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Attractions & Activities
Things to do in Hue
Aside from the normal and obvious attractions in Hue like the Citadel, Imperial City, pagodas and royal mausoleums, there are a number of other options open to more adventurous travellers.
Bicycling: Hue is probably the best city in Vietnam for cycling. There is less traffic than the other major cities and the people of Hue are in less of a hurry. Many choose to cycle along the banks of the slow moving Perfume River and over the Truong Tien Bridge and into the 200-year-old Citadel where one can see the entrance to the royal Imperial City and pass by the many aircrafts and tanks from the American War before continuing deeper into the walled city where life carries on in coffee shops, motorbike repair shops, clothes shops and hairdressers. Once you reach the end of the moat of the Imperial city you can venture further to see the ponds where women wearing conical hats in fishing boats harvest morning glory (water spinach) and snails. There are many garden houses in Hue and it is lovely to slowly cycle by to admire the intrinsic nature of these properties.
For those who would like to smell the fresh air and hear nothing but the fluttering of dragonfly wings then the countryside surrounding Hue is the answer. The central parts of Vietnam are known for their lagoons and Hue is no exception. You haven't to go but 5 kilometers east outside the city before you come across rice paddy fields, vegetable and flower farms, each with a separate village at its core. If you decide to travel west out of Hue you can experience quite the opposite landscape with hilly routes to the temples, pagodas, royal mausoleums, garden houses and if you continue on you will eventually get to the bamboo forest snaking alongside the Perfume River.
Cyclo tour: Cyclos are abundant in the city of Hue and a ride in one is an opportunity to experience how life was back before the emergence of the motorised vehicle. Sit back and enjoy a leisurely trip thought the citadel's quiet streets and around the walls of the Imperial city. A cyclo ride affords you the time to take in all that Hue has to offer visually.
Fishing: A favourite past time of locals in Hue is fishing and you can see this happening everywhere from the moat at the citadel, to the ponds in the royal tombs, to the East Sea itself. However, following in Vietnamese tradition of a laid back life-style, the best way to enjoy this is to visit one of the many fishing restaurants on the outskirts of Hue. Here one can come with some friends and occupy one of the many huts along all the sides of a pond where you can catch and release catfish while simultaneously sipping on coffee or ice-cold beer and tasting the local cuisine and delicacies.
River Cruise: A trip to Hue would not be complete without a cruise on the Perfume River. There are two options with different styles to cater to every taste. You cannot walk along the riverbank without noticing the dragon boats puttering past. Adjacent to La Residence Hotel is a small harbour. In the morning you may decide to hop onto a small but long dragon boat to take you sightseeing. The first stop is Thien Mu Pagoda which takes about 25 minutes to reach. From there, the boat can continue to Minh Mang Mausoleum which takes about one hour to get to. There are fantastic views all the way along as you meander up the river, resting back in your seat and feeling the cool breeze blowing alongside the boat while watching out for the many water buffalo on the riverbank.
A more romantic alternative would be to embark in the late afternoon to enjoy a relaxing traditional large dragon boat cruise while sipping champagne at sunset. From the harbor, head toward the pagoda before turning around to cruise down the river under both the Truong Tien and Phu Xuan bridges. Your very own chef and waiting staff can serve either a Vietnamese or Western menu for you to savour. Before heading back to the hotel take part in an ancient tradition of lighting and releasing a candlelit lantern – a sure way to immerse yourself in a time-honoured custom.
Imperial Feast: To really experience how the Nguyen Dynasty lived and enjoyed feasting at royal banquets, you must try to take part in an Imperial Feast held in the Royal Theatre inside the Imperial city. Usually organized for large groups who then nominate an emperor and his wife as the Queen, guests arrive by cyclos and are dressed as mandarins. Entering the theatre lined with lotus candles on either side, the guests are then seated in an elaborately decorated dining hall, while royal music is played by a traditional royal band. Finally the emperor and his wife enter to sit at the elevated royal table while the mandarins stand and bow. In ancient times, the best chefs around the country were conscripted with the goal of attaining culinary perfection. Unlike in the West where meals are served by course, the Emperors were served many smaller dishes, sometimes up to 50 dishes at one sitting. Today, these are replicated with exquisite presentations and served to guests. While the emperors dined, they were entertained by their mandarins with poetry, song and dance. This is mirrored for today’s guests with traditional dragon dances and musical performances throughout the evening.
A more affordable Imperial Feast for groups can be provided at the hotel with the same attire, waiting staff, chefs and of course royal dishes. For individuals, local restaurants and garden houses also offer ancient Hue-style imperial feasts.
Hue family-style meal: Scattered around the city one can find a few gems in the rough in terms of experiencing real family life and cuisine. These are usually in one of the few garden houses still standing in Hue. The lady of the house will rise early in the morning, go to the local market to pick and choose the freshest ingredients available, and based on these purchases will design a three- to five-course meal. She will cook and serve while you enjoy a delicious family feast. She may also entertain you with local legends or fun stories about Hue family life in general.
Some popular addresses to visit for family-style meals are Boi Tran, Garden Tea House, Princess temple, Y Thao Garden and Tha Om.
What to see in Hue
Tiger Arena: Known locally as “Ho Quyen”, this royal arena is similar to a much smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome and was also used for blood sports. Beginning in the 1830s, the emperors, their families and mandarins would congregate here to view contests between elephants and tigers. However, as the elephant was the imperial symbol, the tigers were often declawed or defanged so as the elephant was always victorious. But don't fret, the last contest held here was over a century ago in 1904. This is a rarely visited site but a top spot for those looking beyond the normal tourist trails. Close by lies the forgotten Long Chau Temple with the lotus pond opposite. It is also an excellent route for cyclists.
Thanh Toan Bridge: This bridge is one of only three existing roofed footbridges in Vietnam. The tiled roof and ornately carved wooden bridge dates back to the 1740s when it was erected by Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking Mandarin to offer better transportation and communication for the villages on either side of the canal. The bridge also used to be a popular shelter for those in need of a noon nap. Only a few kilometers from the city, this special spot in a sleepy country village beckons the eager cyclist to come and rest under its shade and maybe watch the sunset.
Ngoc Son Princess Temple & Garden House: Few travelers know there is a hidden wonder just 5 km outside the city. Ngoc Son Princess Temple & Garden House was built for Princess Ngoc Son, a daughter of Emperor Dong Khanh, the ninth Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. The property is owned by the great-granddaughter and is therefore private property. However, you can book a visit to enter the temple which is still used to this day, and see the ancestor shrine. The family photo album is open for you to see how life was documented in the time of the princess. Afterwards, step outside into the fengshui garden with a beautiful pond surrounded by floral and fruit trees. Many visitors find this a very special and tangible experience. Like other garden houses, it is also possible to organise a dining experience in advance.
Cat Tuong Quan Zen House: Situated in the peaceful area of Thien An Hill, this is a newly constructed garden house nestled away in the pine forest. Retreat into a sanctuary of calmness with the only sound coming for the light zen music being played around the magnificent and beautiful design of the complex. The owner Cat Tuong Quan greets guests and visitors and explains the architecture of the “Nha Ruong”, a Hue wooden beam house, and the spiritual meaning of the Zen sanctuary. Be escorted around the intricate buildings surrounding a central water feature. At the end of the property, before the shallow pool and saunas, is an elevated building with glass walls and doors providing an idyllic setting for meditation. For those who want to stay longer, a Buddhist vegetarian family meal is prepared and if desired, you can stay overnight to really escape the hectic world outside.
Thuan An Beach: A 20-minute ride from the city by car or a 50-minute ride by bicycle lies Hue's Thuan An beach. Unlike many beaches in Vietnam which are crowded with tourists, this beach is practically empty giving one the feeling of having one’s own private beach. As you may have noticed on your travel so far, the Vietnamese, especially the ladies, are fearful of the sun and wish to keep their skin as white as possible. Thus, they are always covered from head to toe. As a result, the beach is empty and only after 5pm in the evening is there any chance of other beach lovers arriving to disturb your new tranquil domain. In the meantime, swim in the warm waters, sunbathe on the soft white sand and listen to the poetic sounds of the lapping waves. A number of small wooden establishments are between the beachfront and the road and offer very fresh and delicious seafood and local beer. They also offer classic folding beach chairs and bamboo huts if you wish to have a break from the sunshine to enjoy a little nap in the shade.
My An Hot Spring: Located half way to Thuan An beach you will find a realm of healing at My An Hot Spring & Resort. Only those who can bear the smell of sulfur should come here as it can be quite strong but it is also the reason for the beneficial properties of the water in the hot springs which attract many people. Don't be turned off by the cloudy water as this is also due to the sulfur. There are two pools, one exceptionally hot and the other not so scalding. If you feel too flushed you can take a dip in the newly built plunge pool to cool off. Bathing often increases the appetite, and visitors can find a restaurant located in the gardens.
Alba Thanh Tan Hot spring: If the sulfur of My An is too much for you, then head about 30 kms north of Hue to the Thanh Tan hot spring which is at the base of a mountain range. There you will find a couple of channels separated with small walls and each segment is of a different temperature enabling you to start in the coolest temperature and make your way up to your limit. Of course there is a plunge pool right next to it. Whether you are here with kids or just want to relive your childhood, you can slide down the three water slides at the side of the hot springs.
The zipline and high wire at Thanh Tan Hot Spring: were opened to the public in March 2014 and are the longest and highest of their kind in Vietnam. The zipline has beautiful views from Ma Yen Mountain at 45.5 meters. Enjoy gliding over the tree tops for 560 meters before reaching the end of the line on a sand pit. The high wire is another fantastic challenge offered here. There are three different routes to choose from. However, even though safety gear is provided for the high wire it is quite dangerous as the safety line is too low and is at head level. At each section there is the danger of the heavy metal safety harness rolling back and smashing into your teeth. Until the safety line is elevated, it is advisable to avoid the high-wire.
Bach Ma National Park: At the height of 1450 meters, Bach Ma is Hue's bio geographical backdrop and is a mere 40 km from the city. This protected area was established in 1991 and is a haven for nature lovers, especially those who are eager for bird-watching. Bach Ma is well known for its biodiversity representing one-fifth of the entire flora of Vietnam. Numerous activities are available. One can camp, trek, rappel or simply wander through the jungle to discover the beauty of Bach Ma’s flora and fauna. At Do Quyen Fall (Rhododendron Fall) adventurers have the chance to abseil down the upper section of the fall. Visitors can also opt to walk down to the bottom of the falls to catch the whole fantastic view of the fall and spend more time swimming in the stream. Hue can be very hot in the summer months and a trip to Bach Ma Mountain is a perfect escape.
The summit area is always cooler, thanks to its high altitude and the temperature is normally around 24 degrees compared to the 35-40 degrees of the city below. Not surprisingly it’s also called the “Dalat of Central Vietnam”. Some abandoned houses from the French colonial era can be seen in the area, and a few are being used as lodges or hotels. Away from the noise and petrol stench of motorbikes and summer city smells, hiking to the peak is peaceful with fresh mountain air and the soothing sounds of the jungle. If you are lucky and rise early enough to reach the peak by sunrise, you will be amazed by the view and experience. As the sun slowly breaks across the horizon you can see the lowlands with the Perfume River leisurely flowing into the East Sea as the sky turns from black to orange to day light.
Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park is located in the middle of the Annamite Mountain Range in Quang Binh province some four hours’ drive north of Hue city. Discovered in 1935 but not opened to the public until 1999, it was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2003. The karst formation is part of a property containing over 104 km of underground rivers and a variety of cave types including dry caves, terraced caves, suspended caves, dendritic caves and intersecting caves which date back over 400 million years making it the oldest cave system in the world. The Phong Nha Cave is the most famous in the entire system after being surveyed to a length of 44.5 km. Paradise Cave is often regarded as the most beautiful in Asia, the longest dry cave in the world. Visitors should not forget to bring their cameras to Paradise Cave. Inside are glass-like stalagmites which more than a millennia old. Son Doong Cave is located near the Laos-Vietnam border and is five times larger than the Phong Nha Cave, previously considered the biggest cave in Vietnam. The biggest chamber within Son Doong is over five kilometers in length, 200 meters high and 150 meters wide.
The DMZ (demilitarized zone) between then North Vietnam and South Vietnam straddles the area and was the site of some of the most ferocious battles during the American War, including the siege of Khe Sanh and conflicts around Con Thien and Dong Ha. The famed Ho Chi Minh trail, now a modern highway, stretches along the border with Laos in the west through wild and beautiful mountains and the Vinh Moc tunnels which housed thousands of civilians sheltering from American bombing lies along a beautiful and unspoiled coastline to the east.
What to eat in Hue
The cuisine in Hue is an art form and is elegant, light and noble and quite different from all other provinces in the country. Spices, especially chili and lemongrass are the must-have ingredients. Only here do locals and visitors alike have the opportunity to experience dishes which were once served to the Vietnamese emperors. Because of the city's noble heritage, dishes are diverse and well-known for their distinctive flavours. Not only is taste important but it must also be pleasing to the eye and each dish has its own specific colours and shapes. According to a Vietnamese proverb, “In food, as in death, we feel the essential brotherhood of man.” One must experience eating a meal here in order to appreciate its meaning.
Must-try dishes when visiting Hue
Bún bò Huế (Hue-style beef noodle soup)
Bún bò is easily the most famous dish to come from Hue. Everyone has heard of Phở, Vietnam’s famous beef noodle soup. However, once you've tried Bún bò Huế, it's hard to go back. The soulful, tangy broth conjures images of rice fields, temples and conical hats. The soup is prepared by slow-boiling pork bones, marrow and a cut of lean beef with a combination or red annatto-seed-coloured oil, stalks of lemongrass, shrimp paste, chili and a myriad of spices. Thin round rice noodles are cooked separately and combined in a bowl with the broth and topped with an assortment of sliced meat and pork bits. The bowl arrives steaming on the table and is followed immediately by the self service components of the dish: a tangle of fresh leaves and sprigs, lemon wedges, fish sauce, freshly chopped chilies and one final very important ingredient; a cube of congealed duck or pork blood. While the thought of eating ducks’ blood might sound strange to some, Bún bò Huế is not complete without it. The entire bowl is a medley of soft white noodles, pork knuckle and beef slices, greens, a vibrant spicy broth and the texture of the ducks’ blood. If you haven't tried Bún Bò Huế, you have not really visited Hue.
Cơm hến (rice with clams)
Another well-known dish to come out of Hue, Cơm hến is simple yet intricate dish that fuses together a variety of flavors from clams, fried pork fat, cabbage, onion, roasted peanuts, crunchy rice cracker, chili pepper, banana flower, star fruit, mint, Vietnamese coriander (rau ram), taro stems and rice. All of these ingredients are served cold in a bowl. Then the hot ginger clam broth is added with fermented shrimp paste. The result is a balance of sweetness, saltiness, sourness and spiciness. A really traditional Cơm hến must be served spicy. The fermented shrimp paste is a favourite of the Vietnamese but it has a heavy smell and takes some getting used to.
Bánh huế is an umbrella term for the often bite-sized small dishes that are presented in a range of different varieties but all originate from the same basic everyday ingredients: Glutinous rice flour or cassava flour, shrimp and/or pork. The trick is in how you arrange and cook them together. There are so many variations but below are the four most commonly eaten.
Bánh bèo: A small sauce dish containing steamed rice flour topped with ground shrimp, mung bean powder, green onions, and sometimes a small piece of crispy pork fat.
Bánh lọc: An almost translucent rice flour patty containing either a whole small shrimp (including head, shell and tail) or green bean paste and presented in the shape of a mandarin segment.
Bánh Nậm: A flat, rectangular steamed rice flour bite that is wrapped in banana leaf and topped with groupd pork and shrimp.
(Bánh) Ram ít: Sticky rice flour balls filled with whole shrimp and ground or cubed pork garnished with fried shallots and presented on a base of crunchy pork fat.
The magic of these dishes is in the sauce. Each dish needs its own sauce. The unique Vietnamese fish sauce (nước nắm) may be harsh smelling for foreigners but it is a staple ingredient in most Vietnamese dishes and only by selective additions can a whole array of different results can be achieved. Bánh Lọc and Bánh Nậm usually go with fish sauce containing only slices of green and red chillies. Bánh Bèo and (Bánh) Rạm Ít are best served with fish sauce containing sugar, chili, lemon juice and shrimp paste - another distinctive, awkward smelling accompaniment that is an acquired taste.
Bánh khoái and Bánh xèo
These Hue-style pancakes are both made from rice flour, water or coconut milk and turmeric powder filled with slices of fatty pork and whole or de-shelled shrimp and bean sprouts, then pan-fried until crispy. Locals can be seen sometimes wrapping these in lettuce or mustard leaves and for extra flavour adding mint leaves or basil leaves. Bánh khoái is normally served open-faced while Bánh xèo is folded into a half moon shape like an omelette or taco. They are accompanied by fermented soybean sauce. Due to its greasiness and the spicy taste of the sauce, these are considered winter dishes.
Bánh ướt thịt nướng
Translated directly into “wet cakes grilled meat”, this is another Hue speciality. Wet rice paper is wrapped in a roll with grilled pork or beef and fresh herbs. Again, the most important ingredient is the sauce. This dish is served with Vietnamese fish sauce with freshly sliced chillies, garlic and plenty of lime juice.
Hue’s sweet dessert soup, Chè refers to any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage, dessert soup or pudding locally known as three-colour dessert. These dishes are made from a variety of mung beans (yellow or green), black eyed peas, red kidney beans, tapioca, aloe vera, lotus seeds, sesame seeds, taro, jelly and fruits such as longan, mango, jackfruit, durian and lychee. There are too many types of Chè to count but each has the prefix of the word ‘Chè’ followed by a word or phrase that describes the unique ingredients of each dish. Four typical kinds of Chè that Hue citizens are most proud of are: Chè khoai tiá (Chè with purple sweet potatoes), Chè long nhãn bọc hạt sen (Chè with longan wrapped in lotus seed), Chè trôi nước nhân tôm thịt (Chè with floating sticky rice cakes with shrimp) and Chè đậu ván bột lọc (Chè with bean and rice pastry).
DMZ Bar: 60 Le Loi. This haven for backpackers is located on the corner of Le Loi and the famous backpacker street that is Pham Ngu Lao. If you are looking for a change from traditional Vietnamese music and cuisine, DMZ offers a large menu of international food and an assortment of new and old school music to cater to all age groups. While enjoying an ice-cold beer or exotic cocktail, you can relax outside on the pavement chatting with other travelers or play pool inside. Many tourists want to leave their mark and do so by writing or sketching their names on the walls and look for marks left by friends in the years gone by.
Why Not Bar: 46 Pham Ngu Lao. This venue runs a number of different operations, from hostel to restaurant to bar/café, from its location on Pham Ngu Lao. While not as busy as DMZ bar, Why Not has its own distinctive atmosphere while also offering a wide variety of international and Vietnamese cuisine as well as beers and cocktails. For those who like to play pool, there is a table in the bar; and for those who like to watch sports, there is a large whitewashed wall in the beer garden that is used as a screen for their projector.
Ngoc Anh: 15 Le Loi. This is the only nightclub in Hue and is located between the two bridges in Hue on Le Loi St. It is frequented by local youth but occasionally some tourists do drop by. The night begins with karaoke but when during peak hours a DJ takes the stage and Ngoc Anh turns into a full-fledged nightclub.
Brown Eyes: 56 Chu Van An. As most bars close around midnight in Hue, Brown Eyes is where partygoers usually end up. It has patio outside for socializing and a dance floor inside behind a great pool table. Brown Eyes is a wonderful spot to meet up with fellow globetrotters to exchange stories. The clientele is a mix of both foreigners and locals. The dance floor is always teeming with young and middle-aged partygoers grooving to the latest hip hop or dance hall hits and also some unforgettable old favourites.
Garden Bar: 14 Pham Ngu Lao. The Garden Bar is a new addition to Pham Ngu Lao and appears as a very modern and clean establishment with a pool table, bar and beer garden. Patrons can smoke Shisha here, with a wide selection of flavours available.
Victory Bar: 7 Pham Ngu Lao. One of the newest bars on the scene and also located on Pham Ngu Lao street, Victory is mainly visited by local and traveling Vietnamese who love to dance as the music is quite loud and the venue stays open late.