I visited Hue, the former imperial capital, for three nights. I met a few travelers who said Hue was skippable, but I loved it. The tours I joined were a major factor in making my experience memorable.
I started with a street food tour on my first night in Hue. I booked it with I Love Hue, a motorbike tour company led by female guides. About four hours before the tour was scheduled to start, I sent a Facebook message to Ms. Lien, the founder of I Love Hue, to see if a spot was still available. Ms. Lien responded almost immediately, confirming that I could join the tour that night.
That night, Minh, my driver and guide, picked me up from my hostel and drove me to our first stop to meet the rest of the group. I joined a couple from California and their drivers Aby and Kieu. We started by eating an assortment of cakes, including loc cake (made with tapioca and pork) and banh beo (rice cake with shrimp). I was hesitant to try to loc cake since I’m not a fan of tapioca or gelatinous foods, but it ended up being one of my favorites at the restaurant.
Our drivers then took us to a shop that sold banh khot, fried pancakes with shrimp and pork. We placed a pancake, lettuce, and papaya on a sheet of rice paper, cracked the pancake in half with a chopstick, and then rolled everything up. The crunchiness of the pancakes complemented the lettuce and sweet papaya. I had never heard of banh khot before, but it ended up being one of my favorites of the night.
We drove to an outdoor barbecue spot, where we were given crispy duck, beef with cheese (don’t knock it till you try it), and spicy squid. The duck was my favorite out of the three.
Our guides also taught us how to open a beer can with a wooden chopstick: rub the chopstick furiously against the mouth of the can until it pops open. Be sure to keep your fingers at least a couple of inches from the end of the chopstick. The sole man of the group was the only person who managed to open a beer this way, and the loud pop startled me. It sounded like someone had opened a bottle of champagne. He also opened his wife’s and my beer, while our drivers stuck with water.
Our drivers also got us peanut- and octopus-flavored crackers from a vendor who was walking around the barbecue joint. The flavor combination sounded strange, but the crisp crackers were a light, delicious snack.
Our next stop was for bun bo, a slightly spicy beef noodle soup. I love noodles, so this was the perfect dish for me. It might be my favorite Vietnamese food…at least for now.
Our final stop was for che, a sweet soup made of various types of beans, tapioca, and coconut. With my reservations about tapioca, this wasn’t my favorite dish, but it was still refreshing.
Minh, Aby, and Kieu were hilarious. It was clear they were good friends, and they teased each other mercilessly. The dynamic between them made me nostalgic for my college tour guide days. They were also careful drivers. Vietnamese traffic laws are still a mystery to me, but I felt secure on the back of Minh’s motorbike.
The next day, I had a one-on-one city tour with Aby. We first had ca phe muoi, a type of Vietnamese coffee that tasted like salted caramel. The coffee dripped from a metal filter placed on top of a cup containing condensed milk, regular milk, and salt. We waited for a few minutes for the coffee to finish dripping and then removed the filter. We mixed the coffee, milk, and salt together in the cup and added an ice cube. The coffee was rich, creamy, and sweet. I would have loved to have another cup, but the caffeine high would have been out of control. Vietnamese coffee is really strong.
One of the highlights of the tour was visiting the Khai Dinh tomb. The intricate mosaic work was astounding.
We had a vegan lunch at a garden restaurant. I was skeptical about the idea of a vegan meal, but I couldn’t have been happier with the food. They served the crispiest spring rolls I’ve had and their banh khoai (rice pancakes) were flavorful. The meal was filling, and I didn’t miss the meat.
I really admired I Love Hue’s mission. The company focuses on promoting women in the workplace, and all of the guides are women. As a solo female traveler, it was great to meet vibrant and funny women. I Love Hue also donates 20% of its proceeds to NGOs and community organizations. Ms. Lien and her team are highly motivated and creative, and it was a privilege to get to know them. In fact, I was so impressed that I decided to book another couple of tours with I Love Hoi An, a sister company also founded by Ms. Lien (more on those in a future post).
I also did a motorbike tour of the DMZ with Hue Riders. Hieu, the founder of Hue Riders, was my guide. Our first stop along the highway was a war memorial. Many of the graves were for unknown soldiers, and their tombstones were unmarked.
Hieu drove to the DMZ itself, where we visited the Hien Luong Bridge. The bridge is painted in blue and gold to distinguish between North and South Vietnam.
There was also a pedestal containing a flagpole and map of Vietnam. I think propaganda images are fascinating (I may be watching too many episodes of The Americans), so I was especially taken by the mosaic images at the foot of the pedestal.
We then visited the Vinh Moc tunnels, where close to 100 families lived during the war. The tunnels were the highlight of the tour. I couldn’t believe people were able to live in the cramped quarters. Several babies were born in the tunnels. It’s hard to imagine spending the first few years of your life in darkness.
Once we finished walking through the tunnels, Hieu took a different route back to Hue. This drive was through the countryside, and I watched farmers diligently tilling rice fields.
Hieu was like a dad to me. My safety was his top priority: I was fully confident in his driving. He always put my helmet on for me and made sure both me and my tote bag were securely on the motorbike. He even offered to carry my heavy tote bag as we walked through the sights. He had an endless supply of wet wipes so I could clean my hands and face, and he offered to take lots of photos for me.
I also visited a couple of sights in Hue on my own. One of them was the citadel, which used to house the Vietnamese emperor. The citadel was large but felt more intimate than the Forbidden City in Beijing.
It started raining heavily about 30 minutes after I entered the citadel. I wanted to spend more time there, so I tried to stick it out for another hour and a half. The rain continued pouring, so I reluctantly gave up and took a taxi back to my hostel.
I also went to the Thien Mu Pagoda and decided to walk the 4.5 miles from my hostel. The walk was flat, so it wasn’t particularly strenuous, but the heat and humidity were a lot to handle. It helped that the walk was along the Perfume River, which was lined with manicured gardens. I saw a few gardeners working diligently to shape the hedges.
After an hour and a half, I reached the pagoda. I arrived at around 4:00 PM and was lucky enough to watch monks praying and chanting.
As I was walking around the pagoda, a Vietnamese girl who was probably about 11 years old asked to take a selfie with me. I was caught off-guard since locals hadn’t asked to take photos with me by this point, although I’d seen it happen to non-Asian travelers. I happily posed for the photo, and the girl used an app that added cat ears to both our heads. I wish I had asked her for a copy of the photo but didn’t think about this until I had left the pagoda. I decided to take a taxi back to the city center instead of doing another sweaty 1.5-hour walk.
A few other notes about Hue:
- The Perfume River divides Hue into two parts: the older part of the city contains the citadel, and the newer part is where many hotels and hostels are, including the main backpacker area.
- I found Hue to be less walkable than Hanoi. Many of the attractions, such as the royal tombs and Thien Mu Pagoda, are outside of the city center. The closest major attraction was the citadel, which was about a 30-minute walk from my hostel in the newer part of the city. Travelers can rent bikes and motorbikes or hire drivers and taxis to visit the sights.
- I visited the citadel before visiting the Khai Dinh tomb. The entrance fee for the citadel was 150,000 VND (approximately 6.50 USD). There was also an option to buy tickets to both the citadel and royal tombs (there are three tombs that are most popular for travelers to visit) for 200,000 VND (approximately 8.80 USD). I considered buying the combined citadel + tombs ticket but opted for the citadel-only ticket. I kicked myself later when I visited the Khai Dinh tomb and saw the entrance fee was 100,000 VND (approximately 4.40 USD). Ultimately, the difference between buying separate tickets for the citadel and a tomb and a combined ticket is only a couple of dollars (50,000 VND), but it would have been nice to take advantage of the savings.
- While I loved my tours in Hue, I wish I had spent one more night there to do more self-guided walking. In my effort to see as much as possible, I rushed through my first two weeks in Vietnam. In hindsight, I think I could have relaxed more and taken my time in Hue.
- I left Hanoi, Halong Bay, and Sapa relatively unscathed from mosquitoes and had just a couple of isolated bites. In contrast, the mosquitoes were ruthless in Dong Hoi (which I used as a base for my visit to Phong Nha) and Hue. I got 10 bites on my left knee and a few more bites on the rest of my legs. I bought a Hello Kitty-branded bottle of insect repellent in Hanoi, but the mosquitoes were able to find places I missed.