Lately, my memory seems to be deteriorating. Could it be the effects of long COVID or is it a natural process of ageing? I have no idea, except that this seems to be a pretty common issue amongst people around me. As I continue to photograph and write to retain precious memories, I sometimes wonder if I’m grasping at straws. Nonetheless, I like how Jeremy Irons put it:
“We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some take us forward, they’re called dreams.”Jeremy Irons
An unused ticket that was expiring brought me to Vietnam a few months ago, and I finally got a chance to step foot in Hue. This old imperial city in central Vietnam gave me the impression of being hauntingly beautiful, and rich in history and culture. It was more charming than I expected.
Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Hue was the capital of Vietnam for approximately 150 years during feudal times. This historically-rich gem provides an important source of Vietnam’s literature, music, medicine, astronomy and more than half of all the dishes that make up Vietnamese cuisine (we discovered a couple of hidden food joints!).
We were only there for two nights as we planned to
slack stay longer in the countryside at Phong Nha (our next destination). There was much to explore in our short stay but being slow travellers, we decided to take it easy. After all, travel is a form of leisure, not a race to be everywhere and see everything.
If you are wondering how to make the best of your short stay in Hue, here’s something to take you forward (and to take me back).
Things to do in Hue if you are short on time
Embark on a scooter tour with lady bikers
We did an afternoon city tour with “I Love Hue” and it was the best experience that I had in the laidback city. We were very lucky to be the first guests as the company reopens after a 2-year hiatus (no thanks to COVID-19!), and hosted by the enterprising founder, Lien, who advocates women empowerment.
The ‘I Love Hue’ Tour brought us around Hue on a motorbike to explore real Vietnamese life in Vietnam’s 4th busiest city. The travel company hires a group of female students who are passionate about tourism and love sharing their knowledge of Vietnamese culture and history. Most importantly, their business supports disadvantaged people living in and around Hue.
We started our tour with a taste of Hue’s original salty coffee before visiting a local village, the tomb of the late Emperor Khai Dinh, Tu Hieu Pagoda (where the late zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained and now rest in peace), an incense village, and Vong Canh hill with a beautiful view of the perfume river, finally ending the tour with a sumptuous local dinner. If you are short on time in Hue, this is the tour to join.
Shortlist historic sites to visit
I’ve always preferred à la carte to a buffet line, and using this dining practice on travel allows me to better enjoy places and activities that are meaningful to me. With more than 100 major pagodas, palaces, temples and tombs in Hue, history buffs can go on a never-ending historical binge, though that may send you into a coma with information overload.
If you have limited time, it’s a no-brainer to shortlist where to go, and what to do. To make things easier, try to do your research ahead of time. As this was my first time visiting Hue, I decided to go for the main highlight of Hue at the Citadel.
Featuring a walled fortress (or what’s remaining of it), the Citadel encloses the Imperial City of Hue and the Purple Forbidden Palace that belonged to the ancient city of Hue. This UNESCO World Heritage Site provided a glimpse of the lives of the royal family and important officials who lived here.
Some of the historic sites are free to the public while some are ticketed. It may be a good idea to cycle instead of walk – especially if you are visiting during summer time like us. You may need about ½ to 1 day to cover this area.
Ride in a cyclo to explore the Imperial City
Another way to enhance your visit to the Imperial City of Hue is by riding a cyclo. You can gain a unique experience while helping to support the local community. There are cyclo riders readily available to take you on a tour around various tourist sites within the gate. They speak several languages, albeit not as fluent as native speakers.
Do reach a consensus on price before hopping on a cyclo, and be mindful of what’s agreed on. After we paid and tipped our cyclo rider at the end of the tour, he actually asked us for more tips that went beyond our budget, so we declined firmly and he accepted.
Don’t miss Hue specialty food and drinks
There are many Vietnamese dishes that originated from Hue, and some of them are only available in this central Vietnamese city. When in town, go adventurous and don’t be afraid to order something different from the menu.
My pal and I managed to visit a few eating places that are really good and affordable. Besides trying local snacks and desserts at the ever popular Dong Ba Market, Madam Thu Restaurant and Nook Eatery, here’re some places you don’t want to miss:
Madam Thu Restaurant (Address: 5 Võ Thị Sáu, Phú Hội, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000): This local specialty restaurant on the main tourist belt offers traditional Hue dishes such as Banh Beo (rice cake with dry shrimp), Nem Lui (Hue lemongrass skewers with grilled meat), Bun Thit Nuong (Hue Grilled Pork Noodle), etc.
An Nhien Garden Vegetarian – Nha Hang Chay & Cafe (Address: Đường tỉnh 10, phường): This restaurant is nestled in a beautiful garden about 20 minutes drive from the town centre. The vegetarian food was exquisite and the garden filled with artworks from local artists.
Maison Trang Restaurant (Address: 26 Võ Thị Sáu, Phú Hội, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000): Enjoy Hue local food at this home restaurant hidden in an alley off the main night scene area. Food was good and affordable.
Tuong VY Cafe & Tea (Address: 103 Nguyen Sinh Cung): A hidden cafe that overlooks the perfume river, it seems to be popular with locals lazily sipping on coffee and tea while chit chatting the morning away. We stumbled upon this idyllic space by accident and I had my second cup of salty coffee here.
Diem Tam Sang (Address: 117 Nguyen Sinh Cung): This is yet another low key restaurant/cafe that overlooks the Perfume River near our accommodation. The food offerings are limited but the size and taste was beyond our imagination. Best thing? It costs less than SGD6 for two dishes with a glass of iced coffee.
Explore Hue by night
Hue is a pretty low-key city but the city lights up beautifully, and is especially vibrant on weekends. Besides the usual clubbing scene, one can explore the night markets or Hue night walking street that brings you along the Perfume River. There are also dragon boat rides or night cruises with dinner for those who prefer to be on water.
There are many natural landscapes in and around Hue, and one of their attractions that I wanted to visit was the hot springs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to do so, but if time permits, it may be nice to have a good soak after a day out at the Citadel.
Note: Most of the hot spring areas are a distance from the city centre and transport may be costly for solo or couple travellers unless you join a tour.
How to get around Hue in Vietnam?
Like many other cities in Vietnam, Grab cars are available, albeit not as easy to locate as compared to the neighbouring Danang city. Note that some easy (motorcycle) riders may be wearing the Grab uniform but they are independent operators.
It is also possible to flag or call for a taxi. Always ensure that the metre is turned on as you board the taxi. For those who plan to travel further or visit several spots in a day, you may want to hire a private car for a day or two.
If you are within the imperial city area, there are cyclo riders readily available to strike up a deal with you for a tour around various tourist sites within the gate (as recommended above:).
Is Hue in Vietnam worth visiting?
Definitely, if you are into culture, spirituality, nature, history or arts. Foodies will also enjoy exploring local food here for its variety, taste and affordability as compared to other bigger cities. I’m already thinking of what I want to do and eat in future trips to Hue.
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The above information is based on personal experiences and should only be used as a reference. For more information on the destination, do check this out by Vietnam National Administration of Tourism.