In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
Some would disagree, but in my opinion, Hue is Vietnam’s most enjoyable city to visit. I say this because although it has many of the components that make up a successful tourist destination – fascinating culture, interesting history, delicious food, gorgeous scenery and even inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage site – tourism has yet spoil the untapped charm of the city.
The result is a city that, by Vietnamese standards, is relatively untouched by Western influence – the perfect place to go beyond the highlights. The old walled city is unique in Southeast Asia, in that it is devoid of backpacker cafes, tourist hotels and travel agencies. Instead you’ll find elegant, tree-lined streets, a vibrant street food scene, and a wealth of glorious historical buildings and charming ancient houses.
Hue is just a few meters above sea level, and it’s the abundance of water that makes this city so magical. The snaking Perfume River that cuts the city into north and south is the most striking example, and virtually all of the bridges that traverse Vietnam’s most elegant municipal river afford phenomenal views as the sun sets over the looming mountains to the west. This river, immortalised in legend and song, has also conceived winding canals and fabulous lakes, some of which are found within the walled city and I’ll mention below.
Many tourists make the mistake of not spending more than one or two days in Hue. But those that are sensible enough to stay longer and go beyond the major sites see the city’s true delights appear before their eyes. I lived in Hue for a year, and it’s the reason I fell for Vietnam to begin with. I make my way back several times a year and, despite having lived in Hanoi for almost two years, I can’t seem to shake my Hue accent. And I still prefer Hue food.
Two Wheels Good, One Map Needed
Unlike Hoi An, Hue’s ancient town cousin to the south, the charms of the city are not concentrated into just a handful of streets. Unlike Hanoi, the political capital to its north, the city streets are orderly, easily navigable and refreshingly calm. These charming characteristics make Hue the perfect place to take to two wheels.
Renting bicycles is easy, and heading out on a guided Hue cycling tour is a great way to uncover cultural elements you’d have otherwise missed. Plus, Hue is one of the most laid back cities in the country and you would do well to follow suit. Surrounded by idyllic countryside, you’d be missing out if you weren’t to head out beyond the city centre and into Hue’s characteristically peaceful outskirts. Though finding your way around is easily done with a wander and a carefree attitude, it’s still worth taking a map or a guide to help you get around.
Beyond the Hue Citadel
The Citadel (Thanh Noi) refers to the enormous walled city, still almost completely intact, which occupies a large part of the north side of the city. Within the Citadel is the Forbidden City and King’s Palace, or Dai Noi, which is Hue’s premier tourist attraction. The Citadel itself has several beautiful and fascinating areas and makes for a wonderful afternoon or morning of cycling. Most will enter the Citadel to see the palace only to then leave once the sightseeing is done – don’t make the same mistake.
Instead, start exploring. Tree-shaded Doan Thi Diem Street, which hugs the east wall of the Forbidden City, is flanked by a handsome moat, beautiful parks and grand, French colonial buildings. All the streets running off Doan Thi Diem display fine examples of wonderful residential houses set within lush green gardens – Han Thuyen Street makes for a good option for a poke around and some picture-taking.
Northwest of this neat little grid of charming streets is Tinh Tam Lake, a good spot to sit and enjoy a coffee or try your hand at Chinese chess with the laid-back locals. There are actually two small lakes separated by slender Le Van Huu Street, and an island on the larger lake to the south can be reached by a narrow bridge. These lakes are particularly beautiful in May and June when a sea of candyfloss-coloured lotus flowers reach up and out, sometimes obscuring the water completely.
Slightly north of Tinh Tam Lake is Ngu Ha Canal, which splits the Citadel in two and can be crossed by several ancient brick bridges. This is probably the only time you’ll be faced with any kind of incline, but it will hardly give you any trouble! The north half of the walled city is excellent for uninhibited exploring.