume River (Song Huong River)—so-called due to the aroma released by blooming flowers in autumn—provides visitors with a wealth of activities. The river affords spectacular photo opportunities at sunrise and sunset, and it is flanked by cycle and walking paths that offer a cooling escape from the humidity of Hue.
The renowned Hue Citadel (Da Noi) in Hue attracts history buffs from around the globe. The sprawling fortress, which was constructed in 1804 for the Gia Long Emperor, is surrounded by a 68-foot (21-meter) defensive barrier and is home to the tallest flagpole in Vietnam.
The 7-story Thien Mu Pagoda towers over the banks of the Perfume River (Song Huong River). The pagoda, which sits among the buildings of a Buddhist monastery, became known as a site for anticommunist protests after Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist clergy member, self-immolated and brought attention to the plight of his people.
Khai Dinh Tomb is in Chau Chu village, south of Hue. It took 11 years to build—longer than Khai Dinh himself reigned. An elaborate, Gothic structure, with blackened concrete exteriors and flamboyantly gaudy interiors, it fuses French, Vietnamese, and Chinese architectural styles.
The Forbidden Purple City (Tử Cấm Thành), which sits at the center of Hue’s Imperial Enclosure, was once reserved for exclusive use by the emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Only eunuchs passed through its halls, since even his most trusted servants weren’t allowed beyond the gates. Today, this historic citadel sits mostly in ruins, destroyed during several wars throughout the nation’s history. Despite some recent rebuilding efforts, travelers can easily spend a long afternoon wandering paths that crisscross the grounds, exploring portions of the foundation, now overgrown with foliage, and examining the painting, woodwork and architecture that still remains. A 10 kilometer moat surrounds what was created to resemble the Forbidden City of Beijing, and 10 gates protect these once royal grounds.
Minh Mang Tomb
Contributing to Hue's imperial heritage is the Minh Mang Tomb, a 19th-century mausoleum set amid the lush landscapes of central Vietnam. The tomb, located 7 miles (12 kilometers) outside of Hue on the west bank of the Perfume River (Song Huong River), attracts visitors with more than 20 structures and its flower-lined walkways.
Thanh Toan Bridge spans a canal in the countryside village of Thuy Thanh, around seven kilometers east of Hue. It’s a small, covered bridge – the sister to Hoi An’s famous Japanese Covered Bridge (although some argue Hue’s is more distinct in many ways). The structure is both Japanese and Chinese in style and has a square-timber arch decorated with ancient ceramics, along with inscriptions in traditional Chinese script.
There is a story behind the origins of Thanh Toan Bridge: It is said to have been built during Emperor Le Hien Tong’s reign in the mid-18th century, with construction initiated by Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking mandarin in the Emperor's court. Tran Thi Dao established the bridge to create smooth transportation and communication around the village, which was divided in two by the canal. Emperor Le Hien Tong recognized Thi Dao’s initiative and charity by exempting the village from imperial taxations.
On the north bank of the Huong River is Hue’s lively Dong Ba Market (Chợ Đông Ba), stretching out for 16,000 square meters. Still retaining its old bell tower from when it was first opened by King Dong Khanh in 1887, the atmospheric market is divided into separate sections, with the whole upstairs floor dedicated to clothes.
Though Hue has plenty of supermarkets, Dong Ba is an important market for locals and a great place to experience Vietnamese life, with 5,000 to 7,000 people coming here to barter daily.
While you’re at Dong Ba Market, look out for popular local handicrafts like non la bai tho (conical hats with poems woven in the design), xung sesame candies, and Tuan black tea. Dong Ba is also a great spot for trying traditional regional food like beef vermicelli. You’ll find the street vendors serving specialty dishes on the ground floor of the market, on the street parallel to the river.
It took nearly three years to build some 50 structures that make up the Tomb of Tu Duc (Lăng Tự Đức), located 8 kilometers outside of Hue amid an expansive pine forest. The grounds are divided into two main parts—tomb and temple areas. Near the entrance visitors can wander the pavilion where the emperor once perched to compose poems and admire the flowers. This leads to his work station, and ultimately to his resting place. The impressive tomb, located just beyond the Honor Courtyard, houses a massive stone engraved with a narrative written by the Emperor himself.
More Things to Do in Hue
The Royal Antiquities Museum displays a huge collection of ornaments, furniture, jewelry, clothing, and other items relating to royal life during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). It is housed in the former Long An Palace, which is widely considered to be one of Vietnam’s most beautiful palaces. The striking building has seven compartments at its front, with eight beams covered in sculptures of dragons. The wooden parts of the palace feature elaborate carvings depicting various scenes, along with poems and essays written in Chinese script.
Having been relocated from the An Dinh residence to its original setting on Le Truc Street, the Royal Antiquities Museum sits just outside Hue’s Citadel (Imperial City). The building was used as a place of worship and a library before being established as a museum by King Khai Dinh and presented to his son, the last reigning emperor. The purpose of the museum was said to be “to revive generations of artisans who had built up the glorified Hue royal court.”
Formerly used to host the receptions and ceremonies of Vientamese emperors, Thai Hoa Palace dates back to 1805 and is notable for its lacquered columns. Plus, due to the palace’s innovative design, if you stand at the exact center of the courtyard you can hear whispers from anywhere in the building.
Stretching 700 km along the Thua Thien-Hue seashore, Tam Giang is the largest lagoon in Southeast Asia with over 300,000 Vietnamese living along its shores. Just 15 km from Hue, it’s a popular place to enjoy Vietnamese rural life and go out on a fishing boat with a local, learning traditional Vietnamese fishing methods along the way. At dusk, you’ll see traps being set to collect fish and shrimps before dawn the next day, and women working hard in the water to collect the oysters and clams which are then sold at the local markets.
Popular fishing villages to visit include Ngu My Thanh, Bao La, and Tan My: learn about daily life on the banks of the lagoon, take a boat trip, sleep overnight on a homestay, or learn how local women making fishing nets and pick up the art of bamboo weaving -- there’s plenty to do on the banks of Tam Giang Lagoon. If you go to Ngu My Thanh village, be sure to visit the traditional floating market which is open in the early mornings.
A photographer’s dream, Tam Giang Lagoon is also famous for its biodiversity -- look out for lake-loving birds and flora while you’re here, and of course, try fresh seafood like squid, clams, crab and shrimp fresh from the lake at one of the cottages lining the lagoon.
Travelers will find unparalleled beauty, spaces for quiet contemplation and nothing short of inspiration on a visit to the iconic Cat Tuong Quan Zen House in Hue. This one-of-a-kind religious center is a destination for Buddhists and mindfulness experts, thanks to spacious gardens, stunning pagodas and quiet grounds.
Stationed among the Thien An Hill pine forest, travelers can participate in Qigong, mindfulness workshops, meditation and yoga on a visit to this incredible destination. Expert chefs prepare satisfying vegetarian meals and local Buddhists offer insight into the practice, culture and traditions that make Cat Tuong Quan Zen House an almost holy escape.
Perhaps the most-visited gate of the Imperial City, this entrance was the site of numerous historically significant announcements (like the resignation of the last emperor, Bao Dai). A list of successful doctoral candidates whose names were announced at these gates still hangs on the wall of the upper floor. Although it was significantly damaged during war, yellow tiles, which demarcate areas reserved for use only by the emperor, can still be seen on rooftops. Climb to the upper level and enjoy unmatched views of both the Citadel and the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
The main focal point of the Imperial City, Hue’s Flag Tower (Kỳ Đài) greets visitors upon arrival at the Citadel, sitting opposite its main entrance and facing out across the river. The tower was built at the beginning of the 19th century during Emperor Gia Long's reign, although the flag staff has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since.
This is Vietnam's tallest flagpole. The yellow flag of royalty was the first to fly here, before being replaced by many others throughout Vietnam's colorful history. During the Viet Cong occupation in the 1960s, the flag of the National Liberation Front flew from the Flag Tower for more than three weeks. The tower itself is made up of three platforms, with the third featuring eight canons and a sentry box at either end.
Dotted with lush green islets and blooming with lotus flowers; Tinh Tam Lake provides welcome respite from the bustle of Hue’s city center. Just north of the Imperial City, the manmade lake was laid out in the 19th century and was once part of the royal grounds, where the Emperors would come to walk, relax, and drink tea.
The Hien Lam Pavilion can be found inside Hue Citadel across the courtyard from the Mieu Temple. It was built in the 1820s in memory of the mandarins who served the Nguyen dynasty. Just in front of the pavilion stand the Nine Dynastic Urns, which were cast in bronze in the 1830s and each dedicated to a different Nguyen emperor.
The urns each have their own name and are uniquely decorated with Vietnamese motifs and patterns, which include stars, rivers, mountains, and oceans. After their casting by Emperor Minh Mang, the Nine Dynastic Urns were placed in position according to the altars within the Mieu Temple. Cao Urn stands slightly forward in the center, with the others sitting behind, symmetrical on either side.
On Hàm Long hill by the Perfume River in Hue, Bao Quoc Pagoda (Chùa Báo Quốc) is a Buddhist temple that dates back to the Nguyen Dynasty, when it was commissioned in 1670 by Chinese Zen Master Thích Giác Phong.
Though Bao Quoc was renovated in the mid-20th century, the temple still retains its traditional charm. A spring flows from the top of the hill down into the grounds of the temple, where the peaceful courtyard is surrounded by balconied buildings and stupas built in honor of Buddhist patriarchs, the oldest of which was built in 1714 and dedicated to Thich Giác Phong. At the temple, look closer at its four pillars carved with dragon figures.
Bao Quoc Pagoda is also famous for its monk training center, which has been running since 1940 when Vietnam initiated a revival in Buddhist education.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum honors the late former leader of Vietnam: a man famous for leading his country’s revolutionary struggle against foreign powers. Inside, you’ll find exhibits that detail Ho Chi Minh’s early upbringing; his travels across the globe to fight colonial powers; and a collection of his certificates and medals.
On the north-central coast of Vietnam, Quang Dien is a rural district in the Hue-Thua Thien province. The livelihood of Quang Dien’s population relies on the Bo river, its fertile banks providing farmland that’s perfect for growing vegetables and rice. The 163-square-km district has a population of 91,000 that is concentrated in seven villages along the banks of the river as well as a few hamlets and the district capital of Sia. In spring, the small town of Sia hosts its own traditional boat races along the Bo river.
On the coastal plain northwest of Hue, Quang Dien district is a popular place for travelers looking to experience rural Vietnamese life. A perfect spot for cyclists looking for a relaxing ride, it’s a good place to bike among the rice paddies and riverbanks. While you’re in the area, be sure to sample some freshly-caught fish from the Bo, too.
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