If you are history buffs, Hue will easily be high on your Vietnam must-see list. This capital of Nguyen emperors is packed with temples, tombs, palaces and pagodas or at least the remains of those that successive armies didn’t manage to completely destroy. The north bank of the beautiful Perfume River is host to its share of hotels and restaurants offering Imperial- style cuisine for which the city is rightly famous.
Things to do in Hue:
Where to go in Hue:
The Citadel is often used as a catchall term for Hue's Imperial City, built by King Gia Long beginning in 1804 for the exclusive use of the King and his household. Most of the site is comprised of crumbling stone buildings and walls overtaken by trees and plants. The natural disrepair gives the place an authentic, ancient feeling. Unfortunately, restoration is happening fast, and inner palaces and buildings are being reconstructed and given a fresh coat of paint. The city actually encompasses three walled enclosures: the Exterior Enclosure or Citadel; the Yellow Enclosure, or Imperial City, within that; and, in the very center, the Forbidden Purple City, where the King actually lived.
The Citadel is a square 2km wall, 7m high and 20m thick, with 10 gates. Although the complex was constructed by a French military architect, it was actually the French who destroyed it many years later.
See the Imperial City with a good English-speaking guide. The site is not spectacular in itself, but steeped in history and traditions, and a good guide can give you a breakdown of what things once looked like, what life was like at the Imperial court, and connect you with a dance show of the Imperial Dance Troupe.
The Flag Tower Built in 1807 during Gia Long's reign, this tower is the focal point of the Imperial City. The yellow flag of royalty was the first to fly here and was exchanged and replaced by many others in Vietnam's turbulent history. It's a national symbol.
Nine Dynastic Urns were cast between 1835 and 1836 and each is dedicated to a different Nguyen sovereign. The designs date back to 4,000 years, include the sun, moon, meteors, clouds, mountains, rivers and various landscapes. About 2m in height and weighing 1900kn to 2600kn each, the urns symbolize the power and stability of the Nguyen throne. The central urn which is the largest and most ornate is dedicated to Gia Long King.
The Forbidden Purple City was once the actual home of the King and his concubines, this second sanctum within the Citadel is a large open area dotted with what's left of the king's court. The new Royal Theater behind the square and the partially restored Thai Binh Reading Pavilion, to the left of it as you head north, are notable mostly for its beautifully landscaped surroundings, including a small lake with stone sculpture, and the ceramic and glass mosaic detailing on the roof and pillars, favored by King Khai Dinh.
The Noon Gate One of 10 entrances to the city, this southern entrance is the most dynamic. It was the royal entrance, in fact, and was built by King Gia Long in 1823. It was used for important proclamations, such as announcements of the names of successful doctoral candidates.
Thai Hoa Palace Commonly known as the Palace of Supreme Harmony, it was built in 1833 and is the first structure you'll approach at the entrance. It was used as the throne room, a ceremonial hall where the King celebrated festivals and received courtiers.
Khai Dinh Tomb Completed in 1931, the tomb is one of the world's wonders with outstanding workmanship.
Minh Mang Tomb One of the most popular Nguyen Kings and the father of last King Bao Dai built a restrained, serene, classical temple, much like Hue's Imperial City, located at the confluence of two Perfume River tributaries. Stone sculptures surround a long walkway, lined with flowers, leading up to the main buildings.
Tu Duc Tomb With the longest reign of any Nguyen dynasty King, from 1848 to 1883, Tu Duc was a philosopher and scholar of history and literature. The tomb was constructed from 1864 to 1867 and also served as recreation grounds for the king. The highlight of the grounds is the lotus-filled lake ringed by frangipani trees, with a large pavilion in the center. The main cluster of buildings includes Hoa Khiem (Harmony Modesty) Pavilion, where the king worked, which still contains items of furniture and ornaments. Minh Khiem Duong, constructed in 1866, is said to be the country's oldest surviving theatre. There are also pieces of original furniture lying here and there, as well as a cabinet with household objects: the queen's slippers, ornate chests, and bronze and silver books.
Thien Mu Pagoda Often called the symbol of Hue, Thien Mu is one of the oldest and loveliest religious structures inVietnam. It was constructed in 1601. The Phuoc Dien Tower in front was added in 1864 by King Thieu Tri. Each of its seven tiers is dedicated to either one of the human forms taken by Buddha or the seven steps to enlightenment. There are also two buildings housing a bell weighing 2 tons, and a stele inscribed with a biography of Lord Nguyen Hoang, founder of the temple.
Bao Quoc Pagoda Just past the train station on your way south toward the imperial tombs, little Bao Quoc temple is a Buddhist temple dating back to the 17th century. At the top of the steps leading to the main temple square, you'll see the grand arched entry of a classic Chinese school.
Transfer in and to Hue:
Flights: International travelers fly into Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi or into Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City to get to Hue.
Air France is one of the major carriers servicing Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Tiger Airlines service Hanoi and Singapore. Other airlines with regular service to Hanoi are Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Korean Airlines (every Asian airlines service the country). Vietnam Airlines offers some interesting deals to travelers as cheap ground transportation to locations in Hanoi. It operates flights from Berlin, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Los Angeles, Moscow, Paris, Seoul, Singapore and Sydney among other destinations in Europe and Asia.
Noi Bai has been recently remodeled and many travelers prefer it to arriving in Tan Son Nhat (but in some cases you can get lower fares if arriving in Tan Son Nhat).
Trains: Trains depart daily from both Hanoi and Saigon to the station in Hue. There are two nightly departures, at 7 and 11pm. A trip from Hanoi to Hue takes 14 hours on an express train and costs about $35 in a soft-berth compartment with air-conditioning. From Saigon, in a soft-berth compartment with air-conditioning, it's about $50. The Hué train station is at the southwestern end of Le Loi Street.
Buses: Many travelers choose a nerve-rattling overnight bus or minivan from Hanoi to Hue which takes an excruciating 17 hours and drops passengers off around the Hung Vuong tourist ghetto and picks up from the hotels. Expect a complete circus when the bus stops, as you’re likely to be followed by several persistent touts, all keen to direct your wallet to their hotel.
Hue is at its finest in the months of March and August when the weather warms up a bit and the rains have yet to come.
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