HUE: VIETNAM'S MOST MAGNIFICENT PALACE
Ancient tombs that crumble in the hills. The best food in the country (maybe). And jungled mountains that role right into the sea. Hue and the surroundings have so many stories to tell and things to do that it should be a highlight in any trip through Vietnam. And yet so many people pass it by. Even those who visit the ancient imperial capital often don’t give it the time it deserves, regularly opting to spend more time in Hoi An instead.
Unlike Hoi An’s obvious delights, Hue’s charm lays hidden. But scratch beneath the surface and Hue will unfold and blossom before your eyes like the numerous lotus ponds in spring, revealing a storied destination that offers unique and authentic experiences. Here are some of the highlights that make Hue an unskippable destination in Vietnam:
Southeast Asia’s Greatest Walled City
Hue is one of the few Southeast Asian cities that doesn’t have its cluster of hotels, tour companies, restaurants, and tourist-friendly facilities within the old part of town, which in Hue’s case is behind the centenarian city walls. This is a mixed blessing. Judging the city on the tourist neighborhoods, people sometimes come away thinking it’s ugly or boring. But that is so far from the truth. The reality is that the beautiful and historic part of the city – known as the citadel – is hidden away with virtually no facilities for visitors. Unlike in other historic cities in Vietnam (and, indeed, Asia) this has kept the old part of the city authentic. The locals haven’t left. The hotels haven’t moved in. Restaurants only serve up local fare.
The forbidden city, a remarkable cluster of buildings that reflects Vietnam’s history over the past two hundred years, is the heart of the citadel. But after you’ve spent a few hours absorbing history – including royal concert halls, colonial administrative buildings, and bullet holes from the war – make sure you explore the rest of the neighborhood. Here, garden houses have been converted into leafy coffee shops and serene lakes are hiding around every corner. The citadel is entirely safe and entirely flat, making it a great place to hop on a bicycle and cycle around to see what you discover. You can also walk – though keep in mind that the citadel is big and you won’t cover as much ground – or explore on a motorbike or cyclo.
Crumbling Tombs in the Countryside of Hue
The countryside surrounding Hue is decorated with literally thousands of tombs. Commemorating the dead with grand structures is an important part of Hue culture, spurred by the Nguyen kings that once held Hue as their capital. It’s not surprising then that the seven royal tombs steal the show. Each one is different and offers a unique window into this fascinating period of Vietnam’s history.
Gia Long tomb is the oldest, the least visited, and the most atmospheric. Minh Mang tomb is the grandest, reflecting the strength and power of his empire. Thieu Tri is like a minature version of Minh Mang’s tomb, but only sees a fraction of the visitors. Unlike the tombs of Minh Mang and Thieu Tri, Tu Duc blends harmoniously with nature. If you’re short on time, Duc Duc tomb is the only one that you’ll find in the city. Dong Khanh tomb is orderly and well-preserved with great views. And the tomb of Khai Dinh, the penultimate king of Vietnam before the communist takeover, is the weirdest of them all. It fuses – with an arguable degree of success – Vietnamese, Chinese, French, and Cambodian styles with a big grey structure that stretches up the side of a mountain.
Hue has probably Vietnam’s Best Food
In a country that’s obsessed with food, it’s difficult (and dangerous) to designate one place that serves up the best. But there are good reasons why Hue probably dishes out some of the best grub in the country. One reason is the royal legacy in the city. The Nguyen kings were a demanding dynasty and they wanted special dishes crafted just for them. Fortunately, the secret got out, giving us regular people access to these royal delicacies, such as the bite-sized savory Hue cakes that combine minced shrimp and pork, crunchy crackling, and a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.
Another reason that Hue can claim superior cuisine is the stalwart devotion to tradition. Hue people are traditional, and they pass their recipes from generation to generation while rejecting outside influence, keeping the dishes authentic. You can see this in the mouthwatering beef noodle soup, usually served for breakfast. Another reason why Hue food is so memorable is the city’s position as the center of Vietnamese Buddhism. This is one of the best places in the country for vegan food, which is often served up at restaurants affiliated with monasteries.
Beyond the City
Outside of the city, the province of Hue is a remarkably beautiful part of the country. Popping green rice paddies and an enormous lagoon sit sandwiched between mountains that stretch to Laos and a bright blue sea. This sets the scene for an array of outdoor activities. The mountainous Bach Ma National Park, an hour outside of the Hue, offers hiking trails to waterfalls and elevated sunrises over the sea. Take a kayak and explore one of Southeast Asia’s largest lagoons, where calm waters reflect a deep purple sky at sunset. Or take a bicycle and crisscross the countryside delving in and out of traditional, 100-year-old villages.
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