What to do in Hue Vietnam -Travel to Hue
Is Hue worth visiting? Is it just a historical town with ruins, temples and tombs?
These were some of the questions asked by the organizing committee.
Our office had decided to have its annual company trip to an overseas destination. So the organizing committee had the tough job of making this selection.
Choosing a destination to cater to people with different tastes and needs is not easy. Also, the selection process has to follow certain company's guidelines and criteria.
The travel criteria that the organizing committee had to work on were:
- to choose from destinations served by the low cost airline, Air Asia
- maximum budget of US$375 per person inclusive of flights, hotel, three meals a day and local transport and tours
- four days and three nights stay
- travel during the weekend and inclusive of the public holiday period (i.e. traveling during the peak period)
- variety of things to do at the destination
Hue Travel Rating
Travel to Danang, Hue and Hoi An
There are several airlines that fly to and from Malaysia to most capital cities and secondary cities in Southeast Asia.
Hence, with these many choices, it was tough for the organizing committee to decide on the final destination.
They finally chose the package tour to Danang - Hue - Hoi An in Vietnam as it met all the above criteria.
Booking flights on the low cost carrier, Air Asia, well in advance helped reduce the flight budget part. Hence, early planning was crucial to meet this need.
In this travel package we flew from Kuala Lumpur low cost carrier terminal to Danang International Airport. Upon arrival, we traveled to Hue, stayed one-night and then traveled to Hoi An and stayed for two nights. On the fourth day we had half-day city tour of Danang. Then, we visited some of its attractions before taking the late afternoon flight back to Kuala Lumpur.
This review will cover holiday and travel in Hue. Travel review for Hoi An and Danang will be in separate articles.
UPDATE: Air Asia has now stopped flying from Kuala Lumpur to Danang
Kuala Lumpur to Danang
Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Danang, Vietnam left 10 minutes earlier than scheduled. It was almost full capacity on the Airbus A320-200. I spent the entire 2.5 hour flight time reading the informative in-flight magazine and sleeping! There was no turbulence, and we had a smooth landing.
Immigration and custom clearances were fast and with no hassle. Malaysians do not need a visa or to fill in the entry permit form; hence it was a fast clearance.
The immigration officer was too serious and did not say much. It would be neat if he smiles and say 'Welcome to Vietnam' or something welcoming instead of showing a serious face.
Then again, immigration officers from most countries have the habit of looking serious.
Who Needs Visa to Vietnam
Vietnam entry visa is a must for all except citizens of the countries shown in the following table.
The Vietnamese consulate or embassy in your country can issue visa before your departure. Or you can apply online for a pre-approved letter. Then, collect the entry visa upon arrival at any of Vietnam's International Airports.
Citizens of the Following Countries can Visit Vietnam without an Entry Visa
Can Stay up to
Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Laos
Brunei, Russia, Korea, Japan, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland
Danang to Hue
Upon clearing with the immigration and custom, the local travel agent put us on two buses for the 3.5 hour journey from Danang to Hue.
It sounds like a long and boring journey, but I was pleasantly surprised. The coastal and hillside drive is one of the most scenic and beautiful drive in Central Vietnam.
Why America Lost Vietnam War
Our journey took us through winding and steep mountain road, rural road and scenic coastal road. The scenery and setting along these routes were amazing. I figured this must be one of the reasons, why America lost the Vietnam War. The scenic backdrop distracted them!
This journey alone was well worth the trip, and if you happen to arrive on a long haul flight, I can guarantee you will stay awake and be mesmerize by the scenery.
Hue is only 62 miles (110 km) north of Danang, but the traveling time is an incredible 3.5 hours! The long and winding road along the mountain slope and the busy road along the rural and coastal area force the driver to drive at a much slower speed. In fact, this is the only road (our travel guide described it as highway) linking the country from north to south. Hence, you will also find trucks plying this route, which sometimes make it difficult to overtake.
It was a scenic drive, so the 3.5 hours were bearable.
Hue, a World Heritage Site
Hue is located in central Vietnam, about 684 miles (1,100 km) north of Ho Chi Minh City and 435 miles (700 km) south of Hanoi.
Hue used to be the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945. It was ruled under thirteen different emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. The many palaces and temples make this historic city an important part of the Vietnamese heritage, known throughout the world.
When Hue lost its position as the capital of Vietnam, the city was neglected and suffered economically. However, when UNESCO recognized Hue as the World Cultural Heritage Site and Master of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 1993, it started to see visitors and businesses improved.
Places of Interest in Hue
Dong Ba Market
Things to Do in Hue
There are many things to do and see in Hue. The historical sites, Imperial architectures and French Colonial architectures gave us several choices and these include palaces, pagodas, tombs and temples.
We had only one day and one night to explore Hue and our tour guide took us to Hue's main attractions, which were Thien Mu pagoda, Imperial Citadel, Khai Dinh Tomb and the Perfume River boat cruise. We also stopped by at the local Dong Ba market for shopping.
Vietnamese Dong Exchange Rate
The currency of Vietnam is Vietnamese Dong (VND) and uses the symbol ₫. The exchange rates at time of writing are as follow:
- US$1 = ₫ 20837.6 VND
- GBP1 = ₫ 33177.0 VND
- EUR1 = ₫ 26691.6 VND
- AUD1 = ₫ 21622.5 VND
1. Perfume River Cruise
We took the Perfume River boat cruise to Thien Mu pagoda instead of driving to the site. After the long bus ride the previous day, this 1-hour dragon boat cruise was a pleasant change and an excellent way to visit the pagoda.
As in most boat rides, the boat owner will have souvenirs for sale. If you want to buy these souvenirs, wait until the end of the trip as you may get a good bargain. A fridge magnet that I was keen to buy was initially offered at ₫30,000 VND. I bargained for ₫15,000 VND, but it was refused. Just before the boat reached our destination, my asking price was accepted. I paid for it. Later at Dong Ba market, a similar fridge magnet was selling for ₫10,000 VND, even before bargaining! This can be extremely frustrating and hence, knowing the finer point in the art of bargaining can be useful. Later, I was told that I must ask for at least a quarter of what was initially offered. Hmm, now I know,
After a while, the boat ride can be boring as there were not many activities on either side of the riverbanks. However, we got a good view of Truong Tien bridge, Phu Xuan bridge, Da Vien bridge and the rail Bach Ho bridge that link the north and south part of the city.
This boat ride was part of our package tour, but if you are on your own and traveling on a budget, it is still affordable. Sharing the boat with other tourists will cost US$3 for a one-way journey.
2. Thien Mu Pagoda
The ruler of Southern Vietnam, Nguyen Hoang constructed Thien Mu Pagoda in 1601 after hearing the local legend. The legend described an old woman who had appeared on a hill and said a good ruler would one day build a pagoda here, for the country's peace and prosperity. He proceeded to build this pagoda to fulfill that prophecy.
Thien Mu pagoda is close to the bank of Perfume River and sits on the Ha Khe hill, which is more than 50-feet (15 m) above the river. From the temple ground, you get a magnificent view of the river and the surrounding area.
The travel brochure described Thien Mu as the best pagoda in the country. It is true, and I was impressed by the surrounding view, the beautiful architecture and the sprawling two hectares of land.
Beside being a place of worship, there are several artworks, statues and an enormous bronze bell weighing 7,242 lb (3,285 kg) within the temple complex. I saw student monk studying in one of the buildings with mattress laid to the side. I guess this must be his study and sleeping area.
The sprawling site gives a feeling of peacefulness, and I somehow felt relaxed.
Although there are many things to see and do, 30 minutes are more than sufficient to cover all areas. Thien Mu pagoda is worth visiting, and the best part is, there is no entrance fee.
Do not forget to see the car that drove Thich Quang Duc, the monk that ignited himself on fire to protest against the South Vietnamese government.
You can reach Thien Mu pagoda by taking the boat cruise, by rented bicycle or rented motorbike, join the local tour bus or take taxi.
Khai Dinh Tomb
3. Khai Dinh Tomb
Similar to the Egyptian Pharaohs' practices, Vietnamese Emperors will design and oversee the construction of their tombs during their lifetime. Some may not live long enough to see the completion of their tombs.
According to the tour guide, intermarriages among the family members of the Nguyen Dynasty were common. As a result, the offspring were not healthy and do not have a long life.
When Khai Dịnh became the Emperor of Vietnam in 1916, he too died before seeing the completion of his tomb. His many trips to France had influenced the architectural and interior design of his tomb, which is a mixture of eastern and western elements. It used expensive construction materials including gold and porcelains from China and Japan. The artisans will then break these porcelains to form the intricate and beautiful mosaic wall murals.To finance this expensive work, he increased tax by 30%. This makes him an unpopular Emperor.
Because of his unpopularity, there were several stories on him and some may not be true. According to our tour guide, rumor has it that Khai Dinh has a special liking for men despite having several wives and concubines. Khai Dinh even replaced the female court dancers with all-male dancers.
His only son, who completed this mausoleum, had no interest in the welfare and running of his country. This last emperor of Vietnam left the country and settled down in France.
As with most tombs and temples in Vietnam, be prepared to do a lot of walking and climbing steps. Get good walking shoes and bring bottles of drinking water.
Khai Dinh tomb is about half an hour drive from Hue. Although relatively small when compared to the other tombs with hardly a decent land area for a garden, it is still worth a visit.
Entrance fee to Khai Dinh Tomb is ₫80,000 VND.
Hue's Imperial Citadel
4. Imperial Citadel
Hue's Imperial Citadel is almost similar to Beijing's Forbidden City, but not as grand and well-preserved as the latter. When I visited Beijing's Forbidden City in 1998, I was disappointed to see a fast food joint within its compound. Thank God this is not so for Hue's Imperial City. Then again I might have missed it as the compound is sprawling, and I was too exhausted to venture further after 2-hours of walking.
The Imperial City that was used by the ruling Nguyen imperial family is surrounded by walls measuring 1.2 mile (2 kilometers) on all sides. These walls are surrounded by a moat, with water coming from the nearby Perfume River. The central part of Imperial City covers an area of about 49.5 acre (20ha).
The Ly Viet Dynasty originally built it in the 11th century, on the remains of a Chinese fortress that dates back to the 7th century. The strong and majestic structures withstood several wars and succession of regime changes for almost 13 centuries.
What Say You?
Should Countries that had taken Artifacts during their Colonial Days or during War return it to its Country of Origin?
Hue is near the border of what was once North and South Vietnam, and it has suffered the most during the Vietnam War.
As with most of the historical sites in Vietnam, the Imperial City was badly affected not just during the American/Vietnam wars, but also the earlier war with the French. Some of the important buildings in the Imperial City were destroyed with no remains except for the empty land.
You can still see bullet-ridden walls on a few of the buildings that are still intact. Even some of the artifacts were taken and stolen during these wars. You can now see them displayed in France and other countries.
This UNESCO World Heritage site is worth the visit, but be prepared to do a lot of walking. For a small fee, you can take a motorized trip around the compound or take the elephant ride instead.
Dong Ba Market
5. Dong Ba Market
Visit Dong Ba market to see the locals doing their daily shopping. This noisy and busy market with several activities of buying and selling of local foods, traditional handicrafts, souvenirs, local specialties, jewelry, shoes, handbag, flowers and anything else you can imagine make Dong Ba market a must visit site in Hue.
It is a break from the temple, pagoda and other historical site visits that by now, you probably need to see and do something different. This largest market in Hue is like a rabbit warren, and you may get lost, so be aware of your bearing. Before buying, put your art of bargaining into practice, which by now, you should have already mastered.
This market is also the ideal place to buy "Ao Dai,” the traditional Vietnamese dress.
Most of my friends bought the Vietnamese coffee instead, and I too was influenced by their decisions. The 3-in-1 coffee (500gm) cost me ₫75,000 VND. Later at the airport, the similar brand and size was selling for ₫80,000 VND. I guess I did not get a good bargain as airport prices tend to be at least 20% more. I failed in my bargaining technique!
Dong Ba market is just over the Truong Tien bridge, on the north bank of the Perfume River. If your hotel is along Le Loi Street, take a leisure stroll along the riverbank and at the end of the street, you will see the market.
Other Things to do in Hue
If you have more days to spend in Hue, then you can choose to do more tombs, temples and historical site visits or indulge yourself in massage, spa or shopping.
More Tombs Visit
If you are game for a few more visits to the Emperor's tombs, then try Minh Mang and Tu Duc's tombs. Although described as beautiful and worth the visit, it cannot beat Khai Dinh's tomb.
You may want to try the many spas that are available outside Hue. The local Vietnamese usually patronize these spas. Occasionally they might get a few foreign visitors. With a few spas to choose, your hotel can recommend the better spa.
Foot Reflexology and Body Massage
Alternatively, go for foot reflexology or a good body massage that are available in most parts of Hue. The place that we go next to our hotel charges US$15 per hour for either foot reflexology or body massage. For Vietnam, this rate is high. It is almost similar to the charges in my country. In neighboring Cambodia, it is only US$5 per hour.
By now you must have walked a few hundred miles and your leg and body are now aching from walking, climbing and carrying your luggage. A good foot reflexology and/or body massage will be good for you. Despite the high price, it is worth it.
Manicures and Pedicures
For women, you may want to try manicures and pedicures. At the place where I had the foot reflexology, there were two Austrian women enjoying their manicures and pedicures. They seldom do these in their country because it is too expensive. However, in Hue, it is cheap and it is time to indulge. The rate starts from US$6 and that sound okay to me.
If you are more adventurous, you can visit the Demilitarized Zone, which is at the 17th parallel that marked the boundary between what was once, South and North Vietnam. If you join one of the package tours, you will get to visit the Vietcong tunnels. You need one full day for this trip.
French Colonial Architecture
Take a stroll around the city or along Le Loi Street (that runs parallel to Perfume River) and immerse yourself in the beautiful French Colonial architectures. Although most of the buildings are not well maintained and need a fresh coat of paint, whatever balance of these buildings are worth capturing with your digital camera. Take photos of the street scenes as you walk around the city and capture the local everyday lifestyles.
Do you want to bring home a unique Vietnamese souvenir? Join the cooking class and learn to buy and pick the right ingredients at the local market and cook Vietnamese dishes. From the information given at Hue's tourist office, you can attend these cooking classes at the following venues:
- Kings Restaurant at 27 Nguyen Sinh Sac. St.(tel: 0084 54 898 284)
- Missy Roo at 11, Pham Ngu Lao St. (tel 0084 543 821 923)
- Tinh Gia Vien at 20/3 Le Thanh ton St. (tel 0084 543 522 243)
- Y Thao Garden at 3, Thach Han St. (tel 0084 543 523 018)
If you enjoy eating more than cooking, then you can join the culinary tour. Hue’s traditional cuisine with its original and distinctive taste is known throughout Vietnam. This tour will take you to several restaurants to enjoy Hue’s signature dishes from starters, main courses and desserts. A cyclo will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the respective restaurants for this 3-hour tour.
If you still have time to spare, then visit traditional craft villages for Vietnamese conical hat and incense making. For something different, see the Vietnamese martial art at Van An Phai School. Entrance fee is US$2 for the 45-minute show.
How to Get to Hue
Phu Bai International Airport is about 8-miles (13-km) south of Hue city center, and it will take you half an hour to reach the city by taxi. Although it had the 'international airport' tag, it is currently serving only domestic routes. The only international flight was from neighboring Laos, but had poor load factor and the airline decided to cancel the flight.
It will cost you about US$8 for a taxi ride from the airport to the city. From the city, you can take Vietnam Airline buses that depart from their city office at 12 Hanoi Street.
If you are planning to fly from outside Vietnam, you can fly either to Hanoi or to Ho Chi Minh City. Then take the domestic flight to Phu Bai International Airport.
If you fly through Danang International airport (which we did), you have to continue your journey to Hue by road or rail.
Vietnam has a good network of train system linking the northern and southern part of Vietnam and passes through Hue.
Check out the Vietnam Railway website for the schedule and fares.
Hue's train station is about 15 minutes from the town center and is at the southwest end of Le Loi Street.
If you want to travel in style, take the Livitrans train. This is a separate coach attached to only certain train lines from Hanoi to Hue.
Livitrans is a private company and charges 50% more than the normal first class ticket for this luxury ride. Current price is US$55 for a one-way trip.
Hue is also well-connected through the public bus network.
An Cuu bus station is the terminal for buses serving the southern destinations such as Ho Chi Minh City, Danang and Hoi An. This terminal is about 2-miles from the city center.
For northern destinations such as Hanoi, you have to go to An Hoa bus station, which is about 3-miles from the city center.
If you plan to take the bus, be prepared for the long journey. The trip from Hanoi to Hue is about 16 hours, will depart at 7pm, and arrives the next day at 9 am. From Hoi An it will take about six hours and from Danang about five hours.
Getting Around Hue
To get around the city, you can take the cyclo (bicycle rickshaw), bicycle, motorbike taxi or regular taxi. For travel along the Perfume River, take the dragon boat. Alternatively you can walk as Hue is quite compact and most of the shops, restaurants and hotels are within walking distance.
Cyclo rate varies and you need to check around for prices as well as bargain for a fair rate. Your hotel can help you on what will be a reasonable fare to your destination. I was told it would cost about ₫5,000 VND for every 10-minute.
Bicycle rental is popular and I saw tourists cycling around the city and to tourist sites beyond the city limit. It only costs US$2 per day, and it saves the hassle of bargaining with the taxi driver or cyclo driver.
Dragon boat ride will cost about US$3 per head.
Where to Stay in Hue
We were traveling under the package tour and hotels were inclusive. All of our hotels were 3.5 star rated and centrally located.
If you are traveling as a Free Independent Traveler, you will have no problem. Depending on your budget, Hue has many choices of backpacker budget hotels, clean and comfortable mid-range hotels and luxury hotels.
Backpacker Budget Hotels
Most of these hotels are centrally located, and you will find several choices online. However, most of the cheaper backpacker budget hotels are not listed online. If you are planning to stay in one of these cheaper budget hotels, your best bet is to book online on one of the expensive hotels for one or two nights. Once you arrived in Hue, look around for the budget hotel that meets your requirement.
As a guide, backpacker budget hotels are located around Pham Ngu Lao and the adjoining streets. For other hotels, you may want to look for hotels along Le Loi Street that offers a good view of Perfume River.
When to Go
We were in Hue in November, and it happened to be the heaviest rain fall month. Rainy season starts in September and ends in January.
We were told the best time to visit Hue is between March and April when it is not too hot or wet.
Weather in Hue
May to September are the hottest months. From October to March, the weather gets cooler with temperature ranging from 68 to 86 degree F (20 to 30 degree C), but you get more rain as well.
My Take on Hue
There are many varieties of foods in Vietnam from local delicacies to fast food and the prices are reasonable. My suggestion is to try the local cuisines. Traditional Vietnamese dishes use fresh ingredients and heavy reliance on herbs. The Buddhist influence means less meat and oil, and more vegetables. Hue is famous for its distinctive cuisines where food presentation is just as vital as food flavor. I have not tried eating at this restaurant, but the tourist brochure listed Confetti Restaurant as serving Hue's specialties. The other restaurants in the brochure show only Vietnamese dishes.
Food Ranking: 4 star out of 5
Vietnamese, being the official language, is spoken throughout Vietnam. English is now the second language. It used to be Russian, but it is no longer used after the fall of USSR. French is spoken by the older generation in the southern part of the country.
Hence, if you can speak English, then you should have no problem communicating with the locals except with the street vendors or shopkeepers in the market.
Communication Ranking: 3 star out of 5
People and Security
The Vietnamese people are courteous and polite and you will have no problem if you too, behave yourself. Respect their cultures and places of worship and they will respect you too.
Vietnam is trouble free, but do not take this for granted. Tourists are always target for petty crimes, handbag snatches, frauds and pickpockets, not just in Vietnam, but also in other developed countries, as well. Therefore, remain alert at all time, do not walk alone in secluded places and use your brain!
You will feel safe walking at night, but cyclo drivers or motor bikers might approach and ask if you want to go for massage or have fun. If this happened, just politely decline their offer. They will try again, but after a while, they will give up. Our travel guide advised us not to go to places recommended by these people as we might be fleeced.
If you feel insecure, walk quickly and avoid eye contact.
Security Ranking: 3.5 star out of 5
The biggest cost in any travel is airfare and lodging cost. Depending on where you come from, the airfare may deter you from deciding on Vietnam as your travel destination. I met Canadian and French travelers who stayed one month or more in Vietnam to 'maximize the air fare' part of their cost! If you book early, the airfare can be cheaper.
Budget hotels are cheap and clean, and if that is okay with you, then you have taken care of the lodging budget.
Overall, Hue was inexpensive, have many fascinating sites to see and do, and I enjoyed my stay in Hue. It was a good value for money and the organizing committee did a good job of selecting this city as part of our travel itinerary.
Overall Ranking: 4 star out of 5.