Words and Images by Thuc Anh Cao Xuan–
For those who are interested in history and want to listen to stories about emperors of the old time, skip Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Hue is your destination! If you have time at the end of spring or autumn, the weather will be ideal for your trip.
1.) Witness the beauty of the Imperial citadel and the tombs, and listen to royal folk music on a boat along Huong River
Hue used to be where the emperors settled before Vietnam’s war with the French and the American. The significance of this city therefore lies in the remnant of their palace and their tombs.
The biggest and most central architecture in Hue is the Imperial citadel. From the walking street quarter, it takes around 10 minutes to reach the citadel. With 6.5 US dollars you can buy a ticket to visit this destination. They also perform traditional arts in the early morning (around 8 a.m if I’m not mistaken), and at night. Sadly some buildings inside the palace were destroyed during the war, so what you can see is the main wing where the emperors used to meet with officials everyday. Such places as the concubines’ bed room cannot be seen in the citadel. It was worth a visit, anyway because the halls, the temple and the gardens are very beautiful.
The tombs are a bit further away. There are 3 frequently visited tombs, each of which has its own attraction.
The first one is Tomb of Minh Mang, which is the earliest built among the 3, and the most traditional for that matter. Emperor Minh Mang was the second emperor of Nguyen Dynasty. He had many concubines (people say hundreds!) but no queen. He is buried in a hill, and the door to his grave is sealed so no one can disturb his eternal sleep. The architect in Tomb of Minh Mang is strictly symmetrical, and personally I would say this is my most favourite tomb.
The second place, Tomb of Tu Duc, is somewhat similar to Tomb of Khai Dinh, but it is not symmetrical. Emperor Tu Duc was also a poet, so he liked his resting place built more freely and near nature. He and his queen are buried next to the pine hill, and his tomb looks more modest and gentle. You can walk through the road winding around a lake, and go as far as inside the grave area. On the way from the city to this tomb, you will cross a village where they make and sell colorful incense.
The third one, Tomb of Khai Dinh, looks more traditional outside and more modern inside. He was the twelfth emperor who lived near the time of Vietnam-France war, so his tomb has a Western touch. The building is all grey when I first saw it, but when I stepped in, sparks of colors were everywhere. The chamber where his body remains is decorated with gems and porcelain, and with a bronze statue of the emperor made in France. It looks luxurious.
If you don’t have much time, you need only a day to visit these historical places.
When the sun sets, the time comes for you to get on a boat and listen to the royal folk music. It will be a pleasant ride as you sail along the river in the evening, when the weather is much cooler than during the day.
2.) Zip-line and thermal bathing in Alba
Around 30km North from Hue city center is Alba hot spring. People come for thermal bath but I came for the zip-line and highwire experience. With 19 US dollars you can buy a Super Value package, which allows you to try all of the above, plus a lunch.
3.) Go trekking on Mount Bach Ma
Bach Ma is a national park located 60km South from Hue. Mount Bach Ma is 1,444m high. Huong River starts from here and flow into the city of Hue. If you start trekking at around 8 a.m, it will take you more than half a day to reach the top.
4.) Try some local food
Hue’s local food represents the taste of central Vietnam. The dominant taste is quite strong and spicy, but very Oriental as well.
The most famous dish should be the leaf-wrapped cakes (I don’t really like to call it that way because basically it is not dessert to be called cake, but hmm, I have no other words to describe it). Though all of them are made from different flower types and shredded shrimp and pork, each has its own unique flavor. Usually the combination should be bánh bèo, bánh nậm, bánh lọc, bánh ướt, bánh ram ít (just making it easier for you to google).
Bun bo (rice noodle with beef) is also famous. Don’t confuse it with Pho, which is also rice noodle with beef, because they are different. Bun bo has an attractive orangish color and has a spicier, sweeter taste than Pho.
Com hen (rice with small clam) is more unique because the cook will add a tiny spoon of fermented shrimp into the bowl. If you are in for adventure, try this.
Vegetarian food in Hue is also famous. Although made from veggies and tofu, the dishes are still full of spices and can satisfy your taste bud as well as non-vegetarian food can.
For dessert, you can find Che Hue, which are various sweet soups made from beans, sweet potato, yam, lotus seed, and so on. It is so cheap you can try all flavours without spending much money.