Huế, Vietnam: 24 and 48 Hour Itineraries For a City Rich In History
Now that I’ve lived here for six months, I can personally confirm that Vietnam has something for everyone. Ho Chi Minh City has an energy unrivaled by most cities multiple times its size. The capital of Hanoi is a fascinating place that can’t be reduced to a one-liner. Trying to list all of the beaches worth visiting would be futile; the same goes for towns surrounded by beautiful green mountains. But for all you history buffs out there, look no further than the city of Huế.
Huế was the capital city of the Đàng Trong Kingdom in the 1700s, which held territory in modern-day Central and Southern Vietnam. The city’s main highlight is a massive Imperial City that was built in the early 1800s when current-day Vietnam was unified under one emperor (Gia Long). Although somewhat reminiscent of the world-famous Forbidden City in Beijing, the Imperial City in Huế is refreshingly unique with its own vibe. In all honesty, I think I liked this one more. Read on to learn why!
Since the Imperial City only takes a few hours to explore, Huế is the perfect destination if you’ve only got one or two days to spare. I spent two nights there; by the second afternoon I felt like I had seen everything I wanted to (which is pretty rare). In this post, I’ll share what you can see if you’re spending just one day in the city, followed by some additional ideas if you’ve booked two days there. Lastly, I’ll let you know the best area to stay in.
The 24-Hour Itinerary
If you have just one day in Huế, this section is for you!
1. Morning: The Imperial City
There’s a reason this historical site is the main attraction in Huế. Just look at a map of the area and you’ll see that the square-shaped ancient city and surrounding canals are bigger than the modern city center on the southeastern banks of the Perfume River. Even if you’re not a huge fan of historical sites while traveling, I think the Imperial City has the potential to impress.
Why I Liked It More Than The Forbidden City in Beijing
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t miss the Forbidden City if you happen to visit Beijing. With that said, I remember it being overcrowded and sort of dirty (I went in 2010, so maybe it’s cleaner now). The entire place is basically concrete, and there’s few places to find shade, as shown in the pictures below. The heat in summer was brutal.
In contrast, the grounds inside Huế’s Imperial City are incredibly green. Gardens, fields, trees, and ponds separate the various courtyards and sections. It was admittedly pretty muggy here too (heat index of 115 °F or 46 °C), but it would’ve been truly miserable if the entire place was all paved over without greenery to absorb some of the heat.
Another amazing thing about the Imperial City was that there were almost no crowds. If you scroll through the photos in this post, you’ll see what I mean. I did go on a Monday morning in September, so I think the low season just started with school back in session. Nonetheless, I would bet that even on a weekend in summer, the crowds would be manageable at least. Being able to explore without being surrounded by a million selfie sticks or cranky kids was a pleasant surprise.
There’s also an undeniable sense of authenticity here. The Imperial City isn’t impeccably maintained, but that is decidedly a good thing in my book. I’m not implying that things inside are falling apart, but signs of aging seem to be embraced (or at least accepted) without much fuss.
Paint is chipping here and there. Most of the fields have grass that’s too tall to walk through. These little “imperfections” give the place a lot of character, which is something that can’t necessarily be said of the Forbidden City. The little deviations also draw one’s attention to the minute details and stunning ornamentation that fill the whole site.
How to Make It Happen
A visit to the Imperial City is pretty self-explanatory. Tickets are sold at the main gate (here) and only cost 150,000 VND (approx. 6.50 USD). I went at a leisurely pace and tried to see each section of the walled city, which took between two and three hours. I recommend going in the morning after breakfast so you have as much time as you’d like to explore the inside before having a late-ish lunch.
2. Lunch: Try Bún Bò Huế, a Delicious Noodle Soup
While there are a few cafes and gift shops inside where you can purchase snacks or drinks, I recommend going to a local market for lunch. Try bún bò Huế (Huế-style beef noodles), the city’s signature dish. It’s typically eaten for breakfast, but I tried it for lunch from “Anthony Bourdain’s Huế Lady” located in the Đông Ba Market (Chợ Đông Ba). Check out this video to see her food stall featured by Bourdain, or read this blog post for more information.
This is street food at its finest, and it was really good. The market is definitely a maze, but she’s located towards the back so I recommend entering from the rear street called Chương Dương and finding the small section of food vendors. Once you find the following sign, you’ve arrived.
The market is a fun place to wander through as well, even if just for a few minutes.
3. Afternoon: Explore on Foot
I spent the rest of my afternoon wandering the streets of Thuận Hòa and Thuận Thành, the two areas surrounding the Imperial City. While there wasn’t anything there that particularly stood out, there are a ton of cafes all over the place, so be sure to try a Vietnamese coffee if you need a little afternoon pick-me-up.
As I was walking along Nhật Lệ, one of the major streets here, I came across a street food stall that caught my eye. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but I sat down at one of the little plastic tables and ordered whatever she was making.
She took four of five of the little doughy-looking things from the red tub and squished them in the iron flattener over the fire. This was the result: a stack of small “open-face tacos” sprinkled with onions and a tiny bit of meat.
They were light yet delicious, especially with the mint leaves and dipping sauce. They only cost 10,000 VND (40 cents) for the whole plate of them, and after eating them by hand, I asked what they were. She said they were “bánh ép,” which according to this site are very thin pancakes made from tapioca. If you happen to see her or anyone else in Huế selling this delicious snack, be sure to try it!
4. Dinner: Splurge a Little
For dinner, one option is Les Jardins de la Carambole. It’s a short walk from the main gate of the Imperial City, and the interior is beautiful.
I ended up trying another bowl of bún bò along with an appetizer of French cheese, which was quite pricey at 300,000 VND (13 USD). I figured that it would be a small bite or two of some very fine cheeses, but it turned out to be bigger portions of perhaps some cheaper varieties. It was satisfying nonetheless in a country where cheese is rare, but this is probably a better appetizer to share.
The bún bò here was also good, but I personally liked the bowl from the market more. Plus, the Anthony Bourdain lady charges a small fraction of the price at Les Jardins.
5. After Dark: Go Back to the Imperial Palace
Before heading off to bed, be sure to go check out the huge flagpole of the Imperial City from Lê Duẩn street. They light up the massive walls of the city, the front gate of the Imperial Palace, and the Kỳ Đài where the flag is flown.
Ideas for a Second Day in Huế
If you’ve done everything mentioned above, then you’ve basically seen what I consider “can’t miss” in Huế. A second day in the city is nice but not necessary. Here are some ideas for how to spend the time.
1. Breakfast: More Bún Bò!
Since bún bò is a breakfast dish, it might actually be hard to find shops selling it past noon, especially the most highly-recommended family-owned places. This list has a number of ideas, but most of them are across the river. I walked across and tried one called Bún Bò O Cương Chú Điệp (located here), which also turned out to be quite good. If find any other bún bò places you love, let me know in the comments below!
2. Coffee at Sky Bar Vinpearl
As a relatively small city, Huế basically only has one distinctive skyscraper: the Vinpearl Hotel Huế. I figured that there would be a cafe or bar with a view on the top floor, and I ended up being right. The only thing that I was wrong about was what I’d be able to see from up there. I was expecting to see an impressive aerial view of the Imperial City, but it’s too far away from the hotel and the area has too many trees to see any real semblance of the design or layout.
However, the view of the surrounding city blocks and nearby foothills is quite nice. The coffee here isn’t even vastly overpriced, and the cafe offers basically panoramic views. Like the Imperial City, the Sky Bar ended up being wonderfully uncrowded on a weekday morning.
3. Nhà thờ Dòng Chúa Cứu Thế (A Really Cool Church)
If you have the time to check it out, it’s a very impressive structure that combines the basic design of a cathedral with East Asian motifs. Although the interior wasn’t open when I went, I’m still glad I wandered over to see the outside up close.
4. Lunch or Dinner: One More Local Dish
Huế has no shortage of local dishes, so you might as well take the opportunity to try one more for a final meal in the city. A great place to check out south of the Perfume River is Hanh Restaurant, which has a local vibe and a menu that explains in English what some of their most popular dishes are. I decided to try bánh bèo, a snack consisting of sticky rice cakes served in tiny bowls sprinkled with dried shrimp and pork rinds.
While I think I personally liked bún bò a tiny bit more, bánh bèo was quite an interesting culinary experience worth considering if you’ve already had your fill of noodles and soup.
Where to Stay
Since the Imperial City is the focal point of Huế and you should see it both during the day and at night, I recommend staying as close as possible to the main gate. I stayed at the Tam Family Homestay which I booked via Airbnb, and I was very impressed with the large private room and friendly hosts. It’s only a five or ten minute walk from the front of the Imperial City and cost me about $15 per night.
Huế may not be the first city you think of if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, but it’s a great place to check out for a day or two, especially if you’re visiting the nearby-ish beach towns of Da Nang or Hội An. It’s also a great weekend trip for expats based in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Have you ever been to Huế before? Do you have any additional places in the city to recommend? Leave a comment and let me know! Thanks for reading, guys!