Set between Dong Ha and Dong Hoi to the north and Da Nang and Hoi An to the south, Vietnam's old imperial capital of Hue features on the itinerary of just about every first time visitor to Vietnam, and justifiably so. Straddling the truly beautiful Song Huong (Perfume River) the city first rose to prominence in the 18th through 19th centuries when it was the seat of power for the Nguyen lords. It remained the national capital until 1945, when then-emperor Bao Dai abdicated as the nation was sliced into two. This imperial legacy manifests itself today through the fortified city (better known as the Citadel) and a collection of tombs – from the grungy to the grandiose – dotting the landscape around the modern city.
During the American War, Hue's location roughly half way between Hanoi (540 kilometres away) in the north and Saigon (644 kilometres away) in the south, 15 kilometres west of the South China Sea and just south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), meant it saw heavy fighting. The tombs themselves saw little damage, but the Citadel and central city were badly damaged during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Hue's complex history has earned it a reputation as a political, cultural and religious centre, but nowadays, visitors to contemporary Hue will find a city that only dimly reflects its past, and only does so as a begrudging nod to its Western visitors. Like Ha Long Bay to the north, the complex of tombs, pagodas and palaces throughout Hue and its surrounds has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, but to the Vietnamese psyche of many, shaped by centuries of war and struggle, and tempered by nearly 40 years of communist rule, this heritage is largely irrelevant and disconnected from the present. The overwhelming sense one gets from the city, on even the most casual visit, is of an unstoppable forward drive, and of a people looking to the future.
But the profitability of tourism has lead to a paradoxical situation where, in order to move forward, the citizens of Hue must pry open those doors to the past they would rather leave shut. As a result, the tourist industry has developed into a half-hearted attempt to give the foreigners what they want and send them on their way. While this has been effective in one sense -- a steady stream of tourists keeps showing up and paying for tours -- in the larger scheme it has also meant many poorly run tours and disappointed travellers.
At the moment, Hue is a premier tourist destination mostly in theory. In practice, it's still a work in progress. That notwithstanding, it's a beautiful and vibrant city, with great places to stay, delicious food and a number of interesting things to do, on and off the well-worn tourist trail of historic attractions. Be warned though, that those intent on seeing the sights themselves rather than going on an organised trip may find things a tad frustrating.
Advice on tours in Hue
Despite some great universities focusing on languages and tourism, Hue has yet to stick with a free tour programme. If you want to be sure to enjoy a "culture tour", you're going to have to pay for it. The only consistently worthwhile tours we've heard of, or taken ourselves, were private tours where you get to roll your own itinerary. It needn't be that expensive. A day-long tour by motorbike should be US$14, and by car, $70.
Very few tours include site admissions. The Citadel is 105,000 VND including entrance to the royal antiquities museum, housed in a building to the right of the citadel on Le Truc Street. The tombs of Tu Duc, Khai Dinh and Minh Mang will each set you back 80,000 VND, while the recently renovated Dong Khanh and Thieu Tri tombs are 40,000 VND each. All other sites are free of charge unless a snarling warden guards the site -- handing over a voluntary 20,000 VND in this case will get you a big smile and a full guided tour – albeit in Vietnamese.
One thing not advertised is a 265,000 VND ticket available from the ticket office at the citadel. You have to ask for it, and it covers the entrance for all sites for 48 hours from the first stamp; it's well worth the investment if you are planning on seeing them all.
Extensive renovations of sites were ongoing during our visit in 2014. Most of it was concentrated on the golden mile surrounding Tu Hieu pagoda and Dong Khanh tomb. Once completed, these lesser-visited sites will all come with a 40,000 VND entrance fee. What struck us was that the renovated sites, although opulently restored, were no match for the deserted, crumbling facades of the tombs that have yet to charge.
Despite guide services being very well advertised at each ticket office, be warned that English-speaking guides are pretty thin on the ground, and there is no communication between the ticket office and the guide hut just inside the various entrances. This means the ticket office will happily take your 100,000 VND guide fee and point you to the hut, where you will be met by blank faces and waving hands. Often reading before you go or booking a professional guided tour in town is a better option than relying on on-site guiding.
While as a rule of thumb going for a small group tour booked through a reputable company rather than hiring a freelance guide may pay dividends, we met some good guides on the street, and some crappy guides who worked through companies. Your mileage will vary.
Be sure to invite your guide to sit down for a drink and discuss the specifics before you commit. It doesn't matter what you drink -- green tea is just as appropriate as beer -- but this is how Vietnamese do business. Take your time, talk about things other than the tour, and leave yourself an out from the beginning, in case you're not happy – perhaps say for instance that you are waiting for friends to come into town, so you're not sure when you want to go. Gauge the extent of your guide's knowledge and language skills. Use your gut. If they strike you as creepy or obnoxious, that's not just the culture barrier. The best guides are cool dudes you want to spend more time with. That's what you're looking for.
Even if you have a guide, a lot of the onus still falls on you to make sure you see the sites you want to see. Most guides will happily take you anywhere you want to go, but if you don't speak up, they'll just take you to the most convenient spots for them. One of the biggest problems we encountered with motorbike guides was their reluctance to take us to the further flung tombs; time and time again we were told they were not worth seeing as they were exactly the same as more conveniently located sights. This isn't really true though, as these are the tombs that have escaped the shiny makeovers, crowds and entrance fees of other attractions on the map. If the first guide you ask says no, move on to another until you find one who will; to save misunderstandings on the tour, get them to mark the agreed route on a map before you go.
We found an excellent guide, Mr Vui, who was full of interesting information, and took us on a very creative route to see some of the major sites. If he's not available, he can probably hook you up with another guide.
Other than Mr Vui, there are good guides to be hired at Mandarin Cafe and Stop and Go Cafe and people seem quite happy with the tours out of Cafe on Thu Wheels, though some of the guides don't speak much English. Also, Mandarin Cafe has a good and steady reputation. For further flung tours, Le Family Riders is a family-run motorbike tour company with some excellent itineraries well off the usual beaten path. Everything is included in their day rate, including fun and informative guides and meals. They can also arrange for luggage to be forwarded on to your next destination and pre-book the best guesthouses available in each town on longer tours.
Mr Vui: T: (84) 0945 288 097. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stop and Go Cafe: 03 Hong Vuong, Hue. T: (054) 0905 126 767. email@example.com
Mandarin Cafe: 24 Tran Cao Van, Hue. T: (054) 382 1281. firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe on Thu Wheels: 3/34 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Hue. T: (054) 3832 241. email@example.com. Daily 06:00 to 23:00
Ly Family Riders: 44 Dang Thai Than St, Hue. T: (016) 8926 6792.
Touring the sites on your own
Another option is to skip a tour and do it on your own. Take your time. Don't try to see everything -- just target a few key spots. Expect nothing much more than you would from a lovely, relaxed day in the park, and you'll avoid some of the frustrations and let-downs we hear about.
Everything can be visited by car, bicycle or motorbike on your own. However, everything worth seeing is dubiously marked on the maps: particularly the sights located further afield. We found the best of the lot to be the free Hue Tourist map, available at most hotels and tour booking offices. Even armed with that, we'd recommend taking advice on your planned route before you go as there are some easily navigated off-map shortcuts and it's not uncommon for some of the tombs to be closed for renovation work.
But a great way to while away the hours in Hue on a beautiful day is to try to find some place on your own anyway, get lost, see the countryside, stop along the way and eventually wind up some place interesting, even if it isn't the place you were heading for when you set out.