A Travel Guide to Hue in Central Vietnam

Your First Look at the Former Imperial Capital of Vietnam

Locals in front of Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam
••• Locals in front of Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam.  Arnt Haug/Look-foto/Getty Images

To understand Hue in Central Vietnam, it’s important to note that this town has played a significant role in Vietnamese history for the past several hundred years. History is what makes Hue what it is: a new town on one side of the Huong River (romantically, if inaccurately, called the Perfume River), and a collection of old pagodas, imperial buildings, and tombs on the other.

And the past is how Hue makes its living today, which explains the aggressive cyclo drivers, the numerous tour providers, and throngs of tourists tramping through this laid-back Central Vietnam city.

Hue’s Past and Present

Hue was the former feudal and Imperial capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen Emperors. Before the Nguyens, Hue belonged to the Hindu Cham people, who were later displaced by the Vietnamese people as we know them today.

The book on the Nguyens was closed in Hue, as the last emperor Bao Dai turned over the reins of power to Ho Chi Minh at the Noon Gate of the Purple Forbidden City in August 30, 1945.

This wasn’t the end to Hue’s troubles, as the conflict between the Communist north and the capitalist south (what we now call the Vietnam War) turned Central Vietnam into contested territory. The Tet Offensive in 1968 spurred North Vietnam’s occupation of Hue, which was countered by South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In the resulting “Battle of Hue”, the city was destroyed and over five thousand civilians were killed.

Years of reconstruction and rehabilitation have gone some way to restore Hue to its former glory. Hue is presently the capital of the surrounding Binh Tri Thien province, with a population of 180,000.

The southern half of Hue is a quietly bustling community filled with schools, government buildings, and charming old 19th-century houses and a scattering of temples. The northern half is dominated by the Imperial citadel and the Forbidden Purple City (or what’s left of it); around the Dong Ba Market next to the citadel, shopping areas have sprung up.

Visiting the Hue Citadel

As a former Imperial capital, Hue is notable for its many royal structures, which have earned the city international recognition as Vietnam’s first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1993. (Read about 10 Southeast Asia UNESCO World Heritage Sites.)

Hue's top-ranking royal relic is the Forbidden Purple City, the home of the Nguyen Emperors until 1945. From the early 1800s to Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945, the Forbidden Purple City – enclosed by the high-walled Citadel – was the center of Vietnamese governance and politics. (For an inside look, read our Walking Tour of Hue Citadel, Hue, Vietnam.)

The Citadel is about 520 hectares in size; its high stone walls and the Purple Forbidden City behind them, once hermetically sealed against outsiders, are now open to the public.

There are plenty of wide open spaces in the Citadel’s interior where Imperial buildings used to stand. Most of these were destroyed during the Tet Offensive, but a continuous renovation program promises to restore the Citadel to its former glory.

The treasures of the Nguyen dynasty - or some of them – can be seen at the Museum of Royal Fine Arts, a wooden palace located in the citadel, in the area called Tay Loc Ward.

You'll find exhibits showcasing everyday items from the Forbidden Purple City in its heyday - gongs, sedan chairs, clothing, and utensils. Finely crafted bronze, chinaware, ceremonial weaponry, and court finery show visitors how extraordinary the “ordinary” day of a Nguyen courtier could be.

The building itself dates from 1845, and is notable for its unique architecture: a traditional type called trung thiem diep oc (“sloping successive roofs”) supported by 128 pillars. The walls are inscribed with brushed letters in traditional Vietnamese script.

The Museum of Royal Fine Arts is located in the Citadel at 3 Le Truc Street; operating hours are between 6:30am and 5:30pm, from Tuesday to Sunday.

Hue's Mysterious Royal Tombs

Imperial buildings, in accordance with Chinese-inspired tradition, were designed to conform with feng shui principles. These buildings contained elements that were meant to maximize the structure’s auspicious standing with the universe.

This adherence to ancient principles can most clearly be seen in the Imperial tombs around Hue, all of which bear common elements derived from feng shui. (Read our list of top royal tombs of Hue, Vietnam.)

Of the seven known Imperial tombs around Hue, three are significantly more popular compared to the rest, due to their relative good condition and easy accessibility – these are the tombs of Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh.

Hue's Towering Thien Mu Pagoda

One of Hue’s oldest historical sites - preceding the Citadel and the tombs in age and veneration – is Thien Mu Pagoda, a hilltop temple located about three miles from Hue city center. (Read our article about Thien Mu Pagoda.)

Thien Mu overlooks the northern bank of the Perfume River. It was established by a governor of Hue in 1601 to fulfill a local legend - the pagoda’s name (which translates to “Heavenly Lady”) refers to the ghostly lady in the story.

Thien Mu’s seven-storey tower is one of the pagoda’s newer buildings - it was added in 1844 by the Nguyen Emperor Thieu Tri.

Hue's Garden Houses

Hue’s history as an Imperial power center is closely tied with the histories of the area’s prominent families, most of whom built ornate garden houses in the city.

Despite the departure of the emperors, some of the garden houses remain standing today, maintained by the descendants of the mandarins or nobles who built them. Among these houses are Lac Tinh Vien on 65 Phan Dinh Phung St., Princess Ngoc Son on 29 Nguyen Chi Thanh St., and Y Thao on 3 Thach Han St.

Each garden house has an area of about 2,400 square yards. Like the royal tombs, the garden houses have several aspects in common: a tile-covered gate in front of the house, a lush garden surrounding the house, commonly set off with a small rock garden; and a traditional house.

Getting to Hue by Plane, Bus, or Train

Hue is almost equidistant from both the north and south extremes of Vietnam, being about 400 miles north of Ho Chí Minh City (Saigon) and about 335 miles south of Hanoi. Hue may be approached from either direction by airplane, bus, or train.

Travel to Hue by Plane. Hue's Phu Bai “International” Airport (IATA: HUI) is about eight miles from the Hue city center (about half an hour by taxi), and handles daily flights to and from Saigon and the Noi Bai Hanoi airport. Flights may be disrupted by bad weather.

Taxi fares from the airport to the city center average to about $8. When returning to the airport from the city center, you may ride the Vietnam Airlines minibus, which leaves from the airlines’ offices at 12 Hanoi Street a couple of hours before the scheduled flight.

Travel to Hue by Bus. Hue is connected to Vietnam’s major cities by a well-traveled public bus network, Buses entering Hue from southern destinations like Hoi An and Da Nang terminate at the An Cuu station, which is about two miles southeast from Hue’s city center. Buses from Hanoi and other northern areas terminate at An Hoa station, about three miles northwest of Hue’s center.

The bus route from Hanoi to Hue is a 16-hour journey, undertaken at night. Buses depart Hanoi at 7pm and arrive at Hue at 9am the next morning. Buses plying the southern route between Hoi An or Da Nang take about 6 hours at the most to complete the trip.

The “open tour” bus system is another popular land-based alternative. Open tour bus services allow tourists to stop at any point along the way, but require you to confirm your next trip 24 hours before riding. The open tour system allows great flexibility for tourists who wish to travel at their own pace.

Travel to Hue by Train. The “Reunification Express” stops by Hue, making several journeys a day between Hanoi, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City. (more info here: Vietnam Railway Corporation - offsite) The Hue railway station is at the southwest end of Le Loi Road, at 2 Bui Thi Xuan Street about 15 minutes from the city center.

The cushiest ride to Hue has to be the Livitrans first-class sleeper from Hanoi. Livitrans is a private company that operates a separate car attached to certain train lines. Livitrans tickets are 50% more expensive than comparable first-class berths on the regular line, but offer more comfort.

Tourists on the Livitrans car travel the 420-mile Hanoi-Hue route in style - comfortable air-conditioned bunks, clean sheets, electric outlets, and free breath mints (little to no food, though). A one-way Tourist-class ticket from Hanoi to Hue on Livitrans costs $55 (compared to about $33 for the regular soft-sleeper.)

Getting Around Hue

Cyclos, motorbike taxis, and regular taxis are easy to come by in Hue.

Cyclos and motorbike taxis (xe om) can be quite aggressive, and will pester you for business - you either ignore them or give in and pay up. Prices for cyclos/xe om vary, but a reasonable price is about VND 8,000 for every mile on a motorbike taxi - negotiate downwards for longer trips. Pay about VND 5,000 for every ten minutes on a cyclo, or less if you book longer.

Bicycle rentals: Bikes can be rented from most reputable guest houses at the rate of about $2 per day. If you’re more ambitious, you might want to sign up for a bicycle tour through Hue with Tien Bicycles (Tien Bicycles, official site - offsite).

Dragon boats: Boat rides down the Perfume River can be arranged for about $10 a boat for a half-day trip. One boat can carry eight people, You might also join a full day trip for about $3 per head, available at most tourist cafes in town. The boat pier is at 5 Le Loi St., next to the floating restaurant.

Hue Hotels - Where to Stay While in Hue

Hue has no shortage of backpacker-budget hotels, comfortable mid-range hotels, and a couple of luxury hotels. Most of the cheaper places are centered around Pham Ngu Lao and adjoining streets, representing the backpacker section of the city. More hotels are also available at the eastern end of Le Loi Street.

Choose one of Hue's luxury hotels if you want to sleep in a little bit of history; at least two of the hotels listed below once served as residences for occupying French officials during the colonial period.

Best Times to Visit Hue

Hue is located in a tropical monsoon zone, experiencing the most rainfall in the country. Hue’s rainy season comes between the months of September and January; the heaviest rain falls in the month of November. Visitors get Hue at its best between March and April.