After leaving Cat Ba Island, we made our way back to Hanoi to catch a night train to Hue. The train was a lovely experience that I may return to, but let’s move straight to Hue. We spent four nights there, which most people will tell you is a lot of time for the city. They aren’t exactly wrong.
Tourists generally come to Hue for history. The city was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The centerpiece of Hue is the large Imperial City, and many royal tombs sit on the outskirts of town. We didn’t make it to any tombs this trip, but we did spend a morning in the Imperial City. The complex was heavily damaged by US bombing during the Tet Offensive, and the government is actively working to rebuild. As a result, the Imperial City is a strange mix of old buildings, construction, and new buildings made to look old. It’s tough to fully appreciate, especially without a guide.
Guidebooks rave about the food in Hue, which does have a certain elegance thanks to its royal pedigree. But in truth, most of the “must-eat” dishes in Hue are underwhelming, and generally served in touristy, overpriced restaurants. There are a couple exceptions. Bun bo hue is the most famous dish from the city, and for good reason. Com hen, or rice with tiny river clams, is another winner. But the most interesting Hue experience requires getting off the beaten path.
Hue sits on the Perfume River; the Imperial City is on the north bank and the rest of the town is on the south bank. Most tourists end up on a couple streets that make up a dense, depressing backpacker area. If you keep yourself in this area, you’re going to be disappointed.
We started to appreciate Hue by walking south down Ba Trieu. Hue is a university town with tons of young people, but they don’t spend much time by the river. Getting away from the touristy area showed us a whole new Hue. We found a bustling night market, tons of cheap food, and a boisterous barbecue restaurant with the most unsafe grills I have ever seen. Based on our research and what we saw firsthand, tourists don’t come to this part of town. That’s a shame, because a lot of people leave Hue as underwhelmed as we almost did.
I don’t think Hue will ever be my favorite city in Vietnam, but it’s a much more interesting city than you’d ever know if you stay on the tourist trail. If you find yourself in the city, remember to head south and look for the students. They know what’s fun, what’s cheap, and what’s delicious.