Wondering what the best things to do in Hue on your first visit are? Here’s all I got up to on my long awaited trip!
Back during my two and a half weeks in Vietnam in 2016, I remember being in Hội An and scanning a list of tours at our hotel and wondering where and what Huế was. At 3 hours away, it wasn’t exactly a good day tour option, but I was intrigued by this historical city and knew I’d want to visit someday even though I didn’t even know if I’d be back to Vietnam!
I finally managed to make my way to Huế over Christmas, first spending two days with friends at the end of their central Vietnam trip and then spending two more days as I worked with Azerai La Residence Huế at their stunning Art Deco property.
Here’s all I got up to and a few things I didn’t manage but want to on a future trip.
A Brief History of Hue
Huế actually reminds me a lot of Jeonju in Korea with all its more recent history. While Jeonju is a good representative of the Joseon dynasty, which is what has shaped much of Korea’s cultural traditions, Huế is a good representative of the Nguyễn dynasty, which is what has shaped much of Vietnam’s cultural traditions! Much of what you’ll want to visit in Huế relates to the Nguyễn emperors and their very, very tumultuous rule over the country.
But I’m getting a little ahead. To really get a full idea of Huế’s history, we have to go back to a time long before the Nguyễns had control.
The area that Huế is part of first came into Vietnamese hands via the marriage between Chế Mân, part of the Cham people, with Vietnamese princess, Huyền Trân. In order to marry her, he offered her father the Cham areas called O and Lý, which he renamed to Thuan and Hóa.
Almost 300 years later, there was a series of wars and rebellions before the Nguyễns took full control. Basically, the Mạc dynasty fled Cao Bằng in NE Vietnam after the Lê emperors came into power under Nguyễn Kim. Because Nguyễn Kim was then poisoned by the Mạc dynasty, his son-in-low, Trịnh Kiểm, became the leader, assassinating Nguyễn Kim’s eldest son to ensure his legitimacy.
One of Nguyễn Kim’s other sons, Nguyễn Hoàng, pretended to be crazy and got his sister, Trịnh Kiểm’s wife, to convince him to allow Hoàng to go south to Thuan-Hóa to govern and try to pacify the Mạc loyalists.
Trịnh Kiểm allowed him to go, and he went to work making the region loyal to the Nguyễn family before rising up against Trịnh. Soon it became the Nguyễn lords vs the Trịnh lords with the Trịnh lords taking northern Vietnam and the Nguyễn lords taking southern Vietnam. This was all under the Later Lê dynasty.
Anyway, it was during this period, in 1687 specifically, that the Nguyễn lords began to construct the Citadel in what is now known as Huế, beginning to establish the city’s role in their later dynasty.
The Nguyen Dynasty
In the latter part of the 1700s, the Tây Sơn rebellions rocked central Vietnam so that Huế fell under different rules pretty rapidly before Gia Long (then Nguyễn Ánh), considered the successor of the Nguyễn lords, took back control and reunited the country.
The Nguyễns would go onto rule over Vietnam from 1802 – 1945 when the last emperor, Bảo Đại abdicated to Hồ Chí Minh. If you know anything about the 1800s and 1900s anywhere in the world, you know this was kind of a crazy time in Vietnam was well. Colonialism was alive and well, and Vietnam eventually fell under French control, becoming a part of their French Indochina.
The Nguyễn emperors varied between being completely against the French and basically puppets of their regime, but through it all they used Huế as their capital until Bảo Đại declared Saigon his capital in 1949.
Huế would go on to see some of the worst of Vietnam’s fight for independence in the latter half of the 1900s. Since it’s so central, it’s incredibly close to what was then the DMZ of Vietnam, and the Battle of Huế is considered one of the worst of the Vietnam War (or the American War, if you’re in the country).
For a while, much of the Nguyễn landmarks in Huế fell to neglect as they represented the type of regime the now communist Vietnam had just fought against. Luckily, they did not go the way of China’s cultural revolution and instead decided to restore these stunning buildings so visitors can peak into Vietnamese history.
Map of Hue
To help you visualize where everything I talk about below is, here’s a little Google map to guide you:
Sightseeing Things to Do in Hue
And now for the fun stuff — what exactly to do in Huế!
1. Go out to the Royal Tomb of Minh Mang first
- Vietnamese Name: Lăng mộ Hoàng đế Minh Mạng
- Address: QL49, Hương Thọ, Hương Trà, Thừa Thiên Huế
One of the big things you must do is visit at least one of the many royal tombs sprinkled around Huế. We planned ours so we would visit three in the morning, starting with the Royal Tomb of Minh Mạng.
He was the second Nguyễn emperor (reign: 1820 – 1841), and it’s under him that the Champa kingdom came to its final end and a number of foreign missionaries were executed. His tomb is the farthest from the city of Huế at about 10km away. It’s a very symmetrical area, where you pretty much go straight back to see everything. You also won’t see his actual resting place as it’s behind a huge stone fortress that’s only open once a year on his death anniversary.
2. Visit the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh next
- Vietnamese Name: Ứng Lăng Khải Định
- Address: Khải Định, Thủy Bằng, Hương Thủy, Thừa Thiên Huế
After Minh Mạng, head to the much different-looking Royal Tomb of Khải Định. Khải Định was the twelfth Nguyễn emperor (reign: 1916 – 1925) and wildly unpopular for how close he was with French colonists. Under him, the Vietnamese writing system changed from Chinese symbols to its current Romanized form.
His tomb actually took longer to build than he was alive, and if you notice it looks very unique for Vietnam. This is because Khải Định wanted it to look like a medieval European castle. Kind of? It’s much smaller than the other two tombs we visited, but it does feel very Western and it’s on a steep incline of 127 steps, so prepare to climb!
3. End with the Royal Tomb of Tu Duc
- Vietnamese Name: Lăng mộ Hoàng đế Tự Đức
- Address: Thôn Thượng Ba, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế
Our last royal tomb was that of Tự Đức, who was the fourth Nguyễn emperor (reign: 1847 – 1883). At 36 years, he had the longest reign, and his is seen as a turning point in Vietnamese history. No longer was being anti- French and anti-West seen as characteristics of a strong leader, and his suppression of missionaries would lead to war with both the French and the US. Under him, the Treaty of Saigon (1862) was signed, creating Cochinchina and beginning French colonial rule of Vietnam.
His tomb is pretty sprawling, you’ll definitely want to allot more time here than the other two. It was initially used as an out-of-the-way palace, built while he was still alive, and then used as his tomb after the fact. Kiến Phúc, who was the seventh emperor but died young, is also buried here.
4. While near Tu Duc, check out the Incense Village
On your way back from Tự Đức, stop in the little incense village! It’s probably much more hoppin’ closer to Tết, but there are still quite a few places you can visit. Many of them know tourists like to come and see all the colorful incense sticks, so they encourage photo taking and will even show you how the sticks are made. If you don’t buy anything, I do recommend giving them a small tip to say thanks!
I wound up buying some of the yellow incense sticks because they smell like lemongrass. We stopped at a shop called Be Ti — the owner and her mom were super cute and friendly! This is their specific address.
5. Spend the morning wandering the Citadel
- Vietnamese Name: Kinh thành Huế
- Address: Phú Hậu, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế
I mean if you just look at the map, the Huế Citadel is massive. Some posts on things to do in Huế will break up parts of the citadel into each bullet point, but it’s all one in the same and within the citadel walls, and I truly couldn’t tell you where exactly the Purple Forbidden City (Tử cấm thành) starts within the Imperial City (Hoàng thành). If I ever feel like digging my heels in and re-tracing my steps to tell you every single building, temple, and landmark we walked by, I’ll make a whole separate post :p.
But anyway, just walk around the Citadel and allot yourself a whole morning and then some if you want to try to see everything there is. One important note is that you do not exit the same way you enter, which is extremely annoying if you only discover this after walking around for 3 hours and just want to find a taxi to get lunch.
To enter, you’ll go through Ngọ Môn gate. I recommend turning right and seeing the right side, the center, and then the left side. The exit is on the left side through Cửa Hiển Nhơn gate. It’s nowhere near Ngọ Môn gate, so if you make our mistake, you’ll have quite a walk just to leave!
6. Visit the Royal Antiquities Museum
- Vietnamese Name: Bảo tàng Cổ vật Cung đình
- Address: 03 Lê Trực, Phú Hậu, Thành phố Huế, Thừa Thiên Huế
If you want some more history on Huế, I would pop over to the Royal Antiquities Museum. You could do this right after walking around the Citadel as it’s right outside the exit. The main building is all about the Nguyễns while there’s a side exhibit about the Champa Kingdom history.
7. Walk along the Perfume River
- Vietnamese Names: Sông Hương, Hương Giang
Since I visited the museum a different morning than the Citadel, I actually decided to walk back along the Perfume River and towards Azerai La Residence after eating lunch. It’s such a nice river to walk along and on the way you’ll see some different monuments or interesting buildings. It might be too hot for this in the summer, but in December it was the perfect temperature.
Side note: apparently the Perfume River is so named because in the autumn, flowers will fall into the water and create a floral scent. Given how bad air pollution is in Vietnam, nooooot sure that still holds true today, but if anyone who’s been during this season can attest, let me know!
8. Spot the French architecture in Hue
There are a number of French-designed buildings sprinkled through Huế, Azerai being one of the Art Deco styles. I also walked by the UBND tỉnh Thừa Thiên Huế. This blog post has some more spots to check out. I kind of want to get the train to Huế just to visit the pinkish railway station?
Foodie Things to Do in Hue
I don’t know why I didn’t think much on it, but Huế is actually an amazing city to visit for foodies! I ate very well, and I probably didn’t even get to most of the different dishes and cuisines you can find all over.
We did a food tour one afternoon that we booked through Pilgrimage Village, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it as it was pretty expensive and the communication wasn’t great. Instead check some of these out:
- Huế Street Food Tour
- Flavors of Huế Motorbike Tour
- Huế Food Walking Tour
- Evening Cycle Food Tour
- Vegetarian Food and Night Tour by Motorbike
Or map out these foodie things to do below and DIY it!
9. Have a cup of salt coffee
If Hanoi has egg coffee, Huế has salt coffee or cà phê muối! I became quite a fan of salt coffee by the time I left getting, stopping by Le Gare Coffee and asking for it for my last breakfast. It’s pretty much exactly as it sounds — strong Vietnamese coffee, condensed milk, and a heavy dose of salt for a unique taste.
The coffee is a newer invention but has quickly become as synonymous with Huế coffee as egg coffee has with Hanoi. You can get it pretty much anywhere, but the original cafe that invented it is apparently this cafe, aptly called Cà Phê Muối.
10. Try bun bo where it came from
I meannnnn — how can you go to Huế and not try bún bò Huế? I’ve eaten this dish quite a few times in Saigon, so naturally I had to try it in its namesake city. If you translate it, bún bò Huế is literally “Huế beef noodles.” Its made by simmering the broth with beef bones and lemongrass and then mixed with fermented shrimp sauce, sugar, and spicy chili oil. Like the name suggests, it comes with beef and noodles (sometimes also including congealed pig blood, which is better than it sounds).
Funny story about our picture above (and a smaller example of why our food tour guide…wasn’t my favorite). Bún bò is a fairly spicy dish, and we were warned Huế cuisine as a whole is spicier than other regions. So we asked that our bowl not be too spicy and… somehow in the translation our lady took out all the spice. Like your bún bò broth should not look like this! It should be much darker.
There are honestly a million bún bò spots all around Huế, so just walk out of your hotel and you’re sure to find one with in 5 minutes. If not, ask your hotel for local spots — someone there definitely knows and has a favorite.
11. Fall in love with banh khoai
Banh khaoi, banh khaoi, you are the apple of my eye
Kidding (a little)! In Saigon, bánh khoái is better known as bánh xeo, though I do thing the two are a bit different beyond just their names. I had bánh khoái twice in Huế and it’s a lot crispier than the bánh xeo I’ve had in the south. Either way, I’m a bit addicted to both and have gotten bánh xeo too many times to count since getting back.
Basically, it’s a sort of rice flour – water- turmeric powder base filled with different veggies or meat. You break it apart and eat it with leafs and some sauce and yum.
12. Look a bit silly slurping down banh beo
You ever try eating oysters for the first time? Like you kinda feel a bit silly trying to eat them! For me that’s how bánh bèo is, though, again, it didn’t stop me getting them like three different times — at Pilgrimage Village, Quán Bánh Khoái Hạnh, and Bánh Khoái Thượng Tứ.
Bánh bèo also originates from Huế and is made by combining rice and tapioca flour with some salt. You then make a well in the middle and fill with warm water before kneading the dough and adding more water until it’s a thin batter. Then you put them in their little steam it to make the base before adding on the rest of the ingredients like dried shrimp and crispy pork skin.
When you eat it, you kind of loosen it from the little bowls it comes in with your spoon, pour a little bit of nước mắm sauce and sort of slurp it down! Definitely not a first date kinda dish (or maybe if that’s what you’re into), but something not to be missed in Vietnam.
13. Dig into banh canh ca loc
On my last night, walking back from Le Gare Coffee, I decided I wanted to eat some proper street food for dinner — outside on plastic stools and all. I saw a sign for bánh canh cá lóc and decided to stop in! Where I ate is literally in an alleyway. I marked it on the map above, but don’t get it confused with the actual restaurant listed (though I’m sure that spot is also delicious).
When you order your dish, you’ll literally watch the owner make the noodles from scratch, rolling out the dough, which is made from tapioca or rice and tapioca flour. This is the “bánh canh” part of the dish. The “cá lóc” is snakehead fish. Once the noodles have been cooked, she’ll start putting the soup together with a delicious broth, the fish, veg, and, of course, the freshly made noodles.
14. Try nem lui Hue
At Quán Bánh Khoái Hạnh, I also had a chance to sample the unique nem lụi Huế. These are basically grilled pork skewers but instead of a stick, they’re packed around lemongrass stalks. You’ll dip it in a sauce before wrapping it in a leaf with some veggies and eating. You can eat the lemongrass or take it out!
15. Try the vegetarian options in Hue
There are actually quite a few vegetarian options in Huế. We stopped at Lien Hoa which is attached to a Buddhist temple. We got the above dishes, but a lot of people were having hot pot around us. Hue Grit also has a good list of vegetarian spots that look mouthwatering!
Things to do in Hue that I Didn’t Do
16. Cruise along the Perfume River
While I did walk along the Perfume River, I did not actually cruise it! Something to do on another trip. Better yet, I’d probably try to plan a sunset cruise with dinner and/or drinks! I know Azerai has a gourmet dining experience and a cocktail cruise experience that you can book with them, but if they’re full, you could also try this dinner cruise option.
17. Visit other museums in Hue
There are a few other museums in Huế I would’ve liked to visit but didn’t make it to. I thought the XQ Hand Embroidery Art Museum looked really interesting as you can learn more about embroidery in Vietnam and even watch some women at work. On that same street, is the Diem Phung Thi Art Museum, all about Dieng Phu Thi who was a huge sculpture artist during wartime.
Near the Royal Antiquities Museum is the General Museum Complex, which is what I think I tried to visit but was definitely under construction. Next to Azerai is the Hồ Chí Minh Museum, which is about Uncle Ho, though I’m not sure how it differs from the Hồ Chí Minh museums in Hanoi and Saigon.
18. See a show at the royal theater
In the Imperial City is the Duyệt Thị Đường Royal Theater (Nhà hát Duyệt Thị Đường) and you actually can go watch a show! They have the times listed outside, and I remember one being more in mid-afternoon. Otherwise you can pop in and see some of the exhibits which give a bit of history to the theater itself and the shows that have gone on here.
19. Visit An Dinh Palace
An Định Palace (Cung An Định) was once the home of Khải Định and later Bảo Đại. This is where he lived after abdicating in 1945. Given that it was renovated under Khải Định, it’s no wonder it looks so European! Definitely somewhere to visit on a return trip or if you’re going, maybe combine with the royal tombs since it’s out that way!
20. Check out the many temples around Hue
One of the first photos I saw of Huế was actually of a huge pagoda at Thien Mu Pagoda. There are quite a few temples that seemed worth visiting — Bao Quoc, and Tu Dam are some I had starred.
21. Specifically visit the temple of Princess Huyen Tran
- Vietnamese Name: Trung Tâm Văn Hóa Huyền Trân
- Address: 151 Thiên Thai, An Tây, Thành phố Huế
Okay, I went on quite the journey looking up Princess Huyền Trân, whose marriage to Champa king, Chế Mân, gave the Vietnamese the areas that hold Huế long before the Nguyễns were in power. I smell an interesting love story depending on who you believe!
Anyway, while in Huế, you can visit her temple (or cultural center?). Even without knowing who she is or her story, it’s a gorgeous area, not quite as far out as the tomb of Minh Mạng.
22. Visit more of the royal tombs
There are so many more tombs you can visit! I mean the Nguyen dynasty had thirteen emperors, and only two (Bảo Đại and Ham Nghi) were initially buried abroad. This means you can also see the tombs of Gia Long, Thieu Tri, Duc Duc (which is shared with Thanh Thai and Duy Tan), and Hiep Hoa (can’t seem to pinpoint it on a map).
23. Enjoy Nam Giao Esplanade
The Nam Giao Esplanade looks like a very cool area, especially from aerial photos. It was built under Gia Long and was meant to be a place for the emperors to present offerings (including animal sacrifices) to Thuong De. Ceremonies lasted up until Bảo Đại’s abdication in 1945. If you go during the Festival of Huế, you can see a re-enactment of the ceremony.
24. Check out the abandoned waterpark
Absolutely kicking myself that I forgot all about the famous abandoned waterpark until well after my trip! I distinctly remember multiple friends visiting and even saving their photos and somehow I still just totally forgot. Somewhere to definitely visit next time!
Hue Travel Tips
Where to Stay in Hue
When figuring out where to stay in Huế, I’d take a look mainly at areas around the Citadel if you want to be able to walk more. If you want something quieter, there are few places further out, though they do basically require you to motorbike or get a taxi anytime you leave.
Azerai La Residence Hue
I wrote a whole review of Azerai La Residence Huế if you want to dive into more of why I enjoyed my stay and all the cool aspects of its history. If you enjoy luxury hotels, you 100% do not want to miss staying here, especially right now with all their offers. The staff is lovely and you really cannot beat its location on the Perfume River. Opt for one of the river view rooms and at the very least do not skip afternoon tea. If you really want to splash out, check out their gourmet dinner and sunset cruise!
Pilgrimage Village Hue
A lovely option if you want to stay further away from town is Pilgrimage Village. We stayed here over Christmas before I went to Azerai, and had such a lovely time! Just a shame it wasn’t quite warm enough to totally enjoy the pools (though that didn’t stop us from getting in the warm pool twice). The staff here is absolutely wonderful as well and they even fetched my camera cap for me as I was checking out even though it was at pretty much the opposite end of the resort!
Other Places to Stay in Hue
Another place I heard about but didn’t stay is Alba Wellness Resort! It’s pretty far out of Huế and not necessarily a good base if you plan on packing your days with sightseeing. However, they have hot springs so it could be a nice way to finish your trip, especially if do some sort of Central Vietnam route from Hội An – Đà Nẵng – Huế.
For more midrange and budget options, check out Huế River Side Villas, Tùng Homestay, AnAn Homestay, and Tâm Homestay. If you’re looking into being in Huế longer term (which, tbh I’m considering so I can eat everything), there are some really cute Airbnbs like this roof terrace apartment, this botanic homestay, and this downtown studio!
Tours in Hue
It’s pretty easy to DIY your own tour in Huế based on my suggestions above! At least the taxis we experienced were really fair and only charged us when they were driving, not for the whole day. However, I do think it’d be nice to visit Huế with someone versed in its history a bit more since I mostly learned by reading the signs in English and massive Wikipedia and Googling afterwards!
Her are some tour options:
How to Get Around
If you stay closer to the Citadel, it’s super easy to get around on foot, especially if you want to find some good street eats. The tombs are way too far out to walk, but the Citadel and some museums and, of course, the river are all easy to walk around.
This is your best bet if you don’t want a tour or to rent anything on your own! The taxis know all the major points even if you don’t speak Vietnamese, and your hotel can help you arrange where you want to go. And, of course, if all else fails, just call your hotel and hold up the phone LOL.
Taxis are also what Grab will connect you to, unlike in Hanoi or Saigon. Works kinda like Kakaotaxi in Korea.
And, of course, the ultimate option, as it is anywhere in Vietnam, is to rent a motorbike! Most people I know will rent motorbikes for the tombs, though I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have some experience and/or are with someone with more motorbike experience. Huế is still a city and the roads can get busy!
How to Get into Hue
Pro-tip — If you set Vietnam Airlines to the US, you’ll get an option to pay via Paypal which isn’t available on the Vietnam version of the site.
You could also opt for the train from Đà Nẵng to Huế, which is what my friends did. I already did mostly trains on my first trip, and wasn’t about to do the Saigon – Đà Nẵng – Huế route which will take forever. Any bus or train I like to book on Baolau.
If you’re coming from Đà Nẵng, you could also easily book a private transfer if you want to avoid public transport in general. And for the more adventurous, there’s also a Hai Van Pass motorbike tour, which is on my list!
Packing Tips & What to Wear
Some areas in the tombs and temples are more conservative and have specific dress code signs. It’s not everywhere, but always good to keep a scarf of jacket with you to put on. I had a jean jacket because some days were actually quite cool!
Otherwise, as always, think linen and cotton for the humidity (it’s very weird being a bit cold but also sticky). I like long linen pants and my midi-skirt as they’re easy to wear and cover my knees just in case I run into a more conservative area!
Sample Packing List
- Light jacket – for coverage and cooler weather (maybe less necessary in the summer)
- Sweaters – if you go in colder weather. It really cools down when it rains here in the winter, and if the weather had stayed the way it did when I arrived, I would’ve froze.
- Easy linen or cotton tops – for humidity and just easy to throw on. I’m very pro finding ways to not wear a bra so I had a few shirts I love.
- Longer pants and skirts – just to be on the safe side for dress code! Before you come to Vietnam, check out buying some good linen pants and skirts. If you’re already here, try getting it tailor made!
- Mosquito repellent – need I say more?
- Sunscreen – even if you have gray skies, everything is pretty much outdoors so you’ll want coverage
- Wet shoes – like jelly Birkenstocks or rain shoes, Huế and central Vietnam have been dealing with a ton of rain, so you’ll want something that won’t get ruined if you get caught out in a storm.
And there you have it! All the best things to do in Huế as well as some tips for your trip. Anything to add? I really do want to go back and really dig into the culinary scene here!
for more vietnam travel
I’ve really loved being in Vietnam and getting to know the country more! On my first trip, I bopped around District 1 of Saigon, did a day trip to the Mekong Delta, experienced all the best things to do in Hoi An, checked out the Marble Mountains in Đà Nẵng, experienced the stunning Halong Bay, and finished off finding all the cool things to do in Hanoi.
Now that I’ve been back, I’ve gotten to know Saigon even more, like exploring all the temples and dim sum of Cho Lon in District 5. I’ve even explored parts of Vietnam I’d barely heard of before like Mui Ne and Phan Thiet, Sapa where we learned about the Red Dzao tribe, Phong Nha, Mu Cang Chai, and Vinh Long and Can Tho in the Mekong.