Hue – Imperial City
The best way to get around is on a moped and if you don’t want to drive you can probably organise a driver from your hotel. Using google maps (I’ve put google map links in this doc) all of the pagodas and tombs are marked. Opt for the little winding roads off the main drag as they are really pretty and meander through the countryside where you’ll see village life, paddies and pine woodlands.
The city of Hue is laid out according to the natural feng shui of the landscape, the river in front of the citadel has two islands representing the dragon and the white tiger and about 4km away is a mountain (hill) on Ngu Binh which blocks evil spirits entering the citadel but since the Nguyễn dynasty is no longer in operation I guess some slipped past.
Tim Doling’s book ‘Exploring Hue’ is an amazing way to get an in depth look into the city and surrounding areas. Below are some of my favourite places. You can look on his website for lots of more information about Vietnam www.historicvietnam.com
A near perfect day could go like this….
Đàn Nam Giao – Heavens Gate
4km directly south from the city down Dien Bien Phu street is Nam Giao – this is Heavens Gate, look back up Dien Bien Phu and you can see the flag of the Citadel as they are in perfect line with each other. Nam Giao was used for triennial animal sacrifices presided over by the Nguyễn Kings for stability and luck. If you walk to the back right hand corner there is a little walled area, if the gate is open go through and there is a building where they keep all of the costumes from the ceremonies and have some gruesome black and white pictures of the sacrifices during the French colonial era.
Go down Lê Ngô Cát street and on your right hand side there is an archway that says Chùa Từ Hiếu. Take a right and go down a little lane, on your left is the entrance. My house is 67 Lê Ngô Cát through the red gate up the hill, pop in for a cup of tea!
Từ Hiếu Pagoda
This is the root pagoda of the zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Opposite the entrance is a small tower where the old woodblock printed sutras were put to ‘return to the earth’ because they were not allowed to be thrown away or burned.
Go through the gates and the archway to a crescent moon shaped pond with a writhing mass of cat fish, there’s an old lady with one tooth who will sell you a pack of biscuits to feed the fish with which is an experience not to be missed!
During the Nguyễn Dynasty Từ Hiếu Pagoda was the pagoda of the eunuchs. At the back is a small eunuch cemetery. There is a small shop that sells Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and calligraphy sayings by Thich Nhat Hanh on traditional Vietnamese paper. The monks at the shop will translate for you.
You can return to Lê Ngô Cát to go to the next spot or you can try to navigate the winding lanes.
Tự Đức Tomb
This tomb can be very popular with tourists and for good reason. The setting is beautiful and the Royal library where he played chess with his mother and wrote poetry is a great place to sit and reflect.
Tự Đức is a rather sad character as it was under his rule that the French gained control of Vietnam as a colony. There is lots information on my friend Thu’s blog: https://blog.beebeetravel.com/tu-duc-king-a-struggling-ruler-in-the-beginning-of-colonization-era/
Vọng Cảnh Hill (Đồi Vọng Cảnh)
Come out of Tự Đức Tomb and go right and take the first left onto Huyền Trân Công Chúa and follow it up the hill, you can park your bike at a small café on the left which has a bike parking sign (Gửi Xe) then walk onto the Vong Canh Hill, this is one of the most beautiful views of the river and the mountains, you will also find some old American bunkers on the hillside. To the right is an observation tower which you can climb up for an even better view.
If you’re feeling intrepid there is a back route to Thiệu Trị’s Tomb but probably not advisable in rainy season as the puddles get very deep on the dirt track.
Quan chay Hoa Từ Tâm
This is a super little vegetarian restaurant for lunch, lots of monks from local pagodas come here.
Thiệu Trị Tomb
This is one of my favourites, no one ever goes here and sadly it’s in a state of disrepair, as you approach take a right instead of going to the main entrance, this will take you up a little road to Xương Thọ Lăng the Dowager Empress’ tomb which is a very peaceful spot. You can then come back down and buy a ticket and go into Thiệu Trị’s tomb, the lotus ponds at the back are beautiful.
Gia Long Tomb
If you can arrive here at the end of the day the far set of steps is a magical place to watch the sun go down over the mountains and watch the egrets come in to roost. Take a few cold drinks. There is no official closing time as with the others.
This tomb is set in enchanting surroundings, it is deemed to be a particularly auspicious location with natural features creating perfect feng shui, a long winding path, water in front and mountains to protect the tombs from maleficent winds. Gia Long was the first Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 – 1945) he united the country after decades of civil war.
It is the only tomb where the Emperor is buried next to his wife reflecting Gia Long’s affection for Empress Thua Thien. There is a friendly security guard who will unlock the gates for you to go in a see the double tomb and you can give him a donation.
Everything else in Hue is wonderful too, but these are places I have found particularly inspiring, these are some other places:
Khải Định Tomb – this is an extraordinary example of a mixture of European and Vietnamese, Emperor Khải Định was obsessed with Versailles and French design. On a trip to France he bought some battery powered fairy lights and apparently wore them around his palace until the battery died. Some people think his tomb is hideous, I love it – the mosaics inside are verging on psychedelic. Also, the location is stunning.
The Citadel – There is a very ambitious renovation project going on and it is really starting to bring it to life.
The Museum of Royal Antiquities
This is a lovely museum with a collection of the possessions of the Royal family.
I would highly recommend doing some background reading on the Nguyen royal family, they are an extraordinary bunch, lots of scandal and intrigue!
If you’re into art I would also recommend a visit to Le Ba Dang Museum on Le Loi – this is a beautiful villa with the works of a great artist who spent a lot of time in Europe, I love his work or Diem Phung Thi Museum this is a few houses down from Le Ba Dang.
In terms of eating I would do go to Trần Huy Liệu – lots of BBQ places and right by the citadel which is lit up at night. My friend has a bar called Then Cafe which is in the citadel and has performances by experimental musicians etc – you can find Then Cafe on Facebook to check their schedule as it is often closed.