Hue may look relatively small on the map, but this picturesque and pleasant city along the sweeping Perfume River is deceptively big, and has a lot worth seeing. Last week, we enlisted the help of Indochina Private Tours to show us the very best that this lovely city has to offer, and they created a bespoke one day package for us, which exactly covered our needs – and then some.
Continuing our splurge of indulgence from Halong Bay, a luxury tour by private car, followed by a night in one of Hue’s best hotels, seemed like the ideal way to finish off our time in this incredible central city. Indochina Private Tours put together a great package, perfectly tailored to suit us – right down from swapping the usual lunch restaurant for somewhere more traditional, where we could eat like locals and sample some of the famous regional cuisine.
Read More: Plan your trip with this awesome and super in-depth guide to Hue.
The tour started bright and early at 8:30am, just as Hue was beginning to pick up in heat. It may be winter here in Vietnam, but last week Hue was roasting – so we were instantly grateful for the cool, air-conditioned interior of our private car. It felt nice to be sitting in the back of our own car, able to look out the windows at the city and chat to our guide, An, in peace, rather than squeezed into the back of a bus.
Plus, it meant that we had An’s full attention, which was great! He was such a thoughtful and attentive guide, opening the car door for me and generally making us feel like celebrities for the day. More importantly, he was really friendly and good fun, with a fantastic in-depth knowledge of Hue and of Vietnamese culture. An made us feel really relaxed and at ease all through the tour, which was great as we had a lot of questions for him.
First stop was Tự Đức’s Mausoleum, a popular site away from the busier city centre, which is one of the most peaceful spots in Hue. Historically, Hue is an important area of Vietnam; it was capital of the Nguyễn dynasty (the last royal family) right up until the August revolution in 1945. Over the 150 years of the dynasty, Hue saw 13 kings, so there are lots of royal tombs and mausoleums throughout the city, although sadly many of these were lost or destroyed during the war years.
Tu Duc, who reigned from 1847 – 1883, was the fourth king of the dynasty and is often considered the last true emperor of Vietnam, as he was the last to rule independently. According to legend, he died cursing the French with his dying breath. After his death, the country eventually fell to France and all subsequent rulers were just “puppet kings”. Tu Duc’s Mausoleum, which he designed himself as a recreational area to visit and escape from the citadel, is a beautiful area which was more like a park than a tomb; ponds, fishing lakes, trees and gardens, as well as a temple, filled the grounds besides the tomb itself. An told us that Tu Duc isn’t actually buried in the tomb, as he was afraid that his enemies would remove his body and the treasures he was buried with, so he was laid in an unknown grave and the tomb is just for show. The mausoleum also included an enormous stone tablet carved with the story of Tu Duc’s life, which is traditionally written by the king’s son but, as Tu Duc didn’t have a son, he wrote his own and apparently the story is far more self-deprecating than other kings’.
From the mausoleum, which was absolutely fascinating, we headed over to a small school of the Vo Kinh Van An martial art, where we were lucky enough to watch a performance from the incredible students of this martial art sect which originated in Hue. It was amazing! The men were lightning-fast, their bodies gliding rapidly over the floor or swirling through the air in a strikingly impressive display of skill and agility – whether they were fighting hand to hand, or using weapons which varied from the seemingly humble fan to menacing looking spears. Most impressive were the last few displays of sheer strength and body-control: one of the young men punched through seven solid stone tiles, while another balanced his entire body weight onto the point of a very real spear jammed into his throat, as two of the other performers shattered a concrete block on his back with a hammer. The show was immensely impressive, and a fantastic glimpse into a lesser-known part of Hue’s culture.
Next up, we visited another mausoleum, that of the 12th emperor Khải Định who fathered the last king of Vietnam, Bảo Đại. Although the mausoleum is much more grand and lavishly decorated compared with Tu Duc’s more humble, leafy resting place, Khai Dinh was actually a far less popular king. Placed on the throne by the French colonists thanks to his submissive personality, Khai Dinh supported the French rulers and lived extravagantly – his meals usually consisted of 14 courses – while his people were poor.
Taking a break from kings, we headed next to the serene Perfume River which divides Hue in two, where a twenty minute cruise in a beautifully painted, colourful dragon boat took us to the Thien Mu Pagoda. A seven story temple set in peaceful, leafy grounds, this was a really nice place for a stroll as An piled on still more fascinating information about Buddhism and about the temple itself. Thien Mu is particularly famous as being a site of anti-government protest during 1963. President Ngo Dinh Diem had shown a strong favouritism towards Catholics and discrimination against Buddhists, even banning the flying of the Buddhist flag, and in June 1963 the monk Thích Quảng Đức drove to Saigon where he burnt himself to death in protest of the persecution of his religion. Quang Duc’s self immolation caused a worldwide sensation which placed international pressure on Diem. The blue Austin which Quang Duc drove to Saigon is on display at Thien Mu temple along with a small memorial to the monk.
No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” John F Kennedy on the photograph of Quang Duc’s self immolation.
Having spent the morning soaking up as much knowledge of Hue’s history and culture as An could impart, it was finally time for lunch. Although the private tours usually visit high-end tourists restaurants, we wanted more of an insight into the local cuisine, so An took us to a small restaurant not far from his home, where he often eats with his family. An ordered for us, and pretty soon we found the table smothered in what was essentially a small feast of Hue’s best delicacies. There was Banh Beo: small, squidgy cakes of steamed rice topped with shrimp and crispy fried pork, which looked very unappetising but were, like most Vietnamese food, surprisingly delicious. Of course, there was the traditional Banh Khoai, Hue’s famous pancakes stuffed with shrimp, egg, pork and bean sprouts, which An showed us how to eat wrapped in rice paper with lettuce and other veg, and dripped in the delicious pork and peanut sauce. Also wrapped in rice paper and dunked in the sauce were Nem Lui, sausages of minced pork served on lemongrass sticks, and finally we finished everything off with traditional Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, served with spicy fish sauce. Eating out with a local is the best way to discover a country’s food, so lunch with An was a fantastic experience and we stuffed ourselves so full that I was very tempted to take a nap in the back of the private car!
After lunch, we made a brief stop off at the bus company’s office so that An could help us check the cost of sending out luggage to Hoi An without getting overcharged. It was so sweet of him to offer the help, and we hadn’t even asked him to, so we were really grateful. Prices and timetables sorted, we headed off to the final stop on our tour, Hue’s famous ancient citadel, the Imperial City. This enormous site is about 520 hectares in size, and within the grounds is the Purple Forbidden City where the emperors once lived with their harems. Sadly, of the 160 original buildings contained within the citadel – which included temples, palaces, and theatres – only ten major sites still remain; the rest were destroyed during the war. The remaining buildings are being restored and preserved, and there are some beautiful examples of Nguyễn architecture and art to be seen, but a large portion of the grounds are no more than ruined foundations and grass. The citadel is still a fascinating area to explore, and I particularly loved the library with it’s incredible, carved roof covered in dragons and phoenixes, as well as the restored theatre where we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a performance of the Lotus Dance, where men and women in colourful traditional dress danced holding candles in lotus-shaped holders.
Finally full to the brim with history and culture, we said goodbye to An at our hotel, the incredible Best Western Premier Indochine Palace, where he helped us check in before leaving us to relax in the total luxury of this gorgeous five star hotel. Of all the tours we’ve done, the Indochina Private Tour of Hue was far and away the most luxurious, and we enjoyed every second. A tour tailored to suit our needs, our own private guide, and an escape from the heat and hectic traffic in our private, air-conditioned car. It was a fantastic way to explore the city, and the tour cemented my new-found love for Hue.
To view the full range of Indochina Private Tours, or to see about your own tailor-made tour of Vietnam, head to ToursinVietnam.com. Alternatively, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (+84) 916-999-668 to speak to one of their experts.