I had never heard of Hue before we began researching our time in Vietnam and even as we included it our itinerary, I wasn’t completely sure what I was going to see there. It turned out to be the surprise delight of the trip! Though the sights of the former capital can be covered in a couple of days, what it lacks in quantity is made up in beauty, history and fascinating stories.
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The forgotten capital – a brief history of Hue
Hue lies on the floodplains of the Song Huong (Perfume River) in Central Vietnam, between the South China Sea coastline and the Annamese Mountains. First records of the city come from around 200BCE when it was a seat of Chinese military in the Nam Viet kingdom. However most of the sights you will witness come from the Nguyen Dynasty era between the mid-16th and mid-20th century.
The Nguyen family controlled south and central Vietnam with Hue as the capital. When the country split into North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) became the respective capitals. From the time the Vietnamese Communist Party took power, Hue was largely ignored until more recently restoration began on the historic elements of the city.
Inspiring things to do in Hue
Explore the Imperial Citadel
Inspired by Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Nguyen family built an enormous walled Citadel on the northern bank of the Perfume River. The spot was chosen by geomancers who studied the landscape for good omens—it was believed that the mountains and rivers would-be protectors of the Citadel. Thousands of workers took part in the construction of the fortress with 6m high walls, 10km long moat, palace, gated courtyards, gardens and pavilions.
Unfortunately, the fortified complex suffered considerable damage in the Indochina wars, and was later abandoned to time and nature. The Imperial Citadel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993 and slow restoration works are underway. Hue’s historic fortress is a lovely mix of crumbling, old features and vibrant refurbishments that reflect the complex’s heyday.
Discover Imperial Tombs
Hue has seven known tombs of Nguyen family royals, the most accessible being those of Emperors Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh. When I say “tombs,” these aren’t just elaborate mausoleums but entire complexes with gates, walls residences and waterways. In the case of forward-thinking Emperor Tu Duc, he created a luxurious summer home for himself in life, that was intended as his tomb after death. His posthumous abode sprawls across 30-acres including pine forests, neatly kept gardens, pavilions and a lotus-filled lake (we visited on a misty winter’s day, so sadly there are no loti in our pictures).
See Thiên Mụ Pagoda
Overlooking the Perfume River is the seven-tier Thiên Mụ Pagoda, a historic landmark of Hue. Emporer Nguyen Hoang ordered the construction of the original pagoda in 1601 after hearing the legend of Thiên Mụ “celestial lady”. The story tells of a silver-haired woman wearing red and blue who sat on Ha Khe Hill and foretold that a great lord would construct a pagoda there, to pray for the country’s wealth and success. Sequential Nguyen Dynasty Emperors expanded the modest pagoda until it was burnt down. The current octagonal tower was built in 1844 and dedicated to manushi-buddha.
Beyond the pagoda is a small but picturesque monastery complex including pavilions, stele, statues and an enormous brass bell said to be audible from 10km away. The most theatrical way to reach Thiên Mụ is by boat. The pagoda is a dramatic sight as your approach from the River and disembark at the foot of the hill, passing through the triple-gate entrance as you climb towards the temple.
Have these things to do in Hue inspired you to add the former capital to your itinerary? Let us know in the comments below.