Hue, the capital of Vietnam’s last feudal rulers, the Nguyen Dynasty, has long been known for royal palaces and tombs but also has hidden charms to offer tourists.
The best time to visit Hue is between January and April, when temperatures range between 20 and 24 degrees Celsius. If you are planning a three-day holiday in Hue, here is an itinerary worth considering.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Built in 1601 by the Nguyen lords, Thien Mu Pagoda (The Pagoda of the Celestial Lady) is on Ta Khe Hill on the northern bank of the Perfume River around five kilometers from the Imperial Citadel.
Though it can be accessed by motorbike, a dragon boat tour is highly recommended for tourists to explore the beauty of the river and its surroundings.
A dragon boat tour to Thien Mu Pagoda and Hue Nam Temple costs VND350,000 ($15.29).
In the past dragon boats were only used by kings and royal families but now it is a popular choice for tourists.
For many families, the dragon boats are home and also their main source of livelihood.
Nguyen Thi Lan, 38, who has one of these boats on the Perfume River, said she has been carrying tourists to Thien Mu Pagoda and other tourist attractions for more than 10 years now.
"Due to the pandemic my boat remained idle for the last two years in the absence of tourists and we had to switch to fishing to make a living."
Hon Chen Temple
Hue Nam or Hon Chen Temple, situated on Ngoc Tran Mountain in Huong Tra Town, around eight km from Hue, is a hidden gem where Mother Goddess Thien Y A Na and other goddesses are worshipped.
It is the most sacred place for the people of Hue and is at its busiest during the third and seventh lunar months with traditional festivals that combine the centuries-old Mother Goddesses worship traditions and royal ceremonies.
The best way to reach the temple is by boat. From downtown Hue, you can take a taxi or Grabcar to a wharf on Huyen Tran Cong Chua Street in Huong Thuy Town and take a boat to Hon Chen Temple for VND30,000.
Entry to the temple costs VND50,000 and tourists should dress politely - sleeveless tops and shorts above kneecaps not recommended - when entering the temple.
On normal days the temple is deserted and the solemn atmosphere inside could intimidate first-time visitors. In front of the temple, locals sit in their boats and sell fish to pilgrims for releasing into the river to earn good karma.
Gia Long tomb
The tomb of King Gia Long, who founded the Nguyen Dynasty, is 20 km from downtown Hue and close to Hon Chen Temple.
So, after visiting the temple, you can book a Grab service to reach the mausoleum in Dinh Mon village, Huong Tra District, on the west bank of the Perfume River.
The tomb is deserted all year-round due to its seclusion. A security guard there said sometimes provincial officials visit the tomb and offer incense to pray for luck and career advancement.
Inside the burial area is the royal court-yard with imposing stone sculptures of horses, elephants and humans. In the center of the burial area are the graves of King Gia Long and his wife, Queen Thua Thien Cao, next to each other.
It is the only royal mausoleum in Hue where a king and queen are buried together.
It is not advisable to ride a motorbike from Hue to the mausoleum due to the steep roads and deserted forests. Entry to the mausoleum is VND100,000.
Tourists should show respect by wearing clothes that cover their knees and shoulders.
It is not difficult to find cyclos in Hue and a 20-minute ride around town costs around VND150,000.
They will be taken to the city’s major tourist attractions including Truong Tien Bridge, Dong Ba Market, and the Ngo Mon Gate of the Imperial Citadel.
You can buy an entry ticket for VND200,000 to the citadel, a UNESCO heritage site where the Nguyen royal family lived for more than a century from 1820 until the end of feudal rule in 1945.
Tourists can rent an ao dai (Vietnamese long dress) or nhat binh, a 19th-century dress worn by princesses and have photographs taken in them.
Boho, a shop at 40 Phan Chu Trinh Street, rents royal costumes for VND150,000-350,000 a day.
The citadel spreads over an area of 520 hectares and so it is best to go around in an electric shuttle bus for sightseeing.
Some parts of the citadel have deteriorated due to the elements and wars and so tourists are not allowed there.
Tu Duc Tomb
Tucked under Vong Canh Hill around seven kilometers from Hue is Khiem Lang, or the Tomb of Modesty, which was built in 1864.
It initially served as a place of relaxation for King Tu Duc, the fourth Nguyen king. After he died it became his final resting place. His tomb has sophisticated architecture and a charming landscape of lakes, forests and frangipani trees. It is one of the most beautiful of the Nguyen Dynasty mausoleums.
King Tu Duc reigned for over 36 years from 1847, the longest of any Nguyen ruler, and was childless.
Entry to the mausoleum costs VND120,000.
Thuy Xuan incense village
From the tomb, tourists can take a one-kilometer motorbike taxi ride to the Thuy Xuan incense-making village where dozens of families also make conical hats.
Chu Viet Dung, 39, said his family has been making incense sticks for more than a century and he is the third generation to pursue the traditional craft.
He said most tourists only visit to take photos and few buy incense, but his family is happy to welcome back tourists.
Dawn on Chuon Lagoon
At 4 a.m. you can ride a motorbike for 12 km to Chuon Lagoon in Phu Vang District.
The lagoon, part of the Tam Giang - Cau Hai wetland nature reserve, is at its busiest at dawn as fishermen's boats arrive after an overnight fishing trip. They start fishing at 6 p.m. and finish at 6 a.m. and bring their catch to a wholesale market in Chuon village.
Visitors can rent a boat for VND200,000-250,000 ($8.76-10.95) for four to six people and go around the lagoon.
Don’t forget to enjoy a breakfast of hot porridge with steamed pork belly or turmeric noodles with fried intestines.
Ru Cha mangrove forest
From Chuon Lagoon, take Highway 49B to Ru Cha mangrove forest, another hidden gem that is generally overlooked by tourists.
Visitors can rent a boat for VND50,000 and row through the forest, take pictures and even learn to fish with nets.
Inside the forest is an old temple for Goddess Thanh Mau. Locals organize the spirit possession ritual (hau dong) here during the third lunar month to seek her protection.
Due to its secluded location, there are no restaurants in the forest, and visitors should carry their own food.
Folk singing on Perfume River
At 4:30 p.m. you can drop by Toa Kham Wharf on Le Loi Street and rent a dragon boat to watch sunset on the Perfume River.
The three-hour tour, costing around VND400,000, includes tea and sweet cakes and a trip under Hue’s famous bridges like Da Vien, Phu Xuan and Truong Tien.
Truong Tien Bridge spanning across the Perfume River at sunset. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hieu
When the sun goes down, there is Hue folk singing aboard the boat.
It is a variation of the Hue royal court music and uses traditional musical instruments, and the singers are dressed in the ao dai, the traditional long dress.
Hue Riverside Villa, Deja Vu Homestay, Tram Homestay, Beaulieu Boutique Hotel, Azerai La Residence, Vinpearl Hotel Hue, Alba Wellness Resort by Fusion and Pilgrimage Village Boutique Resort & Spa are highly recommended by travel bloggers and have rooms ranging from VND300,000 to 3.5 million a night.
If you are looking for budget accommodation, Nam Phuong Riverside Villa, Phong Lan guesthouse and Hoang Trieu hostel are good choices with rooms at below VND200,000 a night.
You can visit Tai Phu shop on Dien Bien Phu Street to try nem lui (Hue-style grilled pork skewer) for VND85,000 per serving, and 47 Nguyen Cong Tru Street, 20 Bach Dang Street or Kim Chau Restaurant in Dong Ba Market for a bowl of bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup) for VND30,000-35,000.
Banh mi Truong Tien is also a signature dish of Hue. It is a baguette with Vietnamese pork roll, omelet, pâté, Chinese sausage, grilled pork, sour fermented minced pork, and cilantro, and costs VND12,000-20,000.
O Tho stall at 14 Tran Cao Van Street in Phu Hoi Ward is open from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Sweet soup used to be an indispensable part of dessert for kings and royal families, and you can find a che stall inside a small alley on Hung Vuong Street that has various versions such as che hat sen (lotus seed), che nhan boc hat sen (longan stuffed with lotus seed) and che khoai mon (taro sweet soup) for around VND12,000 per serving.
Banh ep (Hue-style crepe) made from tapioca flour, pork, quail eggs, and herbs is also a popular dish in Hue and you can find it at many places like 20 Nguyen Du, 1 Van Cao, 101 Ba Trieu, 116 Le Ngo Cat, and 73 Tung Thien Vuong.
Prices start at VND10,000 for a regular-sized crepe and VND15,000 for a larger one.
Vietnam Airlines and Vietjet Air have direct flights to Hue every day. Return tickets cost around VND1.4 million from HCMC and VND1.6 million from Hanoi.
Train services from HCMC to Hue take around 18 hours while the journey departing from Hanoi takes around 13 hours.