Situated on the Perfume River, Hue is a relaxed and peaceful city full of lakes, canals and lush vegetation. Once the imperial city of the Nguyen dynasty, this Unesco world Heritage Site is home to some of Vietnam’s greatest historical buildings and sights. The Nguyen dynasty was the last royal family to rule Vietnam with a dynasty spanning 143 years, from 1802 to 1945.
|Thien Mu Pagoda|
|Ngo Mon Gate, Citadel|
Possibly the most impressive sights within the city are the citadel and the royal mausoleums. Of equal interest is the Thien Mu pagoda, the largest in Hue, and an unofficial symbol of the city. It is very fortunate that these historic sights survived somewhat unscathed during the bombing of Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when much of the city was levelled.
Hue’s glory days kicked off in the early 19th century when Emperor Gia Long began the construction of a vast citadel comprising three concentric enclosures. The citadel bears a striking resemblance to the Forbidden City in Beijing and must have been a sight to behold when completed. Today, only 20 of the original 148 buildings remain.
Ten gates lead into the citadel, but by far the most impressive is Ngo Mon, the principal entrance. The gate itself consists of five entrances: the central one for the emperor, two for civil and military employees and two for the royal elephants. Of the remaining palace buildings, Thai Hoa Palace boasts a spectacular interior containing gold and red lacquers and was where major ceremonies were held.
The Royal Mausoleums
If the citadel were not enough to convince one of the decadence within the royal court, the royal mausoleums surely are. Built in the valley of the Perfume River, these mini palaces are built in beautiful surroundings. Artificial lakes, waterfalls and lush gardens were set out with the three buildings comprising the mausoleum taking pride of place. The main temple was dedicated to the worship of the deceased emperor in question, followed by a stone stele recording details of his reign and finally, the tomb, which is enclosed behind a wall.
There are in total seven mausoleums although the mausoleums of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang are the most attractive and best preserved. These are easily accessible from Hue by taxi or motorbike. It’s also possible to see the mausoleums as part of a cruise on the Perfume river and if this is the route chosen, it should be possible to see a further three mausoleums.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Equally impressive is the Thien Mu Pagoda, also known as the Heaven Fairy Lady pagoda. It is seven stories high and is the tallest pagoda in Vietnam. It was originally built in 1601 after the then governor of the region heard a local legend. According to the legend, an old lady known as Thien Mu sat at the site, rubbing her, cheeks, and professed that the lord would come to the site and build a pagoda to pray for the country’s prosperity.
It’s possible to wander around the site at leisure taking in the calming atmosphere and smell of incense burned by Buddhist worshippers. After removing shoes, it is also possible to enter the temple behind the pagoda and catch a glimpse of the Buddhist way of life.
Hue has many cafes and restaurants serving both traditional Vietnamese food and for those that have been on the road a while, more prosaic pizza and burgers. The best known Hue dish is banh khoai, a small, crispy yellow pancake that is fried with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts and is served with a peanut and sesame sauce.
A food experience unique to Hue is to indulge in an imperial feast. There are a number of restaurants that offer this. Food in the imperial court had to be both visually stunning as well as delicious. Don’t be surprised if served a bird carved from cucumber. The food was meant to amuse and delight the diner, as well as satisfy their hunger.
While not a bustling city like Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, Hue providesa break from the usual frenetic activity that is Vietnam. Whether taking a cruise down the Perfume River, or renting a motorbike to explore the rice paddies on the edge of town, Hue is wonderful place to relax and experience the quieter side of Vietnam.