When I used to daydream about visiting Vietnam it was within the trembling beauty of the Hue Imperial City where I’d find myself wandering as I wondered about the history that’s occurred among these gorgeous facades. After an epic road trip from Hoi An to Hue on the Hai Van Pass, I spent a few days exploring the ancient capital city of Hue. Here are 10 exciting things to see and do in Hue, Vietnam.
GET LOST IN THE IMPERIAL CITY
Hue’s Imperial City has been the stomping grounds of royals and military generals for ages and is also known as the Citadel. From 1802 to 1945 Hue was the capital city of Vietnam and ruled by the Nguyen dynasty.
The architecture here is absolutely breathtaking, it’s often referred to as the Purple Forbidden City. Much of it was restored after the Vietnam War but done so which such precision that strolling through these grounds feels like entering a time machine to an era of dynasties past. The last imperial dynasty in Vietnam ended in 1945.
Today, the historic site is protected by UNESCO as well as a few of the other monuments in this Hue itinerary. Within the massive walled fortress, you’ll find adorned temples, theaters, and gardens in an array of pastel colors or deep bold hues of red and gold. I was astonished by the beauty of the gates.
SEARCH FOR DRAGONS AT HO THUY THIEN LAKE
Have you ever noticed that the entire country of Vietnam is shaped like a dragon? Beyond that, dragons are deeply symbolic in Vietnam. They represent the rainy season, which makes sense as this particular dragon is lost deep in a lush forest. They’re associated with Emperors who lived nearby in the Imperial City and were buried in over-the-top tombs in the area. Dragons also represent life, and this one literally held it, as it was once a giant aquarium complete with crocodiles!
The Abandoned Waterpark isn’t technically open for visitors. There’s a guard who will swat you away, even if you try to bribe him. But, not to worry. I went with Where Goes Rose and she kept detailed notes about how we managed to trek through the jungle to find the massive dragon.
It’s not very apparent why the waterpark was abandoned, especially considering it cost around $3M to build. I’ve heard rumors about it being dangerous or just a lack of tourists. Today travelers like myself sneak in to see what the fuss is all about, and trust me–it’s quite magical. Others have vandalized the buildings with tags and street art which add to the mysterious allure of the place.
It isn’t dangerous to go through the forest to arrive at the statue but there will be some guys around selling cold drinks and telling you not to go inside as they say the structure is vulnerable. I went up and felt it was fine but proceed with your own caution.
TAKE A LUNCH BREAK IN THE CUTEST NOOK
Overall, I found the vegan food in Hue to be pretty underwhelming which was severely disappointing as many Vietnamese told me it was the vegan food capital of the country due to a large community of devout Buddhists. Luckily, my friend Ilona of @WithVeganSpice told me not to miss Nook Cafe & Bar. The darling open-air cafe is adorned in Indian textiles and serves a variety of vegan-friendly dishes from typical Vietnamese dishes, Indian curries, and veggie burgers.
GO SEE THE ROYAL TOMBS
An entire day could be dedicated to visiting the many royal tombs surrounding Hue. The Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty were laid to rest at various points along the Perfume River. While they’re each extraordinary and unique I didn’t find them quite as enchanting as those in the ghost town of An Bang. The tombs aren’t spooky graveyards. Instead, they’re embellished memorials for formal rulers, so basically they’re palaces for the deceased. The tombs are quite spread out but if you’ve rented a motorbike you could easily visit them in the order that they’re listed here.
THE TOMB OF KHAI DINH
The Tomb of Khai Dinh looks grandeur when you arrive at the massive mausoleum as it’s atop several long sets of stairs on the side of a cliff. But, the grey stone facades and black elephants and statues of soldiers are quite gloomy. All that darkness is swiftly replaced by glamor and color once you enter the tomb.
Khai Dinh wasn’t very adored by his people. To make matters worse, when he died, taxpayers had to pay for his grand burial site. The people weren’t thrilled about this because they felt the emperor was easily used by the French, who were already occupying France at the time. This is one of the most elaborate regal tombs in Hue.
THE TOMB OF EMPEROR MINH MANG
This tomb is worth visiting due to its massive yet serene space. At the Tomb of Emperor Minh Mang, lily pads float in a picturesque lake that’s surrounded by over 40 structures erected in honor of the late ruler spread across 40 acres. Minh Mang planned the design of his tomb while he was alive but it was built after his death by his successor, Thieu Tri.
THE ROYAL TOMB OF TU DOC
Unlike his peers, Emperor Tu Duc foresaw his imminent death and wanted to make sure he was honored properly in his afterlife. So, he actually got his mausoleum built before he died from 1864 to 1867.
The space includes a beautiful lake and a grotto island among many beautiful buildings. Tu Duc used the grounds as a summer home and lived to be the longest reigning ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty, but he actually isn’t buried at the tomb, his shrine is in a secret location.
VISIT SOME OF HUE’S MANY TEMPLES
There are more tombs that you could visit in Hue but if you’re on limited time there are some incredible pagodas you won’t want to miss out exploring. These are my favorite religious structures in Hue.
STROLL THROUGH THE TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
As I arrived at this temple that’s situated on the banks of the Perfume River I thought I’d surely gotten the location wrong. The structure is incredibly simple, yet powerful, just like a good book.
I was in Hue with my friend Rose of @WhereGoesRose who snapped all of these pictures for me. As travel writers, it meant a lot to us to visit a place that laid the foundation for the written word. 32 giant stone slabs have been permanently etched with scripture and are held up by turtles.
BE AMAZED AT THE PAGODA OF THE CELESTIAL LADY
The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady is also known as Linh Mu Pagoda or Thien Mu Pagoda. It was one of my favorite temples I saw in Vietnam as I’d long associated the country with massive tiered towers that were erected to honor Lord Buddha.
This pagoda is 7 stories high and originally dates back to the 1600s but several fires destroyed the structures. It’s said that fires were common here as it was a common ground for protests and demonstrations. Most notably was the honorable monk Thich Quang Duc who drove to Saigon from Hue and set himself on fire in protest. The images of this event are chilling and I encourage you to think twice before Googling them as they’re very disturbing.
The 7-tiered tower that we see today was built in the mid-1800s. The Celestial Lady in question predicted that one day a temple would be built here…and then they built it. I wish everyone would do what I say and I could then call it a prophecy!
STAY AT THE BEAUTIFUL HUE ECO-LODGE
We were invited to stay at the Hue Ecolodge which is a beautiful hotel located outside of the city center. Eco simply stands for outdoors, this isn’t an entirely sustainable hotel.
They do employ local people and give guests the option to reuse towels but there’s a lot that can be done here before they’ll live up to their name. They were open to my feedback about eliminating single-use plastic and I appreciate their willingness to be better so still encourage stays here as they make conscious strides to be more eco-friendly.
Hue Ecolodge is nestled on the banks of the Perfume River in Thuy Bieu Village. A forest of pomelo trees surrounds a series of picturesque wooden bungalows that were created with local bamboo, wood, rattan, and straw roofs. The aesthetics blend directly into nature with baked brick walls, tile floors, and wooden bathtubs. Our bungalow even had a private outdoor shower!
We timed our days around dusk so that we’d be able to spend some time lazily floating in the beautiful pool at Hue Ecolodge. As it’s located quite far outside of town we took Grab taxi in the morning and caught the free hotel shuttle in the evening to go out for dinner. You could also hire a driver to take you around to these sights in Hue in a single day.
There are also many group tours in the city that you can join for a walking tour of Hue, street food adventure, take a cooking class in the countryside. Responsible travelers won’t want to miss the chance to visit the Tam Giang Lagoon on an Eco Tour. You can even do a day trip to the famous Phong Nha caves.
HOW TO GET TO HUE
Hue is located quite centrally in Vietnam and is a popular destination for tourists heading up or down the country. You can fly to Hue from Hanoi or Saigon but it’ll have less of a negative impact on the environment if you take a bus or train to Hue instead. Don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go to Hue, trust me, you never know when you could need it. I ended up needing mine in Vietnam quite unexpectedly.
For additional help planning your trip to Hue pick up any of these guidebooks: