Situated on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue was the imperial capital of the feudal Ngyuen Dynasty between 1802 and 1945. It also served as Vietnam's national capital until Emperor Bao Dai's abdication in 1945. It was the sight of some of the worst fighting during the Vietnam war. During the 1968 Tet Offensive most of the historic royal buildings in the city were heavily damaged or destroyed. The UNESCO designated Hue a World Heritage Site in 1993, paving the way for much needed restoration.
A visit of Hue and its ancient monuments, including the Citadel and the Royal Tombs along the Perfume River is an absolute highlight of a trip to Vietnam. Although much of the original structures have been destroyed, the remaining buildings provide a glimpse into the lavish and highly ordered life at the royal court. Hue has always been famous for its elaborate royal cuisine, which is being revived in many restaurants around town.
Places to See & Activities
During the Ngyuen Dynasty, the Citadel was the seat of the emperors. The entire 10km perimeter of this imposing structure is surrounded by a moat, and can be accessed through ten gates and corresponding bridges across the moat. The Citadel features Vietnam's tallest flag tower (37m), which was first erected in 1809. On either side of the flag tower are the Nine Holy Cannons, symbolically protecting the kingdom of the Ngyuen lords.
The Citadel housed numerous buildings with varying layers of access to different people. The Imperial Enclosure was the area where the emperor presided over his official duties and ceremonies. These included the announcement of the Lunar Year on the Belvedere of the Five Phoenixes. Other ceremonies and receptions took place in the ballroom sized hall of the Thai Hoa Palace. The Hall of the Mandarins was reserved for the preparation of these ceremonies and banquets.
The personal living quarters of the emperor lay in the so called Forbidden Purple City. Access to this area was restricted to the emperor, his concubines, and an army of eunuchs. Unfortunately, most of the secret Forbidden Purple City was bombed to rubble during the Tet Offensive.
The exhibits at the Dien Tho Residence, once home to the Queen Mothers, offer a wonderful glimpse into life at the royal court. Of particular interest are the photos on display as well as a number of stunning royal coats and dresses. Other exquisite objects and artifacts from the royal court can be seen at the Fine Arts Museum. Highly recommended!
Scattered upriver along the banks of the Perfume River are a number of imperial mausoleums. These are striking set-ups, ranging from single temples to multiple structures including landscaped gardens with lily ponds, grand staircases, and gnarled frangipani trees. Most notable and absolutely worth a visit are the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, and the Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh. These can be combined on a boat trip up the Perfume River. Allow for plenty of time, as these are very atmospheric sites and should not be rushed through.
This seven-tiered, 21m tall pagoda is situated on a hilltop along the Perfume River just outside of Hue. It is an impressive structure complete with marble turtles holding 18th century stele and gigantic bells, and offers lovely vistas over the river. A visit to the pagoda can easily be combined with a trip further upriver to the royal tombs.
Royal cuisine from Hue is highly regarded in Vietnam. It features elaborately prepared and presented dishes, often in miniature form. Chefs make ample use of chilies, and soups feature thicker noodles. There is also a strong tradition of vegetarian food due to many people adhering to Buddhist rituals of fasting. A visit to one of the many restaurants specializing in royal cuisine is a must!
For recommended hotels in Hue, click here: Hue Hotels.
Hue features a subtropical climate with two distinct seasons that are dictated by the northeast monsoon. The rainy season with heavy rains lasts from September to December, but rain does occur throughout the year. Temperatures are highest between April and September and can reach well above 30C.
Notes From the Field
“Hue is another terrific city that anyone visiting Vietnam should see. We arrived in Hue after spending some time in Hoi An, and although the cities are very close, they're very different.
Hue is not the best city for shopping, like Hoi An or Hanoi, but the sites are impressive, beautiful, and very interesting. Our favorite places in and around Hue were the Citadel and the Royal Tombs along the Perfume River, not to mention the incredibly scenic trip on the river. If you're visiting Hue, a trip down the Perfume River and to at least one of the tombs is an absolute must.
It's terrible that so much of the Forbidden Purple City was destroyed, but what's left is awesome! The buildings are really full of character, and many of them have really interesting exhibits inside...old royal clothing, pictures, etc.
When we took a trip down the Perfume River the weather was nasty. It was raining most of our trip. But the scenery was so spectacular, and the tombs so incredible, that we didn't even notice the rain. Our favorite tomb was that of the Emperor Tu Duc. Go see it! You won't regret it.”
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