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The imperial pulse of Vietnam between 1802 and 1943 came from the city of Hue, the capital of a newly united Vietnam and the seat of power for the 13 Nguyen Dynasty emperors who ruled from here. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the last royal family of Vietnam made grand, majestic policies and statements, turning Hue into a place of utter splendor, of the finest religious buildings, food, and architecture. Though the royal rule ended with the abdication of Emperor Bao Dai in 1945, modern-day Hue is still governed by its rich history, and tourism in the region is booming thanks to its many inner-city and outer-city charms.
The day trips from Hue listed below are the product of careful research and planning. They offer you an escape into the wild and beautiful Thua Thien-Hue Province, where nature meets sweeping religious architecture and the omnipresent charm of tranquil handicraft villages. Come with Incredible Asia Journeys as we uncover the ultimate day trips from Hue.
For the dynastic and colonial rulers of Hue, city escapes were of the utmost importance. Retreats to the surrounding countryside meant swapping the heat and humidity that often descends on Hue for a cool serenity that it is impossible to find in the royal court. The lofty heights of Bach Ma and stretching waters of its two neighboring lagoons were known to such rulers, but the discovery of Phong Nha Cave is a more recent one that still requires exploration of its countless unknown caverns. These may have required some serious planning during the rules of the earliest Nguyen kings, but now they are easily reachable on a Hue day trip.
The semi-tropical jungle that spirals towards the sky 40km south of Hue is Bach Ma National Park, a beautiful 220km2 area of wooded hills, featuring some of Vietnam’s spectacular plants and animals. It was keenly utilized by the French who, once they had effectively stolen power from the Nguyen royals, sought refuge from Hue’s most aggressive weather in the shaded mountains of Bach Ma.
Day trips from Hue to Bach Ma National Park are heavy on the sweeping views. These usually start before travelers even enter the park, at Cau Hai Lagoon, the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia and a site for the most perfect Vietnamese scenes of fishermen hard at work in the calm water. Neighbouring Bach Ma National Park is a lot more dramatic, featuring fantastic vistas of Thua Thien-Hue Province, five gorgeous lakes and a few cascading waterfalls from where you can take stunning photographs.
The views over Tam Giang Lagoon seem unending in many places. Placidly rippling water stretches all the way to the horizon at some points, while mountains flank the sides of others. This culmination of the Huong, O Lau and Bo rivers is teeming with seafood and, thus, is the site of many fishermen casting their nets into the water in the same way they did during the times of kings.
Half-day trips from Hue around the lagoon give you plenty of time to enjoy the stunning watery landscape and the mangrove forests that lie nearby. Tours will take you out onto the lagoon on a traditional rowing boat to watch the fishermen hard at work, before taking you around some of the waterside communities to learn of life here and maybe help with the cooking of seafood for dinner with the view of an incredible, unimpeded sunset.
One of the furthest day trips from Hue is also one of its most mysterious. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is UNESCO World Heritage-recognised as one of the most stunning cave systems in the world, also featuring its biggest, Son Doong, discovered very recently in 2008. The astronomical price tag of a visit to Son Doong means that the vast majority of tourists opt for a day trip from Hue to Phong Nha Cave, the longest river cave in the world.
The three chambers of Phong Nha provide three different eco-systems, with different animals and plants adapting to the various degrees of life found within. A cruise amongst the ethereal majesty of Phong Nha should not be missed, nor should a walk around some of the huge dry areas of the cave, where visitors can inspect gargantuan stalactites and stalagmites from up close.
Hue’s imperial splendor is the first thing to hit visitors to the banks of the Perfume River. The Imperial Citadel is one of the most visited sites in the country, and with good reason, for it was the beating heart of Vietnam for over 100 years and spearheaded a revolution that paved the way for some of Vietnam’s modern-day culture. Sadly, it was largely damaged in the previous century, firstly during the First Indochina War, then the American War, as Hue was in a perilous position just south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that separated the warring North and South, now also a fascinating day trip from Hue in itself.
While soaking up the regal atmosphere of the city is best to do over a few days, a full-day tour of Hue’s various ancient and modern delights gives a great glimpse of how the last emperors of Vietnam lived, died and eventually contributed to the culture of today. Of course, the main focus is the Imperial Citadel and its Forbidden Purple City, where no one but the most royal of the royal family were allowed to enter. Visits are a conclusive look at the stunning gates, residences, dining halls, courts, gardens, pavilions and temples attended by the emperors and their royal staff of thousands.
The Imperial Citadel is huge both in terms of size and cultural heritage, meaning it usually takes up a whole morning or afternoon of a full-day tour around Hue, but many other sites abound in this city teeming with art and architecture. A serene boat ride along the evocative Perfume River is almost always a feature, as is a visit to the seven Imperial Tombs of Hue, beautiful examples of grandiose architecture that lie in the hills around the city in commemoration to seven of the Nguyen emperors who ruled in the city. Thien Mu Pagoda is also an unmissable stop on any Hue day tour; this is a 7-storey pagoda that began life as far back as 1601, overlooking the peaceful flow of the Perfume River as it does today.
The 3km border between North and South Vietnam was the site of much conflict during the American War as the two countries battled to extend their borders. The Ben Hai River was the natural divide for most of the border, stretching from the 17th parallel at the shore and running hundreds of kilometres inland to the border with Laos.
Day trips from Hue now cover extensive explorations of the former DMZ, looking at sites that are now covered with thick jungle and backed by wonderful mountain scenery. There is still much to see, including the Hien Luong Bridge that connected the two rivals, Khe San Combat Base, the ‘Rockpile’ used by U.S troops for observation purposes and the Vin Moc Tunnels, an outstanding subterranean world dug by villagers seeking protection from constant bombing.
The handicrafts of Hue’s surrounding villages are numerous and diverse, adding a more humble flavor to the grandness of the city. Many satellite villages developed one specific craft each, some of which were treasured by Nguyen emperors, who featured art, calligraphy and magnificent textiles in their courts and chambers. They were also a means of rural refuge for the kings once the business of running a country became too much.
Historically, when one villager developed a specialized craft, many others would follow suit, providing both a camaraderie and a means of competition. Over the course of the 20th century and before, many crafts came to light around Hue, including non bai tho (conical hats with embroidered poems), jewelry, calligraphy, folk art, paper flowers and many more.
Cycling around these pretty villages on a Hue day trip is becoming increasingly popular for tourists to the region. The fascinating history and practice of Sinh Village is usually high up on the list, as this is where beautiful folk art paintings come to life in a complicated and ancient process of using pineapple root and woodblock to print elaborate, colorful scenes onto doing paper. The beautiful paper flowers of Thanh Tien also find an audience with tourists on a day trip from Hue; this is another complicated process of paper preparation and intricate origami to create bouquets of flowers that are a popular adornment for the Vietnamese New Year in February.
The outskirts of Hue are where the royal family came most to escape the hubbub of the royal court and connect with some of the wonderful natural assets of Hue. The nearby village of Thuy Bieu was perfect for this, as most of its area is covered with luxuriant foliage in the forms of grass, exotic flowers, jungle and fruit orchards. The most popular export of Thuy Bieu is the pomelo, which was a must-have feature at the banquets of kings.
Bicycles are usually the method of transport on a day trip from Hue around Thuy Bieu, which lets you take in the verdant landscape from the security of quiet village paths that run between orchards and meadows. Stopping at one of the many magnificent garden houses built by kings to facilitate a contemplative retreat, you can engage in much of the same, relaxing into the simple nature as you drink green tea and dine on bread with pomelo jam.
Upon coming to Hue, most foreigners are unaware of the incredible food scene to be discovered here. On the other hand, domestic tourists flock to the city streets to enjoy the spoils of a rich food history, born from the royal court and nowadays experienced on the street for a less-than-regal price. It is estimated that about two-thirds of Vietnam’s cuisine stems from Hue, so it is little surprise to see streets teeming with restaurants and street carts, offering savory and sweet dishes that have become popular around the country but have their roots in the Imperial City’s kitchen.
There’s no better way to experience Vietnamese cuisine than through a street-level evening tour of Hue. The flavours of the city come alive by walking, taking a motorbike or jumping into a cyclo around the downtown area, along the banks of the Perfume River, around Hen Island and amid the activity of Dong Ha Market. A guided tour will show you the wonders of dishes such as cơm hến (clam rice), bún bò Huế (a meaty soup), bánh xeo (crispy pancake), nem lụi (pork skewered with lemongrass) and chè (a sweet coconut milk-based dessert). Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain found some of his life-long favorite food at Dong Ha Market, and trying to find the tiny stall where he ate is an adventure in itself.
If you prefer a more hands-on approach to your food tour of Hue, there are several available cooking classes that you can take in the city and its surrounds. Of the day trips from Hue listed below, we feature cooking classes in Thuy Bieu Village and on the shores of the Tam Giang Lagoon, where you can learn to make pomelo jam and prepare and cook seafood respectively. Local chefs will share their years of knowledge with you as you enjoy the same food that featured on the royal dining tables of Hue’s Imperial Citadel.
• An attentive and friendly guide, well-versed in English and the region’s history
• At least one meal that is usually lunch, but food tours and cooking classes will feature dinner alongside or instead of lunch
• All transportation to and from destinations
• Boat rides down the Perfume River and in the lagoons, as well as bicycles for cycling tours
• A camera, for those beautiful shots of the river and lagoons, along with the far-reaching views of Bach Ma National Park
• Extra money for tips and services that aren’t included in our itineraries
• Some wet weather gear and suitable footwear if visiting during the wet season
• Bug spray for the various jungles that you may visit around Hue
• Sun cream, for the notoriously strong Hue sunshine