Huế (pronounced “h’way”) is located in central Vietnam and a city that history buffs will find particularly intriguing. Not only was it the seat of Nguyễn Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945, but it was also the site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the ‘American War’ (or, as we like to say in America, the ‘Vietnam War’).
Sadly, when the war was over much of the damage in Huế was neglected because they were seen by the communist regime as “relics from the feudal regime”. But today, slowly, work is progressing to repair the historical monuments that have lead to this city being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
If you plan on visiting Central Vietnam, 2 days in Huế should be enough time to cover these 6 highlights.
Huế Travel Basics
Vietnam is an easy and inexpensive country to travel in! The currency of Vietnam is the Dong (VND) and at the time of writing (August of 2018), the exchange rate was approximately 23,000 VND to $1 USD. Don’t worry about bringing a lot of cash from home, there are plenty of ATMs around Huế.
Huế is home to Phu Bai International Airport and Vietjet operates plenty of domestic flights into and out of the city daily. If you would prefer to travel by bus, train, or taxi, Da Nang is just 2 hours south. And the darling city of Hoi An is an additional 45 minutes further south. Keep in mind that trains in Vietnam rarely run on time.
Best Time to Visit
The hot/dry season in central Vietnam lasts from April until October with the high temperatures ranging from 95 – 104 °F. July is generally the hottest month of the year and temperatures can be unbearably hot during the midday. You can expect some rainfall from September until January.
You’ll find the weather to be the driest and most pleasant from February until April.
The Top 6 Things to do in Huế
1. Explore the Imperial City
Nguyễn emperors occupied the Imperial City of Huế for over a century. This walled city is a private complex of buildings that at the time was only accessible by the emperors, their families, concubines, and those granted special permission. The penalty for trespassing was death.
The Citadel is the outer area of the Imperial City and is surrounded by brick walls and a moat. You’ll pay an entrance fee of 150,000 VND (~$6.50 USD) and once you venture inside you’ll find the Noon Gate which has been restored to its original beauty. This impressive entrance was used for grand royal ceremonies during its heyday. And at the very center of the city is the Forbidden Purple City where the emperor’s consorts lived.
You can spend hours wandering around the Imperial City, marveling at the impressive gates and beautiful landscaping. And thankfully most of the walkways are covered so you’ll get some respite from the blazing midday sun. Be sure to stop for an iced coffee at the shop near the coy pond to relax your feet before continuing your tour.
2. Visit the Thien Mu Pagoda
The Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, is a stunningly beautiful 7-tiered tower right on the banks of the Perfume River. The pagoda was originally constructed in the 1600s and has been reconstructed, damaged, and restored several times over the centuries. It’s not as large as it once was but it’s impressive to behold nonetheless.
If you would like to snap a photo free from other tourists, head to Thien Mu in the early morning hours.
3. See the Ancient Emperors Tombs
The Nguyễn emperors ruled over the city of Huế and constructed elaborate tombs along the Perfume River to serve as their final resting place. There are 7 tombs that are available although only 3 are frequently visited by tourists – Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, and Minh Mang.
Emperor Tu Duc’s mausoleum is the most impressive of the 7 and a must visit in Huế. After paying the entrance fee of 100,000 VND (~$4.30 USD), you can enter this gorgeously landscaped area that is quite massive considering the relatively small size of his actual tomb. The tomb was constructed between 1864 and 1867. Tu Duc designed it himself for use both before and after his death.
There is a lovely lake in the middle of the grounds filled with lily pads. Bring an umbrella to shield you from the unrelenting sun and plan on spending at least an hour and a half wandering around the grounds, admiring the landscaping and the beautiful architecture.
4. Cruise in a Boat on the Perfume River
While the emperors tombs and the Thien Mu Pagoda are easily accessible by taxi or motorbike, you may prefer to hire a boat for several hours instead. You’ll have the opportunity to cruise on the Perfume River, soaking in the countryside as you pass. It’s a relaxing way to visit the sites and you’ll get to see the city from a different vantage point.
Negotiating the price of your boat can be a hassle. Ignore the touts when you first arrive to the marina (Bến Thuyền Du Lịch Tòa Khâm) and note that there is no “official” boat booking booth as they will have you believe. If you can get the aggressive ladies to leave you alone you will be able to find a boat driver that will offer a fair price. We paid 900,000 VND (~$38 USD) for a 4-hour boat ride for 4 people.
5. Taste the Local Cuisine
There are several Vietnamese dishes that you must try in Huế, the city of their origin.
Cơm hến (clam rice) is a popular dish with locals and is generally eaten for breakfast. The primary ingredients are rice and baby clams. It is simple, cheap, and delicious. If you would prefer noodles over rice, opt for bún hến instead. There are countless modest restaurants along Trương Định street serving up inexpensive bowels of com hen. If you have trouble choosing one, Ba Hoà and Quán 26 are both popular with the locals.
You’ll find bún bò huế (spicy beef noodle soup) served all over Vietnam but it was originally associated with the cooking style of the royal court of Huế. This soup has a broth made from beef bones, beef shank, and lemongrass and is seasoned with fermented shrimp sauce. It has a rich flavor that is salty, spicy, and slightly fishy. The soup generally contains rice vermicelli noodles, beef shank slices, oxtail chunks, pig’s knuckles, and congealed pig blood cubes – yum! Add lime, onions, chili, and other greens to taste.
Grab a plastic stool, a can of Huda Beer, and enjoy this unique, flavorful Vietnamese food!
6. Take a Ride in a Cyclo
The “cyclo” is Vietnam’s take on the ubiquitous rickshaw of Southeast Asia. These 3-wheeled bicycle taxis have a front seat for the passenger and the driver sits behind. While you’ll see cyclos in the larger cities of Vietnam, you’ll have a more pleasant experience in Huế where traffic isn’t nearly as crazy. They gather near the entrances to popular tourist destinations around the city and are a fun way to go short distances. Be sure to negotiate the price upfront and plan on spending more than you would on a taxi or Grab.
Other Things to do in Huế
- Tour the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
- Shop and eat at the Pham Ngu Lao Walking Street (closed to car traffic from 6pm – 2am Friday and Saturday and 6pm -12am on Sunday)
- Visit the nearby abandoned water park
- Go on a photography tour
- Check out the ancient bridge of Truong Tien, designed by Gustave Eiffel (creator of the Eiffel Tower in Paris)
And enjoy Vietnam!
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