Hue: Good Evening, Vietnam!

Huong River or Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam
Scooters fly by on the bridge over Huong River (Perfume River)

The Story – Hue, Vietnam

We arrived in Hue at around 7:30PM, after a gruelling bus ride, and jumped into a taxi. It cost us 150,000d/$7.10 to get from the bus station to the guesthouse area. We felt we were paying too much but no one was willing to negotiate, they refused to use their meters, and it was dark out so navigating the city ourselves would have been difficult and intimidating. We always try to arrive in a new city during the daytime. It’s easier to find a guesthouse, the taxis are cheaper, and if you need to walk out of the bus station and find a cheaper taxi, you can do it without having to worry about walking into a dangerous neighborhood in the dark of the night. We took our overpriced taxi to the Original Binh Duong 3 Hotel (now known as the Sunny B Hotel) where we got a decent room with AC, TV, mini-fridge, and a private bathroom (250,000d/$12 per night).

Ngan Gate imperial city hue vietnam
The bridge spans the moat and leads to Ngan Gate, one of the entrances to the Imperial City.
The following morning we got up early and headed to the Imperial City (admission 80,000d/$3.78). Hue was once the capital of Vietnam and the Imperial City was its walled fortress, palace, and the home of the last emperor of Vietnam, Tu Duc, who was both a horny and a hungry man. Every day for every meal he demanded 50 dishes, prepared by 50 cooks, served by 50 servants. This may seem extravagant but we have him to thank for the smorgasbord that is Hue cuisine. He also kept a giant posse of concubines who stayed in his Forbidden Purple City. Only eunuch servants were allowed in the Purple City as they posed no threat to his harem. What a guy!

imperial city palace in Hue Vietnam
A quiet and shady place to relax inside the Imperial City.

In 1993, the site was named UNESCO worthy and has since been a popular tourist destination. We wandered around the remaining buildings but much of the Imperial City lies in ruins, thanks to the American War. It was nice and quiet — a peaceful place to sit and relax; a world away from what was outside the walls.

Sample Budget (for 2)

Accommodations: 1,000,000 VND (3 nights)
Meals: 660,000 (3 dinners) + 400,000 (2 lunches) = 1,060,000 VND
Attraction admissions: 720,000 VND (including admission to the imperial city, a tomb, and a private boat ride)
Coffee/Booze/Snacks: 60,000 VND
Transportation: 310,000 VND

Total: 3,150,000 VND ($142.59 USD or $23.76 per person, per day)

Having just come from Laos, we found the Vietnamese culture a shock to the system. The people are pure business — always trying to sell you something. Cafes aren’t just cafes, they’re travel agencies. It was something that we were going to have to get used to.

In the evening we went to Nina’s Cafe for dinner. It was a fantastic introduction to Hue’s cuisine. Everything we ordered had to be rolled in rice paper with your choice of veggies and herbs. We had banh khoai (a pancake filled with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts), nem lui hue (pork skewered on lemongrass), and some amazing fried vegetable spring rolls. Thank you Nina. Your food is delectable and your music choice is far superior than any other restaurant in Southeast Asia (Beatles, Kinks, and Supertramp).

nem lui lemongrass skewers Hue Vietnam
Nem lui, lemongrass with a sausage-like pork wrapped around it.
We went to bed intrigued and excited about tomorrow’s train ride down Vietnam’s picturesque coast to Da Nang.

The Story 2: Hue, Vietnam with Mom

My revisit to Hue was quite different than my first trip, mainly because I was traveling with my mom, so we weren’t “on the cheap”. That being said, I did learn some valuable information that needs to be shared will all you frugalites out there. First off, we flew into the airport so I experienced that and found that a taxi from the airport costs 225,000 dong (using the meter) for the 30 minute ride, but the cheapest option is to take the shuttle bus (50,000 dong each). There will be a sign showing you where to buy the ticket. It’s a small airport, so it should be easy to find. They should drop you off at your hotel or at least close to it.
We stayed at the Gold Hotel, which had me singing every time I looked at it. It was nice, had a small but refreshing pool, and a great breakfast.
Napping at the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam
Of course, I had to show my mom the citadel, which I think was better the second time around. The one criticism about Hue’s most popular tourist attraction, is that you don’t really know what you’re looking at most of the time. There are no maps, not many labels, it’s just a giant area to walk and explore. This time, however, I managed to find a room with a map. And now, in all its glory, I share it with you. Ladies and gentleman, the ever-elusive map to Hue’s Citadel and Imperial city:

Hue Citadel, Imperial City, and Forbidden City Map

(I suggest saving it to your mobile phone and bringing it with you to the citadel so you can follow along as you walk through it)

Private Boat Tour to the Tombs

You don’t have to spend a ton of money to get your own boat, along with crew, to take you down the river and back for 3-4 hours. We paid 440,000 dong and went to Minh Mang Tomb and Thien Mu Pagoda. It’s possible to negotiate which tombs you want to see, but the price will change depending which ones you pick. To find a boat, head down to the park that runs along the south side of the river. There will be a line-up of boats and someone will likely approach you quickly. Negotiations will start high, but be prepared to walk away and find another boat. There are plenty of options. I’ve heard some people say they’ve got them for as low at 200,000 dong. Let me know in the comments how you made-out.

We had about an hour at Minh Mang Tomb, 20 minutes at the pagoda, and about 2 hours on the boat. If you go after breakfast, you can be back for lunch. Alternatively, bring a lunch. Our boat owner asked us if we wanted to order some food that they would pick up at the market and bring along. Of course, the prices they charge will be slightly higher than buying it directly, but that’s an option as well. They will also try to make some money by selling you souvenirs. If you do plan to buy a souvenir, it’s not a bad idea to get it from the people who own the boat. They don’t make that much money off of the tour, and a lot of the owners live on the boat, so it’s not like they are raking it in. Our boat had a 4 person family as the crew… mainly because the 2 daughters had no place to go as we putted down the river in their home.

Boat tour in Hue on the perfume river.
Dad and daughters on our private boat.

Minh Mang Tomb should be called the Minh Mang tomb complex. It seems to go on forever until you reach the area where his actual tomb is (which you can’t go into). It was a nice stroll though. Watch the video below for a bit of history of Minh Mang. To sum up the experience, it’s basically a lot of walking through temples with arched doorways, down steps, across bridges, along beautiful natural and man-made scenery.
Minh Mang tomb, Hue, Vietnam
The final stretch before you hit the island where the tomb is.

The Thien Mu Pagoda is also a nice walk around, but the main attraction of the whole tour is the boat ride. You’ll go under bridges, past the citadel, out into the countryside, seeing various boats, animals, and people. It’s a nice relaxing activity and I found it to be just the right length of time.

We spent two full days in Hue — just enough time to see the main attractions. Our next stop was Hoi An, which we decided to take a private car to. This would allow us to see Lang Co Beach and drive Vietnam’s most beautiful road – the Hai Van pass. As per usual, I shopped around for the best price. We ended up paying 1,010,000 VND for the ride. I got this price from Viet Linh Travel (36 Pham Ngu Lao – see map below) after asking for quotes at several different agencies who wanted about 100,000 more. We hit the road early in the morning, surprised to find that the private car was in fact a 12 seater van. Sweet!

The Facts – Hue, Vietnam

Getting In and Out

If you’re arriving at the airport, you can take a taxi downtown for around 225,000 VND. It takes about 30 minutes. If you aren’t in a rush and like to save money (which you do, trust me), you can take the shuttle bus for 50,000 VND each. The airport is very small so you should be able to find the ticket booth. The shuttle bus will likely be able to drop you off at your hotel.

If bus is your mode of transportation, you’ll probably have to negotiate or leave the station to get a taxi that will use its meter. We arrived at night and paid 150,000 VND after mildly negotiating.

Take note, there are two bus stations — a north one and south one. The north is called Phía Bắc. From there you can take a bus 15 hour sleeper bus to Hanoi if you want. How does that sound? Ugh! The south bus station, Phía Nam is your gateway to Da Nang, Hoi An, or even Ho Chi Minh City. Of course, you can also take the tourist buses that are scattered around the city. They’ll take longer and cost more, but you will also see a lot more. From Hue to Da Nang or Hoi An you can stop at Lang Co beach and Marble Mountain ($4, about 4 hours). If you take the shuttle bus (180,000 VND), it will take even longer but you could drive along Hai Van Pass instead of the tunnel. Hai Van Pass is a breath-taking ride that goes along the coast at the edge of the mountain. To book either of these, talk to a few agencies. They’ll have different prices and different schedules.

Hue is on the Reunification train line. You can check train times, and destinations on the Vietnam National Railway site. If you are going to or coming from Ninh Binh or Hanoi, this would be a good chance to try an overnight train. Leaving Hue at 9:30PM will get you to Ninh Binh at about 10AM. A soft sleeper will cost about 500,000 VND.

Best Budget Hotel in Hue, Vietnam

There are a ton of affordable hotels in Hue, but my favourite is Than Thien – Friendly Hotel. It’s inexpensive — specially if you can book last minute. Their location is convenient for boat tours and the citadel. The beds are large and comfy. The staff is extremely friendly, including the owner whose story (which can be read here) is tragic, but uplifting.

Best Budget Restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

Hue is the food capital of Vietnam. Many dishes were created in the city, and some can only be found there, so if you have an open mind you’ll have lots of new dishes to try. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to find street food vendors serving up the specialties of Hue. This is probably due to tourism — perhaps if you get out of the center of town you’ll have more luck. However, there are some great restaurants that specialize in Hue food and do it really well. The best, in my opinion, is Nina’s Cafe. We rave about it in the story section above, but I’ve since been back and have never had a bad experience. The food, the atmosphere, the music, the service: all great. It’s a bit difficult to find (at the end of an alley), but check the map below and be sure to go with an appetite.

The Video – Hue, Vietnam

Hey, Hey, Hue | Exploring Vietnam

The Map – Hue, Vietnam

Next Stop Recommendation: Tam Coc, Vietnam

Take the sleeper train to Ninh Binh where you can get a taxi (no more than 100,000 VND) to Tam Coc for a relaxing few days among rice paddy fields and limestone karsts. The train leaves Hue at 9:33PM and arrives in Ninh Binh at 9:53AM. Book Ahead. Sleeper trains are a mostly fun experience. The soft sleepers are about 500,000 VND each (price depends on if you’re on the top or bottom). There are 4 beds in a soft-sleeper cabin, so there’s a good chance you’ll have bunk mates. If you prefer to save money, you can go with a hard-sleeper (around 400,000 VND), but I hardly think it’s worth it. The hard-sleepers have 6 people per cabin and they’re… well, hard.
To save even more money, or to avoid having to sleep on a train, you can get a regular seat. On the overnight train you’ll only pay 170,000 VND, but you might die of uncomfortableness. Instead, take the only daytime train that doesn’t arrive in Ninh Binh at an ungodly hour — 5:30AM to 5:24PM (252,000 for a hard seat, and 382,000 for a soft seat with aircon).

Budget Travel Guide to Tam Coc and the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex