Many travelers visiting Vietnam ignore the imperial city Hue opting instead to spend their time in Hoi An or Halong Bay.
What they are missing, is a city with brimming with ancient and modern history. The vibrancy of its youth and its collection of fine arts.
And to spend two days in Hue will highlight why it is a gem of Vietnam.
Hue is located in central Vietnam was the capital of Vietnam between 1802-1945.
Situated on the banks of the Huong River known as the Perfume River, Hue is a green city.
Hie has so much energy from its nine universities, with lots of young people out and about along the river promenade, chatting, eating, painting, playing music, and enjoying life.
Welcome to the city of the arts.
Getting from Da Nang to Hue via the Hai Van Pass
We decided on booking a private transfer by car to Hue from our Hoi An via the Hai Van Pass. The trip would take a few hours up the narrow roads, stopping along the way for views.
Book a Short Stay at Da Nang beaches
Only a short ride from Hoi An is Da Nang, a city of stunning beaches.
Da Nang has its own airport which makes it perfect for a beach stay when planning your Vietnam itinerary.
You can also visit:
- Dragon Bridge
- Old helicopter hangars of the American War
- Son Tra Linh Ungh Pagoda
- Caves of Marble Mountains
But what you may not know is Da Nang is known for the production of religious symbols. You can choose from Buddhas, statues of saints or even dragons from businesses set up along the roads.
Drive over Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge
Dragon Bridge is spectacular at night, but especially on a Saturday night. On Saturdays, fire spits from the dragons head as part of the fire and water performance of Da Nang.
See the White Buddha Lady
A drive alongside China Beach is where the local fishermen are busy with boats. And in the distance, you’ll see the White Buddha Lady Statue, the tallest Buddha in Vietnam.
It’s from here you start the climb up the Hai Van Pass.
See why the Hai Pass was so important
The safer option from Da Nang to Hue is the new road tunnel. But driving the hill road to Hai Van Pass gives you spectacular views back over the China Sea coastline.
At the crest of Hai Van Pass are roadside stalls selling foods, drinks, and trinkets. Our driver gave us about 20minutes to wander so we headed straight for the bunker ruins. These were built by the French and Americans in their wars with Vietnam.
The bullet holes in the structures made the horror of the war that more real.
After a pit stop, we descended down the hill, with the driver cautious as we passed three trucks carrying pigs. And avoiding wandering stock when coming around a bend.
Once at the bottom of the pass we were met with a great view of Lang Co Bay. The scenery now was sea flats, lakes and inlets with rice and fish farms.
We arrived at Hue after a three-hour road trip, so once settled, it was time to find some local street food.
Where to Stay in Hue Vietnam
Our hotel for our stay in Hue was the Muong Thanh Holiday Hue Hotel situated near the Huong River (Perfume River).
Our accommodation included breakfast, use of a pool to cool off and a bar to relax with a refreshing cocktail after exploring Hue.
But for a local supermarket, it was a walk across the Cau Truong Tien Bridge. Or you can hire a cyclo driver. Some will even take couples but goodness knows how they would manage that!
Airbnb is also an option, as they feel more like homestays.
Location: 38 Lê Lợi, Phú Hội, Thành phố Huế
Where to Eat in Hue Vietnam
We love telling this story of our favorite Hue restaurant, Ancient House.
On our first evening strolling along the river promenade, we really loved seeing all the small bars and restaurants. So, we knew we would spend the evening here with views of the setting sun on the Perfume River. Very romantic.
As we wander along we noticed a man tending his garden on the river bank. We had stopped for photos and we exchanged smiles and waves.
It seemed the perfect place with the sun setting to sit at one of the tables of the Ancient Town restaurant. Ordering a beer and some spring rolls to watch the sunset.
We were so enjoying our evening we decided to have dinner. Except we didn’t have enough cash for the yummy food on the menu.
Location: 47 Kiệt 104 Kim Long, Kim Long, Thành phố Huế
Dine for Sunsets at Ancient House in Hue
We needed more cash and there were no ATMs on the river promenade.
When we mentioned our dilemma to the waitress, she said: “No problem, I’ll take you to the ATM.” How cool is this? Except when Maura found out she was going to pillion on a moped. Oh no, the traffic.
The ride was a little scary. The first exit from the restaurant was out into the oncoming traffic before making their way to the correct side of the road.
Close your eyes.
With the traffic negotiated, the money sorted, it was back on the moped and back at the restaurant. Terry already onto his second beer was relaxed when Maura arrived with the cash.
So, we were able to enjoy a wonderfully delicious meal with amazing flavors finishing with a Vietnamese coffee.
Yes, the meal was a bit more upmarket than our usual budget, but the setting was so romantic.
Just one more surprise. Do you remember the man in the garden?
Well, when we went to pay the bill, we got chatting to the owner who turned out to be the gardener we saw earlier in the evening. Fresh vegetables for the restaurant only a few steps away.
We enjoyed the whole experience, that we returned on our last night in Hue, with the owner thanking us for our Trip Advisor review.
7 Ways to See the Best of Hue in Two Days
If you are a lover of the arts, then you will feel at home in Hue. Especially if you arrive during its International Festival.
Hue has energy from young people who are out and about in the evenings. It is a city with nine universities, a history as the old capital of Vietnam and the burial places of many emperors.
Our hotel was parallel to the famous Perfume River promenade where you can absorb the vibrancy of the city.
1. Take a walk along the Perfume River
Hue is situated on the banks of Huong River known as the Perfume River. The river takes its name from the aroma of flowers falling from the riverbank trees into the river. And on most days, the trees provide much-needed shade from the 35-degree Celcius.
As you wander along the river promenade, you will be taken in with the many art forms, sculptures, and statues on display.
Hue city is known for its fine arts, and for hosting the Hue International Festival.
The festival is in celebration of the heritage of Hue with the art festival attracting local and international visitors for the five-day festival.
And as Hue, is a university city, the young students along the river promenade will approach. They want to engage you to practice their English conversation. This was a common occurrence for us each night.
2. Exploring the Hue Imperial City and The Citadel
To really experience and learn about the history of this UNESCO Hue Imperial City and the Citadel, we recommend you hire a guide.
Through EXO Travel we had organized a guide and driver prior to our arrival in Hue. They met us at the hotel for the short drive across the Huong River to the Citadel.
Our guide walked with us throughout the citadel explaining the history of the Citadel and Vietnam. He was concerned that incorrect history is being taught, but as he said: “the winners of the war get to write the history.”
The Citadel and Imperial Palace were built from 1802 by Emperor Gia Long who moved the capital from Hanoi to Hue and renamed the country Vietnam.
And first impressions, wow, this is an impressive complex of:
- Hue Capital Citadel
- Royal Citadel
- Forbidden Citadel
See inside the Hue Imperial City
We entered through the impressive south gate of the Citadel to walk amongst the three inner areas:
- The outer area where minorities would have lived
- The administrative (second) inner area, where the Emperor conducted business only two days of the month
- The inner area was the living area of the Emperor
Emperor Gia Long was known to have officially 103 children and 60 wives, plus the concubines.
No wonder business was only allocated two days per month.
Visit the Temple of Emperors
Next was a visit to the Temple where 10 of the 13 emperors are entombed.
Of the two emperors not buried here, one emperor was deposed by the next emperor and the other emperor surrendered to the French.
As you walk around this area, you will notice a lot of restoration is in progress to correct the damage from the American war.
The citadel was extensively bombed by aerial raids when the Viet Cong used the Citadel to hide and launch an offense.
There was also a lot of close combat as bullet holes are evident on large incense pots and citadel walls.
So where to next with our Guide.
3. Cyclo around the Hue Wet Market
Emerging at East gate, three cyclos were waiting for us manned by some very older men ready with plenty of strength in their legs.
We travelled along the local streets and the shore of the river before exiting the outer wall of the citadel into the local wet market.
There was no doubt in giving a generous tip for cycling us in the oppressive heat with no stops. The older men were still enthusiastic even at the end of the ride.
At the indoor market, we spied some apple custard fruit and local guavas (like a pear). Apart from one enthusiastic hawker, we wander along with our guide through market stores. Emerging to find our driver and the waiting vehicle.
Airconditioning on full and a chance to rehydrate as we drove to Khai Ding tomb. A must-see thing to do on your two day Hue itinerary.
4. Khai Dinh Tomb
To visit the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh is a short drive out of Hue city.
Khai Dinh Tomb is one of the most spectacular tombs, for the architecture, the temple and view out over the valley.
First, you have to climb up the steps from the road to the first level shrine. Then more steps lined with statues of mandarins, elephants, soldiers, and horses to the next level.
From here, the final lot of steps to reach the tomb.
The tomb is opulent with glass and porcelain decorations which took 11 years to complete. Khai Dinh was the twelfth Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
Location: Khải Định, Thủy Bằng, Hương Thủy, Hue
5. Take a Cruise to Thien Mu Pagoda
To reach Thien Mu Pagoda we chose a transfer by dragon boat.
Along the river promenade, you can find many family dragon boats berthed offering cruises or transfers. The other option is to use a large taxi boat.
We decided to negotiate a return transfer to Thien Mu Pagoda with a local family boat. The 30-minute boat trip each way was nice in the cooling breeze, as we watched local life along the river banks.
Thien Mu Pagoda is seven stories built-in 1601 by the Nguyen dynasty and is an unofficial symbol of Hue.
The day we visited the monastery it was preparing for an annual retreat.
The flower arrangements were beautifully placed around the temple, with a banquet being set up in one of the outer buildings. Which is where we found the famous Morris Austin.
The car belonged to a monk who drove it to Saigon during the American War. He went in protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem administration for their treatment of Buddhism and violating religious freedom. The monk burnt himself to death in protest.
6. Nightlife in Hue
Tonight as we explored close to our hotel, the river promenade was busy with activity. Hue hosts an International Arts Festival in celebration of Hue heritage. So, the grassy area along the river promenade and the street boulevard were filling up with lanterns and lights.
Students were busy preparing large paper butterflies and lanterns. While other students were painting and selling their artwork. With local musicians and singers competing in a local talent quest, it was a great nightlife of Hue to enjoy.
But we were tempted to join the students who were enjoying a table full of delicious-looking food.
7. Hue Cyclo Tour
Outside our hotel, we were negotiating with the cyclo drivers for a tour of the city. Luckily for us, our guide from yesterday happened to pass by.
So, a quick wave to him and next thing we know he has organized the tour for us. With two enthusiastic drivers, we were off on our cyclo tour of Hue city.
Cao Temple was the first stop. This temple was unusual as the gathering area was on the ground level and the temple on the first floor.
The Wet Market was next but first, the drivers have to negotiate the traffic. A little scary for us watching cars coming towards us.
The market had lots of interesting items, some we recognized, but a lot we didn’t.
A ride along the canals was next with our driver stopping to point out some very old family homes.
Further along, the canal was a busy local roadside market with crawling crabs, jumping toads and hunks of meat fresh on the bone.
Leaving the market we now turn onto the river promenade. Our driver points out the local school where Ho Chi Minh and other political leaders attended.
A beautiful building of French architecture.
Our tour over, it was back to the hotel for a swim.
See more in Hue over two days
Making a planned stop at Hue for two days on our Vietnam itinerary was exceptional.
Exploring places like the ancient Hue Citadel, Emperor Tombs and taking a cruise along the Perfume River is another impression of Vietnam.
You can get to Hue with an overnight train from Hanoi. Or take a private transfer from Hoi An or Da Nang.
You’ll love the vibrancy of Hue and the friendliness of the local people to see Hue through their eyes.