Located in central Vietnam, Hue, was a majestic city, the Imperial city and also the former capital of Vietnam when under the reign of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 – 1945, yeah “same same, but different” last name. The fact that entrance fees for sights in Hue have been considerably more than anywhere else in Vietnam and for Vietnam standards, it makes it tough on a budget. With tombs and temples scattered across the city, the best way is to rent a motorbike and take yourself. You get the added benefit of stopping where you want to eat when you see roadside stands. If you aren’t on a death wish with the ruthless no rules streets of Vietnam, you can visit almost all of the sights using boat tours on the Perfume river. Some will require taking a short taxi or motorbike taxi, we opted for a death wish.
The Perfume River
Ah, the beautiful smell of fragrant river……..not really. The river only smells fragrant once a year during bloom time of orchid flowers up river that flows down. To, me this would be my hell because of my allergies, so it was a good thing that it was late fall and the orchids had already bloomed. But catch it at the right time and you can see why it’s called perfume river. You can also take dragon boat tours down or up the river to get to temples and other sights but it’s a slow and painful ride. Boat drivers try their hardest to sell you souvenirs to make extra money.
The Imperial City
Between wars with the French and the US, the once majestic imperial city is now mostly in ruins. Efforts are being made to rebuild the Imperial city now but it will take a very long time. Regardless of what occurred in the past, it still remains an amazing walled city where royalty once lived. We visited the walled city but a word of advice, get a guide. Having a map from a guide book is not the same as having someone explain the area as much of it is still being rebuilt. We made the mistake of using a guidebook map and we were guess what each building was as somethings it’s not always clearly stated. Nonetheless, it’s a sight to see and to read about.
Bonus: There is a different price for Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese and regardless of what all your guide books may say, entrance fee for non-vietnamese is 150,000 VND (current price sheet for tombs and sights). But if you are Vietnamese and speak it, the entrance fee is 65,000 VND.
Thanh Toan Bridge – Japanese Bridge
Since we have a death wish, we rode just 7-10 km outside the city, depending on which way you go, to the country side to see the Japanese bridge. The significance of the Japanese bridge can be read here. It’s not worth taking a separate tour to see but alone the way you will see some amazing temples and a locals market where you can sit and enjoy some food or drinks.
Khai Dinh’s Tomb
Each emperor has his own tomb, seven in total, somewhere in Hue, some more lavish than others but only one emperor has ashes actually under his tomb, Khai Dinh. With so many tombs, pagodas and temples to visit, we had to be selective but Khai Dinh should be at the top of your list. With over 100 stairs that lead up to the main tomb area, this is one of the more extravagant tombs. The view alone after the climb is breathe taking and at the top of the first set of stairs you are surround by life size terra cotta warriors. Find two unnaturally strong men, some white chalk and you could have yourself a game of chess….that is if don’t get thrown out first. The next level is where the tomb is and you are greeted with a very intricately, mainly gold, painted room where his tomb is. It’s amazing to me the level of detail that is given to the tomb, the building and the surroundings. You can spend hours admiring it and we did just that.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Revered as the oldest religious structured in Vietnam dating back to 1600. It sits, along the Perfume river up top, yet another flight of stairs. There is a tower in front of the pagoda called Phuoc Dien tower that was added by Emperor Thieu Tri that is supposed to symbolize the seven levels of enlightenment. Creepy wooden guardian statues complete with wicked facial hair guard the temple line the sides as you walk towards the back grounds of the temple. In the back of the temple grounds is large garden area. Avoid coming between 11:00 – 2:00 as the monks will,be having lunch and the back area will be closed.
The Imperial Cuisine of Hue
Vietnam, in general, has amazing food. Now, I might be just a tad bit biased, but Hue should be on every foodies destination. Thanks to Emperor Tu Duc (1829-1883) for the city’s great food who request that he be served a different dish every day for a year. It’s good to be the king. Here in Hue, pho is not king…….bun bo hue is king. We had a chance to scour the city in search of some iconic foods and you can bet that we found a good handful of them.
Bun bo is the spicy big brother of pho that no one hears of. Everything about this dish is different, from the pig trotters, to the lemon grass to the shrimp paste to the congealed blood cubes. This bowl of deliciousness will make even the best of food snobs bow down. The easiest place to get this is in the day market, Dong Ba market. In the middle of the market are little stalls and you can distinguish bun bo by the huge cauldron bubbling away. Sit down and point because there won’t be any English spoken. This dish is all over Hue, so explorer and find your favorite.
Not really a specialty of Hue but since everyone who goes to Hue will go to the market at least once, you might as well get this delicately roasted pork belly where the skin is perfectly crispy. There is one lady who sells it one row back from the street entrance. She’s sitting on a small stool with the whole pork laying on bamboo leaves and you buy by the weight. She told me she goes through a whole pig each day. The morning is best to get it hot. There is normally a lady that sells bread close by to make your own sandwich.
Com Hen and Hen Xao
Little baby clams, herbs, peanuts, scallions, pork cracklings and a bowl of clam broth. The proper way to eat it is to take a spoonful from the bowl of rice and clams and dip the spoonful in the broth so you get a balance of flavors. The lady said to me, “why didn’t you use all the broth, it’s better that way.” Every place has their own variation of this dish and this particular place we went to has a stir fried version with glass noodles, wood ear mushrooms, scallions, pork cracklings and peanuts except served with shrimp crackers stead of rice.
Everyone knows banh xeo, the crispy turmeric pancake that’s overstuffed with bean sprouts, pork and shrimp…..well banh khoai is same same but better. Banh khoai is always smaller, slightly thicker and always crispy. As usual, a plate of lettuce, herbs and pickled carrots and radish always accompany this dish. You can sometimes find these on street food vendors but we never saw one.
Little rice batter discs that are steam and topped with dried shrimp, pork cracklings, scallions and dish sauce. These usually come in about 5-6 per plate and are about the size a half dollar. These go fast, so you might want to order two plates.
Overall, Hue is a busy city for the emperor tombs, pagodas and the imperial city. Locals hone in on dull tourists hoping to make some money. But if you just take a minute to slow down, you’ll be able to enjoy the country side of Hue. It’s true, the locals are quite aggressive trying to sell you things or take you on a tour but it’s how they make a living. I’ve seen some pretty rude people through out Vietnam so far and I just one thing to ask you…..do you haggle in your home country when buying things?? No, I didn’t think so, so don’t do it here. Things are already dirt cheap, so don’t be a douche bag and try and save a few bucks. A few bucks isn’t much to any tourist visiting Vietnam but it’s actually a days salary to most locals.