Exploring the Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam

Thiên Mụ Pagoda viewed from a dragon boat

Like many countries in Asia, Vietnam used to be ruled by dynasties of families; by feudal lords and ladies; by emperors with harems and grand palaces.

Chances are you've heard of the Forbidden City in China — a city built just for the Emperor and his entourage. But did you know that Vietnam had a similar city?

Thai Hoa Palace inside the Imperial City

From 1802 to 1945, Vietnam was ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty, a powerful family who had its capital in the city of Hue (pronounced “Hwhey“) for more than 100 years. They would become the last ruling family of this sort in Vietnam, since the Emperor abdicated in 1945 in favor of the new communist government being set up in Hanoi under Ho Chi Minh.

But, since the Nguyen Dynasty was based here for so long, Hue is often still referred to as “Vietnam's Imperial City.”

And the things you can do here largely reflect this interesting history.

1. Visit the Imperial Citadel

This sprawling complex in Hue was where the Emperors of old would have lived and conducted all their business. There was even a part of the citadel known as “The Forbidden Purple City,” which, much like China's Forbidden City, was reserved for only the most important people in Vietnam.

Hien Nhon Gate on the left of the Imperial City

Unfortunately, the Imperial Citadel today is just a shadow of what it once was. The temples, pavilions, walls, and gates were damaged first during skirmishes with the French in 1947, and then most of what was left was destroyed by both sides' forces during the Tet Offensive (a major military campaign during the American-Vietnam War) in 1968.

The royal theater inside the Imperial City

It's still well worth a visit, though, even if the restoration process has been slow.

2. Go to some imperial tombs

Since Hue was an imperial capital for well over a century, many of the Emperors have elaborate tombs dedicated to them here. Most are located along the Perfume River south of Hue, and you can make a full day of it if tombs are your thing.

Entrance to Tu Duc Tomb

I visited to tomb complex of Tu Duc, which was actually built between 1864 and 1867 while the Emperor was still alive. It's a sprawling complex set around a lake that the Emperor basically treated like a summer home.

3. Visit Thien Mu Pagoda

Overlooking the Perfume River, the Thien Mu Pagoda is akin to the “symbol” of the city of Hue. It's striking to look at, and the grounds are lovely, as well. You're also sure to see young monks in training here going about their duties and studies.

Thien Mu Pagoda looking up from the Huong River

4. Go to a “Royal Banquet” dinner

If it's kitsch you're looking for (and especially if you're traveling in a larger group), book an evening at a royal banquet. You'll dress up like Vietnamese royalty, enjoy traditional music, and dine on traditional “royal” dishes that often come out with intricately-carved garnishes shaped like birds.

A typical royal dish served to tourists

This is not something I would usually be into, but since I was traveling with a really great group on my Intrepid Travel tour of Vietnam, it ended up being an incredibly fun evening.

Tourists in royal custumes pose for group photos

5. Take a bike ride through the countryside

Lastly, if you only do one thing in Hue beyond the citadel and tombs, go on a countryside cycling tour. I love bike tours a lot — they give you such a different perspective on a new place, and it was no different in Hue.

A market in the countryside of Hue

The tour I went on had us riding through rice paddies, visiting a countryside market, and having lunch at a local family's home. It was probably my favorite part of my time in Hue.

A tourist takes a bike ride in the country

This of course is not an exhaustive list. You can also take a dragon boat cruise down the Perfume River, or wade through the chaotic central market. You can even book day tours from here to the Demilitarized Zone not far from Hue that marks where the border between North and South Vietnam used to be.

Whatever you do though, don't skip Hue if you're traveling through Vietnam!


Getting there: You can fly to Hue from either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but I would suggest taking a train instead. You can catch a train from either Hanoi or HCMC – I took an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi, which I think is an essential Vietnam travel experience!

Where to stay: There are plenty of hotel options in Hue. Some worth checking out include the Jade Hotel (budget), the Orchid Hotel (mid-range), and the Saigon (higher end).

Compare Hue hotel prices here.

Tour to take: If you're interested in seeing some of Hue's highlights in one day with a local guide, check out Urban Adventures' Hue Discovery tour.

Travel insurance: And don't forget to pick up some travel insurance before you go – you never know when you might need it! My go-to is always Morin Hotel World Nomads for basic (and really affordable) travel insurance.


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