Exploring the history of Hue, Vietnam: A guide to the city’s best sights

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Looking to visit Hue, Vietnam? We explore the history of Hue, outlining the heritage and key places to visit in the former capital.

Tu Duc, Hue

Whether you’re hugging the corners of the Hai Van Pass on your motorbike, or floating down the picturesque Perfume (or Huang) River, Hue – the former capital of Vietnam – is a must-visit destination. 

A city that is bound up in the country’s heritage, it is undergoing a revival as casual tourists and history buffs alike make the journey from nearby Hoi An to Hue, to explore the many tombs, palaces and monuments erected during the formidable Nguyen dynasty. 

So, what are the not-to-be-missed attractions in this captivating city, and why should you tag on a tomb-hopping trip to Hue? Read on for our guide to the best historical sites in Hue. 

Go tomb-hopping around the city 

Surprisingly the best way to start your tour of Hue is to head out of the city itself, to take in the beautifully constructed tombs dotted around the town’s outskirts. 

The tombs were built for the rulers of the Nguyen dynasty, a powerful line of Vietnamese emperors that led the country from 1802 until 1945. Since the country was technically under French rule for much of this time, the emperors found themselves with little to do and so spent their days building epic monuments to themselves; the royal tombs of Hue.

There are seven of these royal tombs, but most tourists will only visit three: the tombs of Minh Mang, Tu Duc and Khai Dinh since the others are a little off the beaten track. 

Pro tip: You can buy a combo ticket for the three key tombs as well as the Citadel for about 350, 000 VND (15 USD / 11.50 GBP) at any of the locations, which is far cheaper than paying individual entry fees. 

Tomb of Khai Dinh

If you only choose one tomb to visit, make it Khai Dinh. Not only are you greeted by an absolutely enormous staircase and imposing life-sized statues, but this tomb boasts spectacular sweeping views of the valley below. 

Khai Dinh, Hue, Vietnam

Location: Khải Định, Thủy Bằng, Hương Thủy, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000, Vietnam
Opening hours: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily

Tomb of Tu Duc

The best preserved of all the tombs, Tu Duc’s tomb is set on a gigantic property, and can take a few hours if you want to see it all. This one has a bit of a backstory too – Tu Duc was an infertile ruler (he suffered a bad bout of smallpox) and became a recluse during his reign, meaning he almost barricaded himself inside this tomb until his death in 1883. 

Tu Duc, Hue, Vietnam

Location: 17/69 Lê Ngô Cát, Thủy Xuân, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
Opening hours: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily

Tomb of Minh Mang

Combining the best of both, Minh Mang’s tomb is an epic ode to the deceased emperor, set in a more classical Chinese style. If you enjoy this type of architecture, this tomb is a definite must. 

Minh Mang, Hue, Vietnam

Location: QL49, Hương Thọ, Hương Trà, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
Opening hours: 7.00 am to 5.30 pm daily

Visit the Thien Mu Pagoda

While it might not seem as impressive as the tombs or even the Imperial City (more on that in a bit), the Thien Mu Pagoda serves as an unofficial ‘symbol’ of Hue. 

Loosely translated as ‘Mountain of Lady from Heaven’, this pagoda got its name from a local legend where a beautiful woman in red appeared there each evening, foretelling that the site was due to be of great importance in the future. 

While that day might not yet have come, you’ll still feel something special when you visit, as you’ll likely find yourself surrounded with the haunting chants of the resident monks. 

Location: Hương Hòa, Thành phố Huế
Opening hours: Daily from 8.00am to 6.00pm

Walk the forbidden grounds of the Citadel 

Once you’ve completed your round of the tombs and temples, the other large sight to explore in Hue is the Citadel or Imperial City. You really can’t miss this UNESCO-listed attraction – at over 520 hectares in size it’s a behemoth of a structure with so much to see. 

Imperial City, Hue, Vietnam

The Imperial City of Hue was once an epicentre for all the executive functions you would need in a nation’s capital, with buildings, palaces and administrative offices sprinkled across the property. You could spend up to five hours walking this maze of magical monuments and structures.

The key attractions? Probably the forbidding entrance of the Ngo Mon Gate, the Palace of Supreme Harmony (or “Throne Palace”) where all the important ceremonies would take place and the To Mieu Temple, which boasts a gallery homage to all the emperors. 

A main drawcard is at the centre of the Citadel, the Purple Forbidden City, which is where the emperor and his advisors lived and worked. Unfortunately, this significant site was almost totally decimated so today there isn’t too much left to see. 

Location: Thành phố Huế, Thua Thien Hue
Opening hours: Daily from 8.00am to 5.30pm

Claw your way to the Tiger Fighting Arena

While it would be frowned upon today, there is something slightly thrilling about the idea of walking through a massive arena where snarling tigers used to fight to the death. To experience that, you can visit Hue’s Ho Quyen Tiger Fighting Arena. You won’t find tiger face-offs there any longer, but you might be able to spot a claw mark (or two) on the walls. 

Location: 373 Bùi Thị Xuân, Thủy Biều, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế, Vietnam
Opening hours: 8.00am to 5.00pm

Indulge in imperial fare

If you’ve gotten your fill of history in the city, it might be worth filling your stomach instead. Since Hue is not only famous for its history, but also for its royal food, known as ‘imperial cuisine.’ 

The city has over 1,000 speciality dishes, which are still prepared according to strict royal traditions, albeit with a new, modern twist. Highlights include banh hue, delicate rice flour patties stuffed with delicious minced shrimp, thit noung, which includes delicious grilled pork in rice paper and a sweet treat in phue the, a gloopy rice dessert that means ‘husband and wife cake’!

Madam Thus, Hue, Vietnam

You can try many of these by choosing the tasting menu at Madam Thu’s where you’ll be able to indulge in seven different courses at surprisingly affordable prices. 

Location: 45 Võ Thị Sáu, Phú Hội, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế 530000, Vietnam
Opening hours: 8.00 am to 10.00 pm

A word on Hue’s history

You can’t have a guide about historical sights without delving a little deeper into just that, the history of the town. And Hue has quite the illustrious past… 

While it was first mentioned way back in 200 BC, Hue really only rose to prominence in 1802, as it was the birthplace of the hugely powerful Nguyen dynasty that ruled Vietnam right up until the end of World War II in 1945. Prince Nguyen Anh became Emperor Gia Long and moved the capital city from Hanoi to Hue, in an effort to unite Northern and Southern Vietnam.

Located smack bang in the middle of the country, it was the perfect place for the Emperor to create an Imperial City (and the famous Citadel) like no other, much of which you can still visit today. 

Hue Imperial City

The city went through many ups and downs including French invasions, the famed Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War and the final, crushing blow: the transfer of the capital city to Sai Gon (Ho Chi Minh City). 

From then on it lay almost dormant until a rise in tourism sparked a revival, with many of the historical areas of the city being restored to accommodate the influx of international visitors. 

Today many of the tombs and parts of the Imperial Palace are renovated and the perfect place to spend a day or two wandering around and immersing yourself in the history of Hue, before you tuck into that famous Vietnamese food. 

Getting to Hue

The most popular way to get to Hue is usually via bus or minivan transfer on the Hoi An to Hue trail, via the breath-taking Hai Van Pass.

If you are more of a fan of rail travel, it’s worth checking out the train from Da Nang to Hue

Have we convinced you to go to Hue? Whether you’re travelling as part of a longer jaunt in the country or using it as a stop over from neighbouring Da Nang or Hoi An, the city of Hue is a surprising addition and one that anyone vaguely interested in history has to add to their Vietnam itinerary.

Posted February 16, 2020
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James and Lee of The Travel Scribes
James and Lee of The Travel Scribes are two wandering writers, who love traveling, writing and everything social media. A married couple in their thirties, when they’re not quenching their thirst for wanderlust, they’re most often found behind their laptops, bashing out their latest blog posts.
image of blog writer James and Lee