Vietnam in 3 Weeks: (4) Ancient City of Hue

>>Previous stop: Ninh Binh

In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced something like “Hwei.” Other than being one of the easier Vietnamese city names to pronounce that even locals would understand you, Hue proudly distinguishes itself from other cities as the epicenter of intellect and spirituality. It rose to prominence under the Nguyen Dynasty in the 1800s when it was established as the imperial city of Vietnam. Just as Florence was the renaissance city of literature and art in Italy, much of Vietnam’s literature, music, medicine, and astronomy was derived from the city of Hue.

This city markets itself as pretty romantic, but the downside may be the climate in my opinion. As if Vietnam wasn’t hot enough already, welcome to central Vietnam, the hottest and rainiest part of the country. If you’re there during the summertime, it could very well surpass 100 degrees fahrenheit (37 Celsius). I traveled there during mid to late August so it didn’t reach to such extreme temperatures since the weather was probably transitioning to the cooler September weather.

If Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City was too noisy for you, you’ll enjoy the tranquilness and meditative aura of Hue. The city further validates this reputation with its name, which means “harmony” in Vietnamese. The motorbike traffic is less crazy so you won’t have to constantly worry about getting hit or killed.

Anyways, welcome to the city of Hue! You can enrich yourself with hundreds of pagodas, palaces, temples, tombs,  historical ruins, other relics. I allocated 3 days and 2 nights out of my journey for Hue but to cover everything, a 5 days would be enough!

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© Hong

The ruins were what I found most unique about Hue because it was the most telling about Hue’s past. As one of the oldest cities in Vietnam, this 7,000 hectares of territory holds thousands of ancient stories and information about the entire country and it persisted through the countless bombings and raids during the Vietnam War. Being wedged between North and South was actually Hue’s geopolitical weakness, becoming the most vulnerable point for the fiercest battles. Battles of the Tet Offensive and the massacre of Hue basically eviscerated not only its physical features but also the local people’s spirit. However, it’s hard not to go anywhere in Vietnam where there wasn’t a battle or skirmish. Nonetheless, many historical buildings still stand tall today, flaunting timeless architecture and decorated in colorful ceramic depictions of dragons, dogs and other animals.

Where to stay:

I wouldn’t really recommend where I stayed because first of all, the wifi connection was horrendous. It kept raining heavy showers in Hue so I had no choice but to spend more time that I would have liked inside my hotel. Having wifi while being rained in wasn’t too much to ask from in my opinion. Second, they tried to sneakily double our bill when we were checking out out. So that wasn’t cool! Therefore, my hotel isn’t worth mentioning in this post.

If you’re looking some affordable hotels in Hue, ranging from $10 to $20, I’ve heard these hotels are clean, hospitable, and simple: Amigo HotelHue Serene Shining HotelHoliday Diamond Hotel, and Hue Charming.

What to see:

  1. Imperial Citadel in the Forbidden City
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© Moritz Geier

Take a look above at these elaborate ceramic mosaics on the walls of the imperial palace. When you go to the palace (not if–it is the hallmark of Hue so you should), you’ll see these intentionally broken decorations covering the outside walls. I was fascinated at how such a modern concept of using broken glass and china, porcelain pieces to construct animals, flowers, and other imageries during such traditional and conservative times. Hue was quite avant-garde in my opinion.

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© Moritz Geier

Why does it feel more like a modest version of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing? That’s because the emperor at that time wanted to replicate the Chinese forbidden city. However, only remnants of the original pieces of the palace are still standing and the rest are just reconstructed or replicated. When Hue went under communist control, the American forces bombed mercilessly, without sparing even the palace.

It may not be big as the Forbidden City in Beijing but you will have to set aside a couple of hours to explore the area because it’s made up of an intricate network comprising of smaller palaces, buildings and court yards. The last Emperor abdicated in 1945 to the new communist government govern under Ho Chi Minh.

 

It drizzled and showered a bit while I was wondering through the palace and I unfortunately had no umbrella and had to spontaneously seek some shelter under whatever gate or building nearby. I spent most of my time at the Citadel because it poured cats and dogs later on so I didn’t get to see all of Hue as I wanted. 😦

 

2. Tomb of Tự Đức

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© Tour to Vietnam

It’s located on the outskirts of the city so it’s a great opportunity for you to rent a bike or motorbike from your hotel. I would recommend renting it from where you are staying because they will offer you honest prices. Elsewhere might give you some inflated prices because you’re a foreigner (In the eyes of locals, you are as rich as Bill Gates).

Emperor Tự Đức designed it himself while in preparation for whenever his grand burial would come. It’s definitely more impressive than Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The emperor really included everything–a tiny island used for hunting, a pavilion for his quality time with concubines, his personal temple for people to worship him, a throne, a theater, and many more. It felt a bit like his bachelor pad, although he was married (royal marriages, ya know). One or two hours exploring here would be enough.

3. Thien Mu Pagoda

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© DH Travel

Aside from the Imperial Palace, Thien Mu Pagoda is the other significant symbol of the city. Thien means “God” and Mu means “Old Lady.” It’s a very natural scenic landscape with many young monks roaming around doing daily duties or training since they are the caretakers for the temple. During the spring, the entire land is blooming with flowers and other beautiful types of fora. It’s not in the center of the city so you’ll have to drive around 5 km with your bike or motorbike from the center or use a taxi.

What to eat?

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© Hong

Above are all the Hue specialities that you should try to understand what Hue cuisine is like. With such a rich history, you’ll also find rich flavors in Hue cuisine. I recommend you go to Hang Me, which is a local restaurant that will serve you a sampling platter (photo above) that includes all the classic Hue dishes, such as:

  1. The small finger dishes on the right bottom are called Banh Beo, which are steamed rice cakes/rice sprinkled with mung bean paste, toasted shrimp, and scallion oil.
  2. On the bottom is Banh Ram It, which are steamed rice dumplings stuffed with sauteed shrimp and pork, delicately laid upon a crispy, fried glutinous rice cake.
  3. Right top is banh uot, a thin pancake wrapper eaten with fried shallots

Sorry, I forgot what dish with the star stacked yellow pieces, but it’s a sausage like cake with shrimp I believe. In addition but not shown in the photo above, you also get a plate of Banh Nam, which is a mixture of pork and shrimp filling on top of rice or tapioca dough and Banh Loc, a small, transparent, chewy tapioca dumpling. Yes, everything is made of tapioca! It’s quite a generous size for “sampling” so I would advise sharing it with another person. You get a lot of value for your money as this only costed me 50,000 VDN ($2.20)!

Next stop, Hoi An!

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