Where? Hue, Vietnam.
When? July 2014. Page last updated November 2014.
Why? We visited Hue as we wanted to see the UNESCO world heritage site royal palace; Jeff wanted to write on the walls of a blind man’s restaurant; and it was a good stopping off point between Hoi-An and Hanoi.
We went on a big adventure in summer 2014 to Australia, East Timor, Indonesia and Vietnam. In Vietnam, we visited Ho Chi Minh city, Hoi An, Hue, and then Hanoi and Ha Long Bay.
Geography: Hue is located in the middle of Vietnam. It’s about 700 miles north of Ho Chi Minh and 450 south of Hanoi, and a few miles from the coast.
Hue is on the Perfume River. Wonderful as that sounds, it’s not that romantic a river. I mean, it’s not a bad river, per-se, there’s just nothing particularly perfumey about it.
On the north-west side of the river is the citadel and the old city. On the south side is Vinh Ninh, the hotel/ restaurant/ shops area.
When Jeff and I were on our boat trip on Ha Long Bay, I overheard a conversation between some other travellers, about where they should go in Vietnam. The guy who was recommending places said not to bother with Hue as he said there was nothing there; but I though ‘Hue, that’s not right. There’s quite a few things to see and do in Hue, and if you have the time, it’s well worth stopping there for a night or two, on your way up or down the country’.
Hue is a small city located about half way up Vietnam. It’s about four hours north of Hoi An, and ten hours south of Hanoi. It’s a good stopping off point between these large destinations and it’s on the backpacker banh-mi trail.
Hue is important as it used to be the capital city of the Nguyen Dynasty. For 130 years (from 1820 to 1949), Hue was the national capital of Vietnam. Today, you can go to visit the walled citadel, with its impressive, imperial palace, and the royal tombs upriver.
Hue, being half way up the country, was also very close to the DMZ and the border between North and South Vietnam. It was a very significant, strategic location during the Vietnamese war.
It’s also just a lovely, Vietnamese city. Based upon the Perfume River, with pretty strolling parks, funny boats, neon-lit bridges, colonial houses, cool shopping and great bars and restaurants, Hue is just a good place to stop for a day or two, and is much cheaper and much less crazy than Hanoi.
Hue came up on my radar as the monuments of Hue are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, which is my go-to list for things to go and see.
For Jeff, Hue represents something more: for him, coming here was the culmination of a teenage dream. When Jeff was younger, he used to love to watch the Globe Trekker TV show, and he dreamed of visiting some of the destinations they visited. One of his favourite features, was a show about a visit to a restaurant in Hue run by a blind and deaf couple. In the TV show, the presenter came to the restaurant and was allowed to graffiti the walls. Fifteen year old Jeff vowed that one day he would come to Hue, would eat at Lac Thien, and would write on their walls – and so he did. So visiting here was a dream come true for my love.
So to the traveller saying there’s no reason to go to Hue, I’d like to prove you wrong and to stand up for this city, and show that it is worth stopping by for a day or so. Hue to go.
Getting there and getting around
We travelled from Hoi An to Da Nang and from there to Hue.
We caught local bus #1 from Hoi An to Da Nang. Da Nang is the nearest major city to Hoi An and the location of the nearest train station. We caught the bus at the bus station on the edge of Hoi An town (on Le Hong Phong Road). The bus cost us 30,000 dong (90p). They tried to charge us 40,000, but I managed to argue that we had only paid 30,000 dong on the way in and so they acquiesced.
The bus journey was strange. They had three staff working on the bus: the driver, a guy who dragged people onto the bus (literally) and the conductress who took the money. The conductress kept coming to sit by me, telling me how beautiful I was and touching my knee – which was strange.
The bus dropped us off in Danang on Le Duan Street, which is one street over from the train station. From the bus stop, carry on up the road to the cross roads, then turn right. The station will be in front of you.
A shuttle to the station from Hoi An costs about 75,000 dong (£2) per person; the taxis were charging 300,000 dong (£9).
The train to Hue (SE2) was in the station as we arrived, so we rushed to buy tickets. We had to be quite forceful to stop people pushing in in-front of us. The soft-seat, air-con ticket cost us 86,000 dong (£2.50).
The soft-seat carriage was very packed and not that comfy. To be honest, I really didn’t like the Vietnamese trains. In Vietnam, people pull up stools to sit in the aisles and throw their trash on the floor, so the carriage was very crowded and quite scruffy. To be fair, some of these people had been on this train for over 24 hours already, as this is the train from Ho Chi Minh, but it still could be better run and cleaner, like the trains in India.
However, this section of the reunification line between Da Nang and Hue was gorgeous. The line went along the coast and through the mountains, and it was very pretty.
The journey took us about three hours and we were able to get instant noodles and snax from the restaurant car at the very back of the train.
When we got to Hue, we had a bit of an adventure. I thought we were coming in towards Hue, as there were lots of shops that said Hue on their address – but then we stopped at a station, and it didn’t have Hue on the station name (it said Buu Dia Ga), and no one announced Hue. A few people got off, but not a huge amount – and they were fighting to get out the door as people were fighting to get on. We tried to find a guard to ask ‘is this Hue?’ – but they’d all disappeared. ‘Is this Hue?’, we tried to ask people, but no one seemed to be able to answer us. Anyway, someone got into the chair opposite us and we asked to see what their ticket said – it said this was Hue. So we were like, ‘oh no – we have to get off this train – as the next stop is two hours up the line’. So, we grabbed our backpacks and started trying to get past all the people sat on the floor and all the people trying to find their seats etc – and tried to get for the door. But the train had started to move. Next thing I know, I see Jeff has persuaded the guard to open the door. ‘Do not get me to jump off a moving train, Jeffrey Halpenny’, I said to him. He jumped. So I had a split-second to decide what to do. The train was speeding up, so it was now or never – so I threw my backpack out first (it was only full of soft, dirty clothes), and then I stepped down onto the step and then made an elegant jump off the side of a moving train.
My heart was racing afterwards and it took me a good half an hour to calm down.
So anyway, that was how we got to Hue.
For information on travelling by train in Vietnam, including train times and prices, visit the Man at Seat 61 Vietnam page.
Hue station (if you can find it) is pretty nice and colonial. From here we caught a Mai Linh taxi into town and this cost us 20,000 dong (about 70p).
We walked everywhere, though the journey from our hotel to the citadel did take us about an hour and we perhaps should have just jumped in a taxi. There were lots of taxis and rickshaws that we could have got a lift with. Hue had quite a lot of these guys touting for business, and some of the dudes did get a bit overly-persistent – especially around the citadel where they tried to persuade us to take a tour with them. If you do get a taxi, the nationally recommended taxi firms are Bluebird (which tend to be blue) and Mai Linh, which tend to be green and white.
You can take a boat trip on the river up to the royal tombs, or have a pleasure cruise and a meal.
What we did on our holiday
Wrote on the walls of a blind and mute couple’s restaurant
When Jeff was sixteen, he used to love watching the Globe Trekker TV show and dreamed of going to the places that they went to. On one of his favourite episodes, Megan, the presenter, went to a restaurant in Hue that was owned by a blind couple. Here she wrote on the walls: ‘Hue to go!’ Jeff has dreamed about going to this restaurant ever since; and so we did. I don’t think I have ever seen him so happy.
Lac Thien is a unique, special restaurant. From outside it looks pretty unassuming and just like all of the other restaurants, it’s only when you step inside that you see the walls are covered in messages from past guests.
We sat upstairs at Lac Thien, on the balcony. We ordered a simple lunch of spring rolls and salad, washed down with Hanoi beers, and whilst we were eating, the owner, Mr Lac, came to see us. I think he’s deaf. He’s very kind.
Mr Lac gave Jeff a bottle opener that he had made. It’s just a piece of wood with a screw sticking out of it – but he then signed it with the date. He showed us photos that people had sent to him from all over the world, of them with their bottle openers. When he left, he left his marker pens with us and so we took advantage of the opportunity to write on his walls.
The food was pretty so-so, but coming here was a unique experience that fulfilled a long-held dream for my love.
The restaurant is located by one of the gates to the citadel, on Dinh Hoang Road.
You can read about the restaurant on Trip Advisor.
I’ve tried to find a copy of the Globe Trekker show that Jeff so loved, and I think you can watch it on YouTube, but you have to pay.
Mighty walls and 10km of moat surround Hue citadel, which is located on the north-west side of the Perfume River.
Inside, there are lots of wide, tree-lined streets, the royal palace, colonial houses and some pretty parks. This is French style, imperial Vietnam.
Some of the gates have cannons and stuff on them and I think you can climb the walls – although we didn’t as it looked like it was going to rain.
There is a war museum in the citadel. We walked past it on the way to the royal palace and admired some guns, tanks and planes from the pavement – though we didn’t venture inside as looking at war stuff is not my cup-of-tea (and it looked like it was going to rain).
Hue was a very central destination in the Vietnam war, literally and metaphorically. The DMZ ran relatively close to the town and the town was attacked and damaged very badly, both in the Hue massacre and the Tet offensive.
Hid from a storm
We were only there for three days, two nights, so based on the evidence of thrice, I can’t say that this is a rule, but in Hue in July, it seems to rain mid-afternoon, every afternoon. Each afternoon we were there, there was a big explosive downpour at about three, and then it cleared up again afterwards.
On the day we were exploring the citadel, the rain hit whilst we were looking for the entrance to the royal palace. The guard wouldn’t let us hide under the exit gate (he probably knew that it was going to last a bit), and so we wandered over to a neighbouring park and sat under the pagoda.
And, it was lovely. It was so romantic to just sit together, nattering away, whilst the hot rain poured down around us. For most of the storm we had the pagode to ourself, but then after a while more and more people came to join us and it was quite nice, sitting with the locals, watching the rain.
The royal palace is in the heart of the citadel. It used to be death to trespassers into the royal palace, but today you just pay 105,000 dong and you can wander around at will.
The royal palace is surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls, and there are some beautiful gates at each entry to the palace complex. It is a huge place, and even though we spent two hours there, we missed many key areas.
We entered the palace through Ngo Mon gate – which is the huge, imposing entrance to the royal city that used to be reserved for the emperor. When we were there it was a huge, imposing mass of scaffolding as it was being fixed up. The Ngo Mon Gate is the main entrance for visiting the city (not the exit though – they wanted us to walk miles around to the proper exit, so we had to sneak out, past the guards when they were distracted).
We went into the palace through Ngo Mon courtyard, which is in front of the Thai Hoa Palace, the emperors coronation hall where he would sit in state. This is a very pretty area with ponds and stuff.
Behind the coronation hall there are a series of courtyards and the Forbidden Purple Palace, which is where the king used to live. It’s not purple though: it’s bright red!
Having been to many Korean palaces, we’d seen this style of palace building before: imperial throne room in a long, wooden building, then courtyard after courtyard with a long, wooden temple or a long imperial meeting room. There were more dragons here though.
It was all very pretty, but slightly scruffy and a bit run down. To be fair to the palace though, it was attacked by the French, the Viet Cong and the Americans – who bombed the palace in the Tet Offensive in 1968. They are starting to renovate the palace though, and the mended areas look lovely.
One of the meeting rooms contained an interesting exhibition about the royal family – which included a lot of photos of the family and their way of life. That was really interesting. There were also rooms where you could dress up as the king or queen and have your photo taken on a throne. I was so tempted as it was only 30,000 dong (about £1).
After this we weren’t quite sure where to go and a map would have been really useful at this point as we simply wandered the compound, finding fields of temple ruins, old gates, unidentified buildings and farmers fields. We did stumble across The Mieu Temple, which is one of the key ancestor temples on the complex, and which is very pretty. I liked the hidden, quiet temple garden which is behind The Mieu.
The main section that we did not see was Truong Sanh Residence, the Palace of Longevity, which is where the queen mum lived. Apparently, this is a really pretty area of the citadel.
They did have tours that you could take on small electric golf carts, but these seemed to be quite expensive and we were cheap backpackers. If you’ve got the money though – these would be a perfect way to visit this huge site.
105,000 dong (£3.10).
Walked along the river
After going to Les Jardins de la Carambole (see the where we ate section), we walked back to our hotel via les jardins by the river. When we walked past this area earlier in the day, there had been lots of interesting, flea-market stalls selling war remnants and antiques and flowers and stuff. Later on, as the sun set, we had a pretty walk along the river and it was very quiet and romantic. There are two bridges across the river, and they light up at night, which is pretty. We walked over one of these and that was romantic too.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
Hue has a lovely rural location. Many people make the Top Gear motorbike trip between Hoi An and Hue, over the Hai Van pass, through the Marble Mountains. This is a very lush, pretty area of Vietnam. If you’d like to travel this route by bike, then lots of companies run tours and you can book the trips through the backpacker hostels. I did meet a guy though who told me that this is a tough trip: he said the constant vibration of the bike hurt his wrists and his hands froze to the handle bars in the high mountains. He said pretty as it was, by half way through they just couldn’t wait to get to Hue as they were wet and cold and because it was a tough road. If you’re a biker at home, you’ll probably love this. If not, then you may find it tough.
The DMZ (de militarised zone) was supposed to be a buffer zone between north and south Vietnam, but actually saw some of the most heavy fighting. You can take a day trip to see the DMZ, and many places will sell these trips. They often also stop off at the Vinh Moc tunnels, where a few hundred people lived for two years.
You can take a boat trip along the Perfume River – and if you walk along the river bank you’ll soon attract a crowd of nice, old-lady touts trying to get you onto the boats. The boat trips tend to go to the royal tombs. There’s twenty royal tombs and they date from the 19th and 20th century.
You can also visit the seven story Thien Mo Pagoda. This 21 meter tower is very pretty and you can go see it. It is the tallest religious building in Vietnam.
If you’re in Hue for longer than a few days, you may wish to venture to Thuan An and Lang Co Beach, which are a few miles out of town. We saw flyers for beach parties at these beaches, which sounds fun – and I have heard they are pretty good beaches.
Finally, there are Hot Springs at My An (7km from Hue) and Thanh Tan (30km from Hue). There is a spa, a zip wire and a high-wire adventure at the Thanh Tan resort. I can’t find a website for the Alba Thanh Tan Hot Springs Resort, but it does appear on lots of the hotel booking websites.
Where we ate and drank
We popped into Hot Tuna on our first night, as we liked the colonial look of the restaurant, their set-menu offers and their name. The food was okay (I think I had the chicken and mash, rather than the hot tuna), but the service was terrible. The poor things couldn’t cope, even with just a few tables, and I ended up wandering into the restaurant to talk to them directly to pay the bill – as we’d already waited half an hour and asked twice.
See the what we did section for info on La Tien.
Les Jardins de la Carambole
A New Zealand couple we met in Hoi An recommended this beautiful restaurant to us, and now I’m recommending it to you.
Les Jardins de la Carambole is locate down a side street, close to the palace. It is set in an old colonial house, with a beautiful terrace and gardens. We went there for an early dinner and sat outside on the terrace, and it was lovely.
I kind of wish we’d been able to head back to the hotel to change out of our sight-seeing clothes, as the Les Jardins de la Carambole is a destination restaurant: it’s special and feels special and needs to be experienced properly. This is a restaurant to luxuriate in.
The food is sublime. It’s a mixture of French and Vietnamese specialities. I had the beef with roast potatoes and onions and it was a work of art.
It wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it.
Quite a lively backpacker bar, connected to the hostel. Good, basic food and great drink offers: two mojitos for 50,000 dong .
Much of a muchness bar, except that in happy hour every drink is $1.
Having lived in South Korea, whenever I hear DMZ, I automatically think that it refers to the line between North and South Korea. I forget that there was also a DMZ (demilitarized zone) in Vietnam, and it was close to Hue.
To commemorate the DMZ, someone has opened a bar called DMZ bar, which is a pretty prominent and popular bar in Hue. It’s quite a funky place, located on the main road, with a tumble of chairs and tables outside.
Inside, they have a tactical map of the DMZ, including glowing-tactical lines and toy tanks – on the ceiling (see below).
Drinks and food wise, they’re no better or worse than anywhere else; same for the music. They opened pretty late though, which was cool.
We popped into Geckos on the Saturday night, as it had nice music and seemed like a cool chill out place. They had big comfy sofas and an eclectic, extensive menu. It was good.
Next day, whilst waiting for our night bus, we parked ourselves in Geckos for a good five hours – just because it was such a chilled out place to hang out, in the centre of the city. There were magazines, and TV screens, board games, pizzas, big coffees, fresh juices, cheap beers and relaxing music.
They handed out discount flyers the night before, so we got quite a discount on our bill too. Thanks Geckos.
Finally, we didn’t drink at Oasis Bar, as when we went there it was closed, but I have to mention it as it’s really cool. Oasis Bar has a fake beach outside, with hammocks, and a book shop. Sounds like heaven to me. They also have cocktails, DJs and board games and serve good food. Oasis bar is down an alley off Le Loi street (the main road in Hue).
Where we stayed
Holiday Diamond Hotel
It’s very rare that we can afford to stay at the number one hotel on tripadvisor. Usually the number one hotel is the supreme five star that costs a million pounds per night. The number one hotel in Hue is the Holiday Diamond Hotel, and at £13/night /room, it was very affordable.
The Holiday Diamond is not a huge hotel, and it is located up a quiet alley at the far end of town. Our room though overlooked the Perfume River and the sunset, and the room was amazing. We had a really comfy bed, great bathroom facilities, a safe, wide screen TV, free wifi, drinks and coffees, a fruit plate – and best of all, a laptop to use in the room. When you’re backpacking these days, you often find wifi to use on your smart phones and gadgets etc, but it’s very rare that you can use a proper computer for an extended period of time, to be able to back up photos, book onward travel etc. – so for us, this was great.
The staff were lovely and friendly and very kind. I was a little rude to them as they wanted to do a welcome meeting with us, and they were a little pushy with tour and travel bookings. I had to be a little insistent that we just wanted to check in – but we had just jumped off a train, so I wasn’t myself.
We liked the hotel so much that we booked their sister hotel in Hanoi – but that wasn’t nearly as good.
Please note, some of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.