The Gastronomical Imperial City of Hue
Hue is the gastronomical capital of Vietnam known for its diversity of mouth-watering regional foods. Okay – it’s also known for a little thing called The Imperial City. Both excellent reasons to visit don’t you think?
With the Perfume River winding through the former Imperial capital city, Hue is a quieter destination less visited by travelers but well-worth giving it a few days on your itinerary.
Let’s start with The Imperial City – protected by a walled fortress and a moat – it was built relatively recently in 1804 under the reign of the self-proclaimed emperor Gia Long (or Nguyen Anh). The prominently vast complex includes the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City. The site consists of several structures namely the former imperial family’s quarters, many temples, tombs and gateways – each and every one ornately decorated in utmost traditional Vietnamese design – inside and out.
Reserve a few hours to visit the grounds and temples. There’s no shade and the sun can be very aggressive so make sure to bring lots of water (there are vendors on site in case you run out). Given the intense sun, you might have to buy a conical non la (leaf) hat like I (reluctantly) did. I admit, though, it did come in handy at other times during my trip.
Hue is also home to many other nearby historically-significant sites easily accessible by renting a motorbike. Note there’s an entrance fee to most of these except little known ones off the tourist circuit. Following are the ones we visited.
01. KHAI DINH TOMB & PALACE
Located on Chau Chu mountain, you have to climb many steps to reach the top but, once there, you’ll be greeted by rows of stone guardian statues. The somewhat subdued exterior doesn’t hint at the exquisitely ornate interior. The detailed hand-painted frescoes covering all the walls and the gold tomb of Emporer Khai Dinh will leave you in awe. The black-encrusted patina might give the impression of it being ancient but, in fact, this tomb and palace were built between 1920 and 1931 rendering it very recent. Nonetheless, the menacing dragon-like sculptures, the diverse architecture and the views from the top make it a worthwhile visit.
02. THIEN MU PAGODA
Thien Mu Pagoda is situated about 3 km from the Imperial City on the northern bank of the Perfume River. Significantly older than the aforementioned Khai Dinh site, this pagoda was built in 1601. Standing tall at seven stories high, it’s the highest religious building in Vietnam. Several potted bonsai trees and unique flowers are scattered throughout the grounds making this site one of the prettiest and most pleasant to visit (and it’s not crowded).
Special mention: This burnt car belonged to Thich Ouang Du, a most venerable Buddhist monk, who performed self-immolation in the streets of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1963 to protest against the then-regime’s policies discriminating against Buddhists and blatantly violating religious freedom.
03. TO DINH TU HIEU BUDDHIST TEMPLE
We just happened to ride by this one and decided to go in. No entrance fee, no tourists – I was eager to have a look. The tombs and grounds scattered in the woods seemed to be left to their own demise which made for a truly enchanting setting. I really enjoyed the solitude and tranquility this small temple offered. We also encountered young monks dressed in their maroon robes and wearing their traditional non la hats.
I don’t usually comment on where to eat because: 1) Although I enjoy trying local dishes I don’t consider myself much of a foodie and 2) I don’t eat meat or poultry (only fish) so my recommendations can be very limited. But taking into consideration that Hue is known for its gastronomical scene, I just had to try some of the more local delicacies.
I highly recommend Quán Hanh – a typical restaurant frequented by Vietnamese patrons (with a bilingual menu) which serves fresh traditionally-made dishes. What seemed like simple food consistently awakened our taste buds with loads of different flavors. I particularly liked the vegetarian version of bánh khoai and the popular bánh nâm. So yummy and delicious – I wish I could order some right now!
Here’s a bit of advice (to avoid looking puzzled like me the first time I was presented with a basket of these), many Vietnamese dishes are served with a combination of leaves & herbs – these are meant to wrap your finger food in NOT to be eaten separately (say like a salad). You’re welcome!
Apart from all the historical sites, Hue is a fun enough town to hang out in. The center where most travelers stay is a hub for all kinds of shops and restaurants (though I suggest leaving the center for more authentic cuisine). Not too far away is a huge square where locals hang out and walking in the park along the riverfront is also a nice pastime.
All in all, Hue is well worth a visit!
Have you visited Hue and the Imperial City? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!