The historic capital of Vietnam, Hue, sits astride a truly majestic and beautiful river, the Song Huong (Perfume River). The north-bank is host to its share of hotels and restaurants, but the area is dominated by the old fortified city known as the Citadel, spread across more than 5 square kilometres of ground, crowding out development on that side of the river. As a result, guesthouses, hotels and restaurants have sprung up on the south bank, starting with the river road, Le Loi Street, and stretching further south. The south bank of the river has been developed as park cum promenade, with an eclectic variety of public sculptures on display.
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Hue is the capital of Thua Thien Province, with a population of about 340,000. Its location in central Vietnam, just south of the DMZ, made it a scene of heavy fighting during the American War. It's 15km west of the South China Sea and about 540km south of Hanoi and 644km north of Saigon. While the city is also known for the manufacture of textiles and cement, tourism has become its bread and butter.
Hue's complex history has earned it a reputation as a political, cultural and religious centre, but nowadays, visitors to contemporary Hue will find a city that only dimly reflects on its past, and only does so as a begrudging nod to its western visitors. Like Halong Bay to the north, the complex of tombs, pagodas and palaces throughout Hue and its surrounds has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. But to the Vietnamese psyche, shaped by centuries of war and struggle, tempered by nearly forty years of communist rule, this heritage is largely irrelevant and completely disconnected from the present. The overwhelming sense one gets from the city, on even the most casual visit, is of an unstoppable forward drive, and of a people constantly looking to the future.
But the profitability of tourism has lead to a paradoxical situation where, in order to move forward, the citizens of Hue must pry open those doors to the past they would rather leave shut. As a result, the tourist industry here has developed into a half-hearted attempt to give the foreigners what they want and send them on their way. While this has been effective in one sense -- a steady stream of tourists keeps showing up and paying for tours -- in the larger scheme it has also meant many poorly-run tours and disappointed travellers.
At the moment, Hue is a premier tourist destination mostly in theory. In practice, it's still a work in progress. That notwithstanding, it's a beautiful, vibrant city, with great places to stay, great food, and a number of interesting things to do, on and off the well-worn tourist trail of historic attractions.
Advice on tours in Hue
Basically, if you want to be sure to enjoy the 'culture tour,' you're going to have to pay for it. The only consistently worthwhile tours we've heard of, or taken ourselves, were private tours where you get to roll your own itinerary. It needn't be that expensive. A day-long tour by motorbike should be US$7, by car, $40 for 2 people, and by Minivan, $60 for up to 10 people. Some tours include admission: the Citadel, and three tombs: Tu Duc, Khai Dinh, and Minh Mang, are all 55,000 VND, so be sure to factor that in to the price. All other sites are free of charge.
As a rule of thumb, go for a small group tour booked through a reputable company rather than a 'guide on the street.' That said, we met some good guides on the street, and some crappy guides that worked through companies. So, in either case, being able to size up your guide makes the critical difference.
Be sure to invite your guide to sit down for a drink and discuss the specifics before you commit. It doesn't matter what you drink -- green tea is just as appropriate as beer -- but this is how Vietnamese do business. Take your time, talk about things other than the tour, and leave yourself an out from the beginning, in case you're not happy, i.e., "I'm waiting for my friends to come into town, so I'm not sure when I want to go..." Gauge the extent of your guide's knowledge and language skills. Use your gut. If they strike you as creepy or obnoxious, that's not just the culture barrier. The best guides are cool dudes you want to spend more time with. That's what you're looking for.
We found an excellent guide, Mr. Thanh, who was full of interesting information, a took us on a very creative route to see some of the major sites. If he's not available, he can probably hook you up with another guide.
Other than Mr. Thanh, there are good guides to be hired at Stop and Go Cafe and people seem quite happy with the tours out of Cafe on Thu Wheels, though some of the guides don't speak much English. Also, Mandarin Cafe has a good steady reputation. Some of the better independent guides have staked their claim on Le Loi across from La Residence Hotel -- their ringleader is Mr. Tho.
Even if you have a guide, a lot of the onus still falls on you to make sure you see the sites you want to see. Most guides will happily take you anywhere you want to go, but if you don't speak up, they'll just take you to the most convenient spots for them.
Touring the Sites on your Own
Otherwise, skip the tour altogether and do it on your own. Take your time. Don't try to see everything -- just target a few key spots. Expect nothing much more than you would from a lovely, relaxed day in the park, and you'll avoid some of the frustrations and let-downs we keep hearing about.
Everything can be visited by car, bicycle, or motorbike on your own. However, everything worth seeing is dubiously marked, and there are a lot of fuzzy maps available that put things in the wrong location. We wonder if this isn't partly by design since it forces people to book a tour.
But a great way to wile away the hours in Hue on a beautiful day is to try to find some place on your own anyway, get lost, see the countryside, stop along the way, and you'll eventually wind up some place interesting, even if it isn't the place you were heading for when you set out!