11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Hue
The ancient city of Hue was the country's capital during the mid 1700s and then again for over a century starting in the early 1800s. The bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War was fought in Hue, and the city's ancient monuments suffered greatly as a result—the 19th-century Imperial City complex, Hue's most important UNESCO World Heritage Site, was severely damaged during the bombings.
Hue sits on the banks of the Perfume River, so-called because during spring, the local orchards shed their flowers into the river, causing the water to smell like perfume. The river is an essential part of the history and heritage of Hue, but it's also a vital part of modern Hue.
The Trang Tien Bridge is a popular background for nighttime photos when it's completely illuminated, and the waterfront offers plenty of things to do in the form of cafés and restaurants for those out on an afternoon stroll. Most of Hue's main attractions are set against or within minutes of the river.
Hue is home to many sites worth visiting, including emperors' tombs; a number of pagodas, including the famous Thien Mu Pagoda; and French-colonial buildings set along the river. For more ideas on what you can't miss when visiting the ancient capital, take a look at our list of top attractions in Hue.
1. Imperial City Hue
A walled area inside the historical citadel of Hue, the Imperial City was once the capital of Vietnam. In 1804, Emperor Gia Long consulted geomancers to decide on the most auspicious location for the 10-kilometer-long walled citadel, which was eventually placed southeast to face the Perfume River.
The grounds of the imperial city are surrounded by towering walls and a moat and include temples, gardens, palaces, and residences. However, of the original 160 large buildings that dotted the grounds of the city, only 10 survived Vietnam War bombings.
Many of the buildings that still stand are now empty and can be explored freely by visitors, but some have been restored (or are under restoration), including halls, city gates, and shrines. A UNESCO World Heritage site of bright reds and yellows, the Imperial City is Hue's most important attraction and the first stop in your discovery of the city.
2. Thai Hoa Palace
Perhaps the most important construction of the Nguyen dynasty—the last dynasty in Vietnam—the design of this palace is meant to represent a deep yin/yang balance, where both the physical and the spiritual are in perfect harmony. Although the palace survived the Vietnam War bombings, extensive repairs had to be done to the inside to restore the damage caused during the battle of Hue.
The Thai Hoa Palace sits at the heart of the Hue Citadel, right after crossing the Ngo Mon Gate. A lotus lake and a long courtyard walkway provide an impressive welcome to the palace.
The main room of the palace is a large hall with a timber roof and 80 timber columns. Originally meant for royal ceremonies and events, it was also the crowning place for Emperor Gia Long and the area where he received visitors—both during official business meetings and when the doors were, in rare occasions, open to the public. A covered golden throne sits in the center of the hall.
3. Thien Mu Pagoda
Also known as the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, this seven-story pagoda is one of the most recognizable symbols of the city of Hue. It was built in 1601 by Lord Nguyen Hoàng, who was told about a local legend. According to the legend, an old lady dressed in blues, greens, and reds foretold a pagoda would be built in that place and people would come to it to pray for Vietnam's prosperity.
Over the next two centuries, the temple was expanded, and special details and buildings were added, including a massive bell that can be heard 10 kilometers away and a number of additional praying halls, towers for storing sacred texts, and meditation halls.
Beautiful gardens, including a bonsai garden, are set around the buildings—many of them hidden from view at first until you take this path or that path towards another area of the pagoda grounds.
Parked under an open space, you'll also find a car used during the Diem Regime protests. In a fight for religious freedom, Quang Duc, a monk from Hue, drove to Saigon, parked this car and then set himself on fire. The story of his life and self-immolation are told through words and pictures posted on this temple.
4. Royal Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh
Located just outside Hue, on the steep Chau Chu mountain, the tomb was built for the twelfth Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, who died in 1925.
Emperor Khai Dinh was actually highly disliked by his people, since he sympathized with French colonizers and ordered many nationalist leaders to be arrested. He's also responsible for forcing a change to a Romanized Vietnamese alphabet in 1918, which resulted in people abandoning the original local language (a mix of Chinese and Sino-Vietnamese); there are almost no people left alive who can read the original old Vietnamese language.
Emperor Khai Dinh's tomb is one of the most imposing ever designed in Vietnam, perhaps because he oversaw the construction himself with funds raised by increasing taxes by 30 percent. The result is an imposing and elaborate construction that mixes Eastern and Western details.
The tomb is flanked by two giant dragon sculptures and features an imperial audience court, 12 statues that serve as bodyguards, a palace room richly decorated with porcelain and glass, and a small temple with an altar where the actual grave is located.
5. Dieu De Pagoda
Named after the "Four Noble Truths" of Buddhism, this small golden pagoda in the center of Hue has been the site of activism, protests, and some political violence during the 1960s—the best-known case being in 1963, when civilian Buddhists confronted Diem's army trying to protect the pagoda from being raided. Thirty people died and 200 were wounded in one night.
Today, the pagoda has become a symbol for freedom, and it's visited not only by Buddhists but also activists from all around the world. Sitting right on the Dong Ba canal and surrounded by lush vegetation, the pagoda provides a peaceful escape from the heat and the tourist crowds.
Four towers surround the temple and provide a home for bells, while the main hall houses a Gautama Buddha statue.
6. Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts
Housed inside the former Long An Palace, this museum offers a fascinating look into the culture and history of the city. The massive collection of over 10,000 objects includes everything from ceramics and silver objects to personal belongings and royal clothing of former Vietnam Emperors, furniture, Phap Lam enameled metal art, and lots of paintings and detailed murals.
All exhibits are labeled in English, and many include background details to help visitors better understand the history behind it and who used it.
While photography inside the museum is not allowed, this one-story wooden palace and the beautiful gardens around it provide plenty of picture-worthy corners waiting to be discovered.
7. Hope Center
The Hope Center was created to help disabled and disadvantaged people, as well as ethnic minorities in Hue, by offering them a chance to learn to sew. The center produces uniforms for schools and hospitals, as well as a number of handicrafts, including basket making, textile weaving, and handmade jewelry and bowls. Most textile items are produced using A Luoii fabric, dyed and produced by the Ta Oi ethnic group.
Visitors can see weaving and work being done on-site and buy items to take with them. It's also possible to practice shaping and firing your own pottery or making handmade, recycled products you can then take home.
All classes, tours, and events here are organized and guided by the people who work at the center, so you'll get a chance to interact with them and learn how the place is changing their life.
Official site: http://hopecenterhue.com.vn/index.php
8. The To Mieu Shrine
Modeled after the Imperial Ancestral Temple in China's Forbidden City, the To Mieu temple was built to allow ancestor worship of past emperors. Although no actual remains of the emperors themselves are buried here, there are nine urns to represent nine Nguyen emperors. Each emperor also has his own altar, with photos of himself and the empress (or empresses for those with more than one wife), small offerings, and incense.
A massive stone gate, sweeping grounds, and lots of solitude make this temple a favorite destination of those exploring Hue. Only a quarter of the original structures survived the Vietnam War, and very little work has been done to restore the ruins, so the place is a quiet reminder of difficult times while allowing you a chance to admire the grandeur of the temple still there.
9. Thanh Toan Bridge
This wooden, 18th-century, tile-roofed footbridge is located around seven kilometers outside Hue. The Japanese-style bridge was built over a small river, allowing locals to cross over from one side to the other without a boat, but also providing an escape from the heat for rural workers who would otherwise spend all day in the sun. Inside the bridge, a small altar is dedicated to the memory of Tran Thi Dao, the rich widow who originally paid for the construction of the bridge.
Although the bridge itself is interesting, the trip to the sleepy village of Thuy Thanh village, where the bridge is located, is just as special. The ride to the village takes visitors through rice paddies, temples, and lots of examples of what local life is like here.
Once at the village, you can stop by to see the beautiful columns of the city gate or hop on a boat to ride under the bridge and experience the river a different way. The local Farming Museum, where you can see ancient farming tools used to cultivate rice and how they impacted local life, is another great stop before heading back to Hue.
10. Dong Ba Market
Outdoor markets are a staple of Vietnamese culture, and the Dong Ba market in Hue is no exception. The oldest and largest market in the city, Dong Ba covers 16,000 square meters of chaotic space, where stalls selling fresh vegetables sit next to handicrafts or souvenirs. The market opens in the very early hours of the morning (3am) to cater to locals shopping for fresh seafood and other foods, but you can arrive during the day or afternoon to pick up mementos to take home.
If you're after clothes or wearable souvenirs, the market does have an entire second floor dedicated to this, where you can find all types of textiles plus many examples of non la bai tho (the typical conical leaf hat worn in Vietnam).
Other great Vietnamese souvenirs you can find here include lacquerware items; bamboo products; and guoc moc, a type of simple clogs made of bamboo or wood.
11. An Hien Garden House
Garden houses are a very unique architectural feature found in Hue. They usually consist of small wooden houses, sometimes on stilts, surrounded by ponds and lush gardens. These houses are particularly common on the banks of the Perfume River, where they get both fresh air and quiet surroundings.
An Hien (House of Peace) is Hue's most famous garden house—over the decades, it has been both a private home and the official residence of the governor of Ha Tinh province. The entire design of the building is based on yin/yang principles: the screen on the main door drives away evil energy, while the water in the pool ensures harmony.
The house can only be reached after crossing a stone gate and walking down a 34-meter-long road surrounded by trees. Inside the 19th-century home, much of the original furniture, timber columns, and ancestor altars remain as they were over 100 years ago.