When it comes to creating a travel itinerary for Vietnam, Hue city is often left out. At best, travellers stop here only when heading to/from the Phong Ngha cave, and they continue directly to Hoi An in the south or Hanoi and Halong Bay in the north. This is a shame, because you could easily spend a week in the former capital of Vietnam, and there would still be plenty to do.
Things to Do and Best Hotels in Hue, Vietnam
We stayed in Hue for ten days, wandered from west to east and south to north, and explored its suburbs. Here are our suggestions on things to do and best hotels in Hue.
1. Detour from the touristy center
It might be convenient to stay right in the center of Hue so you’re close to everything, but during the day it’s more interesting to explore some side streets of the city and see local life. Roam around and enjoy some people watching while stopping at one of the local cafes with tiny plastic or wooden chairs and chat with the owners or a waiter.
From our experience, the Vietnamese are very talkative and eager to practice their English. Do it during the day, because in the evening many local restaurants and street vendors are closed, and the nightlife concentrates mostly in a touristy area full of bars and western restaurants.
2. Explore the Imperial City of Hue
This should be on the top of your list when visiting Hue. The historical part of the city hides incredible history inside its walls, and we can be grateful for those ten major monuments out of 160 buildings that survived the bombings in the former Imperial City.
Hue played a significant role in the Vietnam War, and infamous Tet Offensive in 1968 due to its geographical advantage. Even if you are not into visiting historical monuments on your travels, seeing the royal Citadel, the Imperial City, and getting closer to the Forbidden Purple city in Hue will give you a fair perspective of the Vietnamese royal leaders and important events that influenced the history of the whole country.
There are a few English signs in the Imperial City buildings, but if you wish to learn more about the history of the royal complex, then we highly recommend exploring it with a professional guide, since the place is vast, and there is a lot to learn about.
3. Take a food tour on a traditional Hue rickshaw cycle
To get good local food in Hue, you’ll need to move further from the pricy and less-tasty restaurants in the center. Been there, tried them, and remained hungry after we blindly entered some “Trip Advisor-must-eat-here” places. A couple of times we left the plates full of non-edible food and went for a classic – bánh mì sandwich that saves you anytime & anywhere in Vietnam.
If you want to understand the Hue food scene solidly, go for a food tour with a local guide. We chose a four-hour food tour on a traditional rickshaw cycle, which was lots of fun and full of scrumptious food. We detoured with our guide, Thúy, away from the city center and ate in some of the most authentic small restaurants and cafes in Hue.
In Vietnam, each region and town has its culinary specialty. In Hue you can look forward to a bun bo Hue soup, nem lui pork skewers served with sweet hot sauce, banh khoai, which is stuffed crispy omelet or delicious dessert chè long nhãn hạt sen (logan and lotus seed sweet soup). During the tour, we visited also a local market, and thanks only to the local guide we learned the names of the strangely shaped fruits, veggies, and tasted a fruit called “a woman’s nipple.” I guess you don’t need a lot of imagination to picture the shape of this one.
Similar to the food tours we took in Lisbon, Sevilla and Hoi An, we felt that our digestive system would be one of the best mediums through which to experience Hue city, its history, and its cultural peculiarities. You can get the most genuine tips on where to eat in town, but sharing a meal with locals, and being able to ask whatever you are curious about is inestimable.
If you’re a curious foodie, keen to investigate local dishes, check out the tours with an English-speaking guide at the VM Travel agency in Hue. Their office is located in the center; near the Perfume river (Address: 47 Lê lợi, Hue City, 470000) and they will be more than happy to help you out with organizing a food tour. Ps: ask for Thúy, she is a great companion and speaks very good English!
4. Hop on a Dragon boat
This can be done as a part of your city tour or separately, but it’s definitely worth it since you’ll explore the suburbs of Hue from the Perfume river. The ride is very relaxing.
5. Have a stroll via Đông Ba market
Đông Ba in Hue is the largest marketplace in central Vietnam. Apart from fruits, veggies and freshly prepared local meals, you’ll find products of Vietnamese traditional crafts like conical hats from the Phú Cam village, scissors from Hiền Lương, Kế Môn jewelry, Phước Tích pottery, Nam Thuận sweets or Tịnh Tâm lotus, and bamboo products.
6. Visit Royal tombs
Tomb of Khải Định
This place is simply impressive. To reach the tomb, you’ll need to pass by twelve concrete guards, climb the stairs, and go through a couple of gates. The Emperor Khải Định worked with the French government and visited the European country personally. Obviously, this influenced the architectural style of the site.
Minh Mang tomb
The sight is a huge complex of forty different temples, palaces and pavilions that are built all in beautiful symmetry.
7. See Thiên Mụ Pagoda
If you’re looking for an iconic symbol of Hue, the Thiên Mụ Pagoda is the right place to stop. It’s the tallest religious building in Vietnam. You’ll find a marble statue of a big turtle, a symbol of longevity, which might have preserved the pagoda from a total destruction by a cyclone in 1904.
8. Walk over the Thanh Toan Bridge
There are only three roofed footbridges in Vietnam, and one of them is 7 km away from Hue city. The wooden bridge was built after Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranked mandarin suggested that the bridge would simplify transportation between two sides of the canal.
The bridge with Japanese & Chinese features and ancient ceramics is comparably beautiful to the iconic bridge in Hoi An; though the entrance to the one in Hue is free. It used to serve as a shelter for those who fancied a noon nap. Nowadays you can still see people sitting & chatting under the roof during the day.
9. Visit the Vietnamese Agriculture Museum at Thanh Toan village
Only a short walk from a local market in the Thanh Toan village and the ancient bridge, there is a museum where you can learn a lot about the agriculture in Vietnam. The entrance fee is 20,000 ($0.90 USD). There are only two showrooms, but they’re complete with big modern posters explaining the traditions of farming and village life in the country. It’s better that you combine the visit to the museum with a stroll at a local market and the bridge nearby.
10. Watch the sunrise at the Tam Giang Lagoon
This was probably one of the most mystic and hazy sunrises we’ve ever encountered. We didn’t get the orange-yellow-red tone of the sky that morning, but the view of the calm waters and fisherman coming back home with their night catch was just spectacular.
You’ll be able to see the houses towering straight from the lake, which is pretty unusual view if you imagine the life of the villagers and the challenges they cope with every day.
Tip: visit a local morning market in the nearest village and have a breakfast there with locals. Priceless!
11. Visit Phong Nha cave
Either as a day trip from Hue or on your way up to Hanoi, we highly recommend visiting the Phong Nha caves in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park. Although the public is allowed to explore only the first 1500 meters out of the 44.5 kilometers of passages discovered there, a boat ride through the canal and a walk through the incredibly colorful grottos is well worth almost 4 hours drive from Hue.