If your Vietnamese trip itinerary does not feature exclusively beach resorts, chances that at some point you find yourself in the old imperial capital of Hue are high. The decaying imperial citadel is a grey shadow of a once mighty stronghold of the Nguyen lords, and the beautiful Perfume River cuts through the vibrant modern city. Hue attracts both local and foreign tourists, many arriving on package tours. Beat the crowds, visiting the most popular places in the morning or at sunset and do not hesitate to discuss your tour in details before you commit, if you want to hire a guide.
From Danang to Hue
Both buses and trains need more or less three hours to cover 100 km between Danang and Hue. There is not much difference whether to take a bus or a train to get to Hue from Danang but bus tickets can be slightly cheaper. A part of the whole trip follows the littoral route and is quite picturesque – go by daytime and you will not be disappointed.
From Danang to Hue by train
All the trains of the Vietnam Railways between Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) and Hanoi pass via both Danang and Hue. These are usual Vietnamese trains with a choice of first and second class sleepers and seats only cars. All of the cars are air-conditioned and certain trains have been allegedly equipped with free Wi-Fi (e.g. SE2 and SE4). Most probably all the remaining ones will provide the wireless Internet on board very soon, too.
As the journey between Danang and Hue is quite short, seats are most probably a better choice. They cost slightly less than berths –(USD5-USD6/VND120.000-130.000) compared to USD6/VND135.000 for a berth in a second class sleeping car and USD8-USD9/VND170.000-VND200.000 for a berth in a first class sleeping car.
Night trains from Danang (SE7 at 7.55pm and SE5 at 10.50pm) are most inconvenient as they arrive late at night and you are bound to have your accommodation already booked to be on the safe side and not to cruise the town by night in a search of any dig available. The early SE21 train at 6.20am is probably the best choice as it reaches Hue at 9.35am leaving you with a whole day in front of you. It has seats only cars, too (USD6).
Though there are private cars in certain trains between Danang and Hue (e.g. Livitrans and Violette Express), there is no sense in trying to get pricier tickets for this short trip. Normally you would not be able to do it at all as these tickets are sold for the whole trip from Saigon to Hanoi only.
From Danang to Hue by bus
Many long-haul buses between Saigon and Hanoi call to either of the two large Hue bus stations to the south and to the north of town. There are also local buses serving the same bus stations from different cities and towns. Local buses are dirt-cheap but expect your journey to be devastatingly long for this distance and quite spartan: forget about air-conditioning. If you take a local bus from Danang to Hue, tickets will cost about VDN60.000 and the trip will take you over four hours.
A step up in the sense of comfort is special tourist buses, e.g. those of The Sinh Tourist. The company operates two buses a day which call to Danang at 8am and 1.15pm on their way further north, arriving to Hue some 2½–3 hours later. Tickets are twice as expensive as on local buses and the both buses are sleeper buses, which is not an always-welcome option. On the bright side of taking a tourist bus is that they pick up and drop off their passengers in the middle of the tourist crowd: right on the main drag along the Han River in Bach Dang, between Pham Phu Thu and Tran Quoc Toan, parallel to touristy Tran Phu in Danang and in Nguyen Lo Trach in Hue.
Getting around in Hue
The town itself is relatively small and you can easily walk around from your hotel to restaurants or the Citadel. To visit other attractions like tombs of the Emperors or Thien Mu Pagoda you may want to consider hiring a taxi or renting a scooter. Taxis in Hue are metered, but you need to keep your eye on metres as some of them run too fast. It always pays to have an idea of the approximate distance you are going to cover. There are also cyclos but you need to negotiate the price and the itinerary before the ride. To be on the safe side, write the amount (and the currency!) agreed on a piece of paper and try to avoid cyclos at night as the drivers often act as pimps.
You can pedal around Hue for about VND30.000 per day, or rent a motorbike for about VND100.000 per day. Helmets are compulsory but you are unlikely to find really good helmets in Hue useful for anything more serious than protecting you from a fine.
Tip: If you are not a confident motorbike rider, consider other options to move around or, at least, take a motorbike taxi first to get an idea of traffic and driving style in Hue.
Where to stay in Hue
Cheap and mid-range accommodation in Hue do not lack and the quality is often comparable to Hanoi and Saigon but prices are lower. Unless you are travelling during the busy periods of local holidays, there is no need to book accommodation in advance. You may want to arrange a hotel room in advance if you arrive late at night, though. A great part of budget accommodation in Hue is clustered within a few blocks of the Perfume River across from the citadel – check Pham Ngu Lao and adjacent lanes. Expect to pay anywhere from USD10 to USD15 for a decent air-con room with hot water. Solid mid-range deals are about USD30.
Things to do in Hue
Sitting on the northern bank of the Perfume River, the former Royal Palace, or the Citadel, as it is dubbed today, is easily visited by your own. A guide can make your visit much more informative, but if you are not too interested in the Vietnamese history of 19th–20th century, you can just walk around all by yourself. Do not forget to pop in to the Royal Theatre to have a glimpse of a half-an-hour cultural performance held four times a day.
The star attraction of Hue is Emperors’ tombs dotting the banks of the Perfume River south of the city. The tombs vary from modest to grandiose and are numerous enough to keep you busy for a whole week should you want to spend your days in lazy walks around Hue.
The official symbol of the city of Hue, the Thien Mu Pagoda is about four km south of the city perched on a bluff over the Perfume River.
There are a couple of hot springs around Hue, the closest one being My An Hot Spring&Spa, just seven km out of the city. It is a great place to relax after a day of wandering among the emperors’ tombs and exploring the environs of Hue.
Apart from visiting the most popular Hue attractions, there are many other pleasant things to do in Hue. Famous for its imperial cuisine, Hue lures foodies with imperial banquets. You may not be amazed by the taste, but the presentation is always striking. Street food in Hue is also a great thing to try, and bun bo hue soup is an absolute must (expect to pay between USD1 and USD2). For a ‘with-locals-like’ experience, sip sweet iced coffee in any of the numerous coffee houses around town.
Longing for the sea? Visit Lang Co from Hue
Lang Co is an easy day trip from Hue. It offers a beautiful stretch of sand fringed with palm trees bordered by a lagoon on one side and the sea on the other one. You can combine a lazy day in Lang Co with a strenuous hike in Back Ma National Park on the following day. To reach Lang Co from Hue, take the morning train SE21 leaving Hue at 6.20am and reaching Lang Co at 7.50am (VND100.000) or hire a taxi. With your own transport you can get to the Elephant Springs, 10 km north of Lang Co, or enjoy the winding Hai Van Pass which once used to be the main highway between Danang and Hue.
Stunning jungle walks in Bach Ma National Park
Easily reachable both from Danang and Hue, Bach Ma National Park boasts one of the most stunning stretch of jungle you are likely to have ever seen. The wettest place in Vietnam, Bach Ma teems with plenty of wild life and is filled with picturesque waterfalls and wonderful trails for hiking. The park makes for a great stop between the two cities or an easy jungle escape from either Danang or Hue. Once elegant and now elegantly decaying French villas of the Hill Station at Bach Ma are seen here and there and add a special flavour to the experience.
To get to the Bach Ma National Park from Danang or Hue, take a public bus (USD4 or USD3 respectively). From the point where the bus drops you off you will need to walk about three km to the entrance of the park. If you do not want to walk or take a motorbike taxi (USD1), consider using a pricier tourist bus (e.g. The Sinh Tourist), which brings the passengers right to the park entrance.
Note that it makes more sense to visit Bach Ma from Hue and then proceed to Danang and Hoi An.
Your onward travel from Hue
Trains and buses connect Hue with Hanoi. Both take about 14 hours to get to the capital. There is no direct train service from Hue to Haiphong (for the Halong Bay) – you will need to connect via Hanoi. A train journey back south from Hue to Saigon will rob your off 20 hours at least.