From 1802-1945 Hue was the Imperial capital of Vietnam. You can fly there from Hanoi in just over an hour or if you’re on a limited budget it’s a backside numbing 13 hours by bus or train. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a huge number of places to see including royal tombs, famous pagodas, a huge citadel and ruins from the Vietnam War. It is also a stunningly beautiful area.
In the centre of the town, beside the Perfume River is the Imperial City. Built by the first Emperor, Gia Long, in 1804 it is surrounded by a 10km wall and moat, fed from the river.
Inside this is the Citadel and the Forbidden City. Much of this was destroyed during successive wars but it is so extensive there is still plenty to see including gatehouses, pavilions and pleasure gardens. In the Forbidden City, only women and eunuchs were allowed. The second emperor, Minh Mang, is said to have had over 40 wives and 500 concubines living here. The busy man would sleep with 5 a night and had over 140 children.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Downstream from the Imperial City is the Thien Mu Pagoda, or Pagoda of the Celestial Lady. Whilst being impressive in its own right with a beautiful 7-tier tower at the front it became famous in 1963 the world over. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, was driven from here to Saigon where he sat down and set himself on fire in protest at the persecution of Buddhists. The car he was driven in can now be seen in the temple. The royal tombs were built outside the city but are fairly easy to visit.
There were 13 emperors although only 9 have tombs, and 3 of these share the same tomb. Some had very little time to build a tomb. From 1883-1889 there were 6 emperors. With more intrigue than a Game of Thrones episode, one lasted 3 days before being forced to abdicate, one was poisoned by his adoptive mother, one forced to commit suicide by his mandarins and another was handed over to the French.
Not all tombs are worth visiting but those for Emperors 2 & 12, Minh Mang and Khai Dinh are well worth a trip. They are huge examples of extravagance. Not only the tombs themselves, but the fact no-one could live within the field of view from the tomb. A tomb with a view. They are things of beauty, c
Hue was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war. Vong Canh Hill, or Bunker Hill, a few miles west of Hue has the remains of bunkers, hence the name, built by the French and possibly Americans to watch over the area. Ultimately fairly unsuccessfully it is fair to say. it is really worth a trip, not for the ruins but because it offers an amazing view over the Perfume River as it winds by below.
Quoc An Pagoda
If you want to try a special meal then try and find one of the monasteries or nunneries who offer food. I was lucky enough to go to the Quoc An Pagoda where the monks cooked up a fantastic, though wholly vegetarian, meal. Even the local cats ate well. I won’t say they are vegetarian as I’m sure they catch the odd mouse.
Dong Ba Market
If you have the time make sure you go to Market. This indoor/outdoor market is a heaving maze of narrow passages and stalls piled high with goods. The humidity inside can be intense and wherever you turn yo’ll bombarded by locals trying to sell you something. The most interesting part is outside where you’ll find the fruit, vegetables and meat sellers. The colours and the smells combine to leave a memorable impression.
Hai Van Pass
Heading south from it is roughly 95km from Hue to Da Nang through some beautiful, flat countryside until you reach the mountains.
From here you climb up and over the Hai Van or Ocean Cloud Pass. The pass is the highest in Vietnam at 500m above sea level. You could take a tunnel through the mountain but that would miss out on the outstanding views. The road twists and hairpins, rising from the coast, providing excellent views of the South China Sea, lush forests and sandy beaches. This range acts as a divide between sub-tropical north and tropical south but has also been an important military outpost. Frequented now by tourist buses there are the remains of French and American pillboxes and older ruins too.
Da Nang was famous during the Vietnam War for the US airbase here and the 20-mile sandy My Khe beach, nicknamed China Beach by US Marines. The beach is said to be the most picturesque in Vietnam and was once popular with backpackers. It is now a thriving holiday destination, popular with the Chinese, full of towering, modern resort hotels along its long, sandy beach.
For those old enough to remember Magnum P.I. he wore a Da Nang baseball cap back in the 1980s having served here in the war.
Nearby are the Marble Mountains. Five limestone and marble crags that rise up from the flat landscape. They are named after the five elements of the Taoist tradition. Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). Thuy is the mountain to climb.
If your legs won’t carry you up the steep steps there is a lift to the first level from where you can explore all the pagodas that have been built into the caves and grottos in the mountain. There are some impressive statues of Buddha to be seen and you may even see the resident bats.
The extensive caves were big enough for the Viet Cong to use as a hospital during the war. If you’re really adventurous you can climb up through a narrow passage to the top for the fabulous views. The views are so good in fact that the Viet Cong spied on the American airbase from here. My advice, Be Careful! Sensible footwear is essential as the rock has been worn statue smooth. When you get to the top you’ll discover you could actually have taken some steps up here.
The next part of the journey will take you from Hoi An to Nha Trang as the journey south continues. For more on this part of the journey click here.
If you want to know more about Hanoi and Ha Long Bay then click here.