What to See on a Short Visit to Vietnam’s Last Imperial City, Hue

Found right in the middle of the country, Hue (pronounced Hway) is very often overlooked by visitors to Vietnam. But this ancient imperial capital is totally worth the detour, even for a short stay.

Situated on the banks of the Perfume River, Hue was the seat of Nguyễn Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945. It’s a city rich in history and even though many of Hue’s nicest buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War, there are still many historic sights to explore. Hue was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

With pagodas, tombs, the Perfume River, a huge imperial city and beautiful beaches nearby, Hue has enough to see to keep you busy for a few days. But if like us you have just one day, here’s what you shouldn’t miss in this ancient capital:

1- Drive up the Hai Van Pass

If you are travelling to Hue by car from Da Nang or Hoi An, make sure you drive up the Hai Van Pass!

This twenty-one-kilometre mountain pass winds up and over a spur of the Trường Sơn mountain Range. It’s considered the most beautiful scenic pass in Vietnam. However, it is also the most dangerous.

The road winds around hairpin bends and the magnificent views out to the East Vietnam Sea on one side and the lush mountains on the other can be very distracting. We were lucky to visit on a clear day, as we heard that the pass is often covered in thick fog and clouds which make the drive even more dangerous. If you are not a confident driver, I’d recommend hiring a local to take you there. That’s what we did and we were both able to enjoy the views without worrying about the road!

The top of the pass is four hundred and ninety-six metres above sea level.
Once at the top, you’ll find pillboxes and fortifications built by the French and then used by the South Vietnamese and Americans during the Vietnam war. Once you reach the other side of the pass, you’ll arrive in the beautiful beach town of Lang Co in the Hue province.

Alternatively, you have the option to take the six kilometres long Hai Van tunnel, instead of the pass. It’s the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia. The journey is a lot quicker, but you will miss out on the incredible views. The tunnel does not allow motorbikes.

2- Explore the Imperial City

The Hue imperial city is a walled fortress and palace which used to be the administrative capital of South Vietnam and the home of many of Vietnam’s emperors. This sprawling complex occupies a large area on the north side of the Perfume River. In the area contained by its deep moat and thick stone walls, you’ll find the Forbidden Purple City, courts, temples, gardens and a replica of the royal theatre.

Sadly the imperial city was badly damaged during the Vietnam war with large parts of it reduced to rubble. Some of the remaining buildings are currently being restored. Be sure to visit the Ngo Mon Gate, To Mieu Temple complex, Thai Hoa Palace, Co Ha Gardens and the Hien Nhon gate.

3- Check out the Thien Mu Pagoda

This beautiful, seven-story pagoda was built on top of Ha Khe Hill, on the north bank of the Perfume River. Building began in 1601, on the order of the first Nguyễn lords, Nguyễn Hoàng, the governor of Huế at the time. Since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.

The pagoda is regarded as the unofficial symbol of the former imperial capital and it’s the tallest religious building in Vietnam. It has a stunning architecture, along with beautiful views out over the Perfume River. But it’s also a site of political significance. During the Buddhist crisis of 1963, the pagoda became a major organising point for the Buddhist movement. It was often the location of mass protest, hunger strikes and barricades.

In the grounds of the temple, you’ll find a garage housing the Blue Austin vehicle used by the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc to drive to Saigon in 1963. Once there, he set himself on fire at a busy intersection to protest against the Diệm regime. A Pulitzer winning photo of him performing the act went all around the world, bringing attention to the policies of the Diệm government. In the background of that photo, you will notice the parked blue car.

4- Visit the tombs of the emperors

There are seven royal tombs scattered around Hue’s countryside, housing the remains of Emperors from the Nguyen dynasty period. The tombs are extravagant mausoleums that were designed and built during each emperor’s lifetime. The most popular tombs to visit are the Minh Mang tomb, Tu Duc tomb and Khai Dinh tomb (the last of the imperial tombs in Vietnam).

Khai Dinh tomb

Tu Tuc Tomb

Minh Mang tomb

5- Take a boat tour on the Perfume River

The Perfume river flows through the heart of Hue and the historic sights of this ancient city surround it. During autumn, blossoms from the nearby orchards fall into the river, producing a unique fragrance that gives the river its name. A great way to enjoy the city is by taking a dragon boat tour along the river. You can relax, take in the beautiful views and visit some of the major tourist sites accessible by boat.

Although we are glad we made it to Hue, our time there was a little rushed. There are so many things to see and with just one day we barely scratched the surface. If you have time we would recommend staying for at least a couple more days. It will give you more time to explore the sights and to learn more about the city’s history.

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