A Day in Hue, Vietnam: Touring the Citadel and Tombs of the Former Imperial Capital
Between 1802 and 1945 a succession of emperors ruled over central Vietnam from Hue, a small city on the banks of the Perfume River. Some were dynamic leaders and others were puppets to the French, whose influence grew as the years rolled by. Despite their growing irrelevancy, the Nguyễn emperors continued to pour money and man hours into elaborate tombs and palaces. We spent a day in Hue, exploring as many of them as we could — here’s what we saw and some tips on how to do it on the cheap.
The Imperial Citadel
I visited the Imperial Citadel during my first trip to Vietnam four years ago. My biggest memory was the massive tour groups that got in the way of my photos and detracted from what would otherwise have been a peaceful complex full of palaces and colourful gates. This time we got in ahead of the tour groups and it was much more enjoyable. The Imperial Citadel takes up a big section of town close to the Perfume River. You can pass through a couple of gates and see the city walls for free but you’ll need to pay 150,000 VND to see the good stuff. We passed through the main fortress/ gate and from there we wandered around palaces, shrines, gates, a hallway lined with red wood doors and various other not-quite-ancient ruins.
The colourful gates were definitely the highlights. Some look as though they haven’t aged a day and some are full of bullet holes (Hue saw fierce fighting in the Vietnam / American War). We spent a few hours walking around the Imperial Citadel — there’s so much to see and it’s quite spread out. We opted not to take a tour (as usual) but if you’re really interested in the intricacies of Vietnamese imperial life you’ll probably want to hire a guide. The citadel is pretty close to the tourist-friendly area of Hue and I’d recommend walking. You’ll cross a bridge over the Perfume River and see the iconic “dragon boats” hustling for passengers.
Getting to the royal tombs
The most difficult decision you’ll have to make in Hue is whether to take a tour to see the tombs or to hire a bicycle / motorcycle. The tombs are quite far from each other and you’ll spend a few hours cycling through the urban sprawl of Hue to see them. Hiring a motorbike is probably the best option, assuming you know how to ride and have a valid licence. We chose to join a tour group who had started their sightseeing earlier that morning. For a half day tour to three royal tombs we paid 120,000 VND each (around $6) and it turned out to be a decent way to do it. There was even a boat ride down the river included.
Minh Mang’s Tomb
Emperor Minh Mang couldn’t have chosen a more serene spot to be laid to rest. Cows graze lazily by a pine-tree lined lake and the only sounds are those made by tourists who pass through by the bus load. The “tomb” is an elaborate succession of shrines and other ceremonial rooms and feels more like the residence of a ruling emperor than the resting place of a dead one. No expense was spared in constructing Minh Mang’s tomb — the detail and scale of the complex really makes you wonder how the common man felt about their ruler being buried in such luxury. The actual burial site is located behind some serious looking doors which were locked when we visited.
Khai Dinh’s Tomb
Emperor Khai Dinh appears to have really taken to the French way of life. It greatly influenced his tomb design, which is a strange mix of Asian and Gothic styles. The main building is a dead ringer for a palace, but it’s actually where the former emperor is buried. His body lies 12 metres below a gold statue of himself, which sits in a room full of colorful carvings. Khai Dinh’s tomb is located on a hill overlooking the countryside — the view would have been nice if the sky wasn’t so grey.
Tu Duc’s Tomb
Tu Duc’s tomb was the final stop on our tomb hopping trip around Hue. It was raining heavily by the time we got there and my umbrella (which was pink and covered in flowers) broke under the strain of yet another rainy day in Vietnam. We still managed to explore most of the complex though. The main area wasn’t all that interesting but we followed the nearby canal and saw a massive pavilion housing a 20 tonne stone tablet written by the emperor himself. Tu Duc actually lived there for a time but his final resting place remains a mystery — he had the 200 servants who buried him beheaded to protect the site from grave robbers.
After visiting Tu Duc’s tomb we headed to the river and hopped aboard a boat fronted by two dragons. It was still raining and everything was grey, but it was a good way to finish our day of history in Hue.
Hue is a decent place to stay for a few days. There are some great value guesthouses close to the river (it’s best to just find a place when you arrive). The food in Hue is really good; make sure you try Bún thịt nướng (rice noodles topped with barbecue pork) and Bánh khoai (pancakes filled with bean sprouts and meat served with peanut sauce). There are also some cool little cafes aimed more at locals than tourists. Hue is around 4 hours (by bus) north of Hoi An and 12 hours south of Hanoi. If you’re next port of call is Hanoi you should consider stopping off for a few days in either Phong Nha or Ninh Binh (or both). They are both home to karst mountains and caves — Phong Nha in particular really is a must see.
Further reading: Cycling to Paradise Cave in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? What place are you most excited about? Let me know in the comments below.