Right in the middle of Vietnam, Hue was the capital for 143 years (1802 – 1945). It is a city rich with history. Hue is home to 7 imperial tombs as well as the ancient imperial city. During the Vietnam war, Hue suffered badly. The “Battle of Hue” was one of the longest and deadliest battles. Along with the human casualties, many historic sites were damaged or destroyed.
The city has also long been the center of Buddhism in Vietnam and several major events during Buddhist Crisis of 1963 are connected to Hue. Add to the historical significance of the city, the beautiful landscape, and breathtaking monuments. It seems like everywhere you turn in Hue there is something new to learn about and explore!
HAI VAN PASS
If you are driving to Hue from Da Nang, you have two options. The first is to take the Hai Van Tunnel. Hai Van Tunnel is the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at a length of 6.28 km. The other option is to take the Hai Van Pass.
Hai Van Pass is a mountain road which takes you up and down and around the coastline. The views are spectacular, and this is a route that is incredibly popular with people traveling by motorbike in the area. Drivers and tour buses park for a few moments at the highest peak of the pass to take in the view and stretch their legs.
Not only known for its beauty, but the pass is also known for its danger and difficulty (a reason why the Hai Van Tunnel was built). At times the sharp curves make it completely impossible to see oncoming traffic. Often the road is covered in thick fog. There are cement railings to help prevent falls off of the mountain into the ocean, but they are broken in places. Occasionally you pass shrines marking where travelers met their end. Not to mention a cow or two and motorists driving like they are racing along a flat country road. Is it worth the trip? You bet!
HUE IMPERIAL CITY
This walled fortress and palace were once the home of Vietnam’s emperors. Also called “The Citadel” the palace grounds are surrounded by an impressive moat filled with waterlilies. Much of the structure was damaged in battles, but the restoration is ongoing. Once inside you can see different buildings in their original, restored and damaged stages.
Make sure your taxi driver drops you off at the correct gate! There is only one entrance to the Imperial City but some taxi drivers like to pretend that they don’t know that tourists wish to be dropped off at the main gate.
HUE PROVINCIAL MUSEUM
Just a little down the street from the Imperial City is the Hue Provincial Museum. The museum is in bad need of maintenance. The grass hasn’t been cut in ages, and there are holes in the walkways. There is an indoor museum with photos and artifacts but few English explanations. Considering the significance of the battles which took place in Hue the museum doesn’t do the memory justice.
If you are interested in history or wars though the museum is worth a quick visit. It is easy just to pop over if you are already visiting the Imperial City and it costs only about $1. In the front grounds, they have several tanks, planes and a helicopter from the Vietnam War. In both Vietnamese and English, the placards explain where the vehicle was captured and from whom which is quite fascinating. In particular, children from both local and tourist families seemed to be thrilled to be able to check it all out without the crowds.
THE PERFUME RIVER
Through the center of Hue flows the Perfume River. Many tourists choose to take a boat tour along the river. Passengers can enjoy the river views, have a meal and visit some of the major tourist sites around the area that are accessible by boat.
Another way to take in the river is to stroll along the walkways along the river’s edge. In the morning’s joggers take their morning runs here and in the evening the area becomes transformed. Little shops and restaurants that were closed during the day open at sunset and lanterns are lit.
Families gather to chat and play. Vendors sell snacks, and small toys and some musicians can be heard.
KHAI DINH TOMB
The Khai Dinh Tomb is the last of the imperial tombs in Vietnam. The tomb took 11 years to build and was completed in 1931. Despite being quite a recent addition, Khai Dinh Tomb is one of the more popular tombs in the area.
In his lifetime Emperor Khai Dinh spent some time in France. As a result, the tomb is a mixture of both Eastern and Western designs.
A climb up 127 steps up the side of the mountain will bring you to the temple fortified by statue guards. Once inside visitors are in awe of the walls adorned with stunning images made from inlaid glass and porcelain.
MINH MANG TOMB
The tomb of Emperor Minh Mang is another of the more popular tombs in Hue. Unlike Emperor Khai Dinh’s tomb which took more than a decade to complete, this tomb was completed in only three years. Emperor Minh Mang started construction of the tomb in September 1840 but passed away around four months later.
You would never suspect that the tomb was completed so quickly, though. As well as the beautiful architecture, the grounds include landscaped lakes, canals and gardens.
Visitors to the grounds of the tomb can freely explore most of the sites, but the gate to the tomb is only opened once a year on the anniversary of Emperor Minh Mang’s death.
THIEN MU PAGODA
Overlooking the Perfume River on Ha Khe Hill, the seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. The temple itself was established at the location in 1601, but the tower was later constructed in 1844.
The temple grounds are not only beautiful, but it is also a site of political significance. During the “Buddhist Crisis” of 1963, the Catholic government cracked down on Buddhism in the country, despite the majority of Vietnamese being Buddhist at the time. When nine unarmed Buddhists were shot in Hue, Thein Mu Pagoda became an organizing point for those involved in the movement. When the government refused appeals for religious equity, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and in protest, sacrificed himself by setting himself on fire.
The event was captured in a world famous photograph by Malcom Browne. In the back of the photo, you can see the car which Thich Quang Duc drove. If you don’t know to look for it, you may even miss it, but tucked to the side in a building behind the main prayer hall of Thien Mu Pagoda the car sits on display commemorating those events.