One of the most significant cultural and historic centers of Vietnam, the former imperial city of Hue is a place of great beauty, renowned for its sophisticated cuisine. Many of Hue’s main sights are within the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure (p142). Others are scattered around the city. The scenic Perfume River, superb hotels and restaurants, and a palpably French atmosphere add to the city’s many charms.
Dong Ba Market
Hue’s bustling covered Dong Ba Market is located to the north of the Perfume River, near the southeast corner of the Citadel. A popular local shopping center, it attracts huge crowds daily. Stalls here overflow with an astonishing variety of goods, from fresh produce and fish to clothing, toys, shoes, and handicrafts. The market is at its busiest and most fascinating in the early hours of the morning, even though it is open all day.
Royal Antiquities Museum
East of the Imperial City is the Royal Antiquities Museum, which is housed in Long An Palace. Originally built in 1845, the palace is supported by 128 ironwood columns and features a multi-tiered roof. The exhibits, which are all from the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945), include silver crafts, fine porcelain, antique furniture, costumes from the royal wardrobe, Khai Dinh’s bed, and Bao Dai’s shoes. Unfortunately, there is little explanation or information offered on this grand collection.
Dieu De Pagoda
Built during the reign of Thieu Tri (r.1841–7), and renovated many times since Dieu De dates from 1953 in its present form. The pagoda features drum and bell towers and a sanctuary dedicated to the Thich Ca, Buddha. Dieu De was a stronghold of opposition to the South Vietnamese government in the 1960s.
Bao Quoc Pagoda
Giac Phong, a Buddhist monk from China, founded this pagoda in 1670. It was later granted royal status by the Nguyen lord Phuc Khoat (r.1738–65). In the late 18th century, the powerful Tay Son rebel Quang Trung used this house of worship for storing armaments. In 1940, it became a school for Buddhist monks, a function it fulfills to this day. Though it was renovated in the 20th century, the pagoda retains its charm and aura of antiquity even today.
Tu Dam Pagoda
Founded in the 17th century, this temple’s chief importance is as a center for supporting Buddhism, a cause that has been at the heart of Central Vietnam’s political culture since the 1950s. The temple was a major hub of activity during the Buddhist agitation against President Diem’s unpopular Catholic regime during the mid-20th century. As was the disturbing trend at the time, in 1963 a monk burned himself to death in the pagoda’s courtyard in protest against the oppressive regime.
Tu Hieu Pagoda
Set amid the attractive pine woods to the north of Tu Duc’s tomb, Tu Hieu Pagoda is surrounded by a delightful crescent-shaped lotus pond. One of the most serene pagodas in the Hue region, it was established in 1848 by imperial eunuchs. Since they could not have children, the eunuchs financially secured the temple, thus guaranteeing that future generations of monks would always be on hand to perform the necessary ceremonies for their lives in the hereafter. Several monks still inhabit Tu Hieu and hold prayer services daily. The main shrine is dedicated to the Thich Ca, Buddha.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Rising on a bluff above the northwest bank of the Perfume River, Thien Mu or Heavenly Lady Pagoda is an iconic symbol of Hue. Founded in 1601 by Lord Nguyen Hoang, the pagoda is dominated by a seven-story octagonal tower, Thap Phuoc Duyen, which translates as Source of Happiness Tower. A pavilion close by shelters a huge bronze bell cast in 1710. Weighing more than 4,409 lb (2,000 kg), it can purportedly be heard at least 6 miles (10 km) away. A second pavilion houses a stone stele erected in 1715, which eulogizes the history of Buddhism in Hue. Inside, the main shrine is presided over by a laughing.
Buddha surrounded by statues of the ten kings of hell and 18 arhat or holy disciples. Close by is a striking image of the Thich Ca Buddha. The monks’ quarters and gardens are at the back of the temple. In an open garage to the west is the car that drove monk Thich Quang Duc to Saigon in June 1963, where he immolated himself in protest against the Diem regime. Images of this horrific event were shown all over the world, provoking widespread shock and outrage.
Dan Nam Giao
Built by Emperor Gia Long in 1802, Dan Nam Giao or the Altar of Heaven stands beyond the former French Quarter on the east side of the Perfume River. For more than a century, this was the most important ceremonial site in the country. Approximately every three years, between 1806 and 1945, the Nguyen emperors reaffirmed the legitimacy of their rule through a series of elaborate sacrifices to the Emperor of Heaven. The ritual was modeled on the rites practiced in Beijing by the Chinese emperors at the 15thcentury Tian Tan or Temple of Heaven. Today, not much remains of this ceremonial site other than a series of three raised terraces. The first two are square-shaped and are said to represent humanity and earth. The circular terrace at the top symbolizes the heavens. Though there isn’t much of the building left, the site has plenty of atmospheres. In this setting, it is easy to conjure up images of the emperors as the rightful Sons of Heaven interceding with the gods on behalf of their subjects.
Built-in 1830 for the entertainment of the Nguyen emperors and the mandarins, this amphitheater is also known as Ho Quyen or the Tiger Arena. It was used to stage brutal combats between elephants, which were considered noble and symbolized royalty, and tigers, which signified rebellion, in particular, the former Champa Kingdom. It is no surprise that these contests were always rigged so that the elephant would win. Fortunately, no fights have been held since 1904, but the eerily quiet arena remains in quite a good condition. The viewing platforms are intact, as are the five doors opposite leading to the Tigers’ cages.
ROYAL TOMBS OF HUE
Scattered across the scenic countryside south of Hue, the tombs of the Nguyen emperors are among the area’s most compelling attractions. Only 7 of the 13 rulers between 1802 and 1945 were given their own mausoleum, as the others died during exile or in disgrace.
Tomb of Tu Duc
The supremely elegant mausoleum of Tu Duc (r.1848– 83) was designed by the emperor himself. Set on a pine-clad hill, it is flanked by beautiful lotus ponds and aromatic frangipani trees. Tu Duc was known to have preferred the quiet comforts of his future tomb to his own palace. It is said that when the emperor died, he was buried secretly along with the great treasure. All involved in his burial were later executed to keep his final resting place safe from desecration.
Tomb of Dong Khanh
The smallest of all Nguyen tombs is the mausoleum of Dong Khanh (r.1885–88). French influence is quite prominent in its interior, where images of Napoleon Bonaparte hang from the restored red lacquered ironwood pillars.
Tomb of Khai Dinh
Khai Dinh (r.1916–25) was the last to be buried in a royal tomb at Hue. His tomb makes use of concrete and is an interesting fusion of European and Vietnamese architectural styles. Built into the side of a hill, the tomb rises steeply through three levels. In the temple at the summit is a bronze bust of the emperor, cast at Marseilles in 1922.
Tomb of Thieu Tri
The small tomb of Thieu Tri (r.1841–47) features several artificial ponds, although it lacks the usual extensive walled gardens. The complex is divided into two parts. To the east, a delicate temple salutes the deceased, while to the west is the tomb itself.
Tomb of Minh Mang
Located on the west side of the Perfume River, the mausoleum of Emperor Minh Mang, who died in 1841, is one of the most impressive royal tombs. The complex comprises picturesque lakes and gardens, as well as numerous pavilions and other structures with bright colors and lacquer finishes.
Tomb of Gia Long
The mausoleum of the first Nguyen emperor, Gia Long, can be reached by boat either from Hue or from the tiny village of Tuan, or by road via a bridge just south of the tomb of Minh Mang. In a beautiful setting surrounded by mountains and hills, it is the most remote of all the tombs. Built during the 18th to 19th centuries, the site contains not only the tomb of Gia Long but these of the king’s family and relatives. It suffered extensive damage during the Vietnam War but has been restored.
Situated almost halfway along the country’s coastline, on the western bank of the Han River, Danang is one of the fastest changing places in Vietnam. It is the fourth largest but third most important city. Now a major destination in its own right, Danang is also an excellent hub for exploring several nearby attractions and is very well connected, with an air, road, and rail infrastructure linking it to points north and south. Three of Vietnam’s World Heritage Sites – Hoi An, My Son, and Hue Citadel – as well as scenic beaches, are within easy reach of the city.
Danang became prominent during the 19th century. After being captured by the French in 1859, it rapidly developed, replacing Hoi An as the main port for Central Vietnam. Further expansion took place during the Vietnam War when Danang became an important military base for the Americans. Vestiges of all three eras can still be seen in and around the city.
The Museum of Cham Sculpture, or Bao Tang Dieu Khac Cham, is one of the city’s highlights. Founded in 1915 by École Française d’Extrême Orient, the museum showcases the world’s finest collection of Cham sculpture, including altars, sandstone pieces, busts of Hindu gods such as Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, and carvings of scenes from the Ramayana epic. All the sculptures were recovered from nearby Cham sites, including Tra Kieu, the first Champa capital, My Son, and Dong Duong among others, and date from the 7th to the 13th century. There are also contemporary artifacts focusing on Cham culture today.
The pink-colored Danang Cathedral (known locally as Rooster Church) was built in 1923 and has five tiers rising to a steeple-crowned with a cockerel. Another interesting sight is the Cao Dai Temple, the largest after its main counterpart, Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh. Also worth visiting are Phap Lam Pagoda, honoring the Thich Ca Buddha, and Pho Da Pagoda, which is pale cream, with orange tiles and green trimming. The central temple building, which houses the main altar, is flanked by two triple-roofed towers with flaring eaves. This lovely pagoda is also used as a Buddhist college for training monks and nuns.
Danang’s most striking attraction is the spectacular Dragon Bridge, which is illuminated with LED lights at night, and spits water and breathes fire from its mouth from 9 pm. The best place to observe this is from the waterside cafés on the east bank just north of the bridge, or from a boat on the river.
Set on a hill a short distance from Danang’s port and the beach is a well-maintained cemetery containing the tombs of Spanish and French soldiers killed in the 1858 French attack on Danang. About 18 miles (30 km) north of Danang, the Hai Van Pass on Truong Son Range has some of Vietnam’s most breathtaking vistas. The summit of the pass offers splendid views of mountains covered in thick clouds, with the beautiful blue waters of Danang Bay sparkling below.
Located on the road from Danang to Hoi An, this is, as the name suggests, a group of five peaks made of marble and riddled with caves and fissures, many of which contain Buddhist shrines, as well as a few Hindu grottoes. The Vietnamese name is Ngu Hanh Son, which means “five elements” and the individual hills are named Kim (“metal”), Thuy (“water”), Moc (“wood”), Hoa (“fire”), and Tho (“earth”). The main formation, the only one accessible to visitors, is Thuy Son, which can be ascended via steep steps and dark cave passages, stopping off at the various cave temples along the way.
Many of the caves contain beautiful shrines and statues carved out of the marble, such as the Buddhas in the Hoa Nghiem Grotto and the cathedral-like Huyen Khong Cave. The view from the top of the hill takes in the long stretches of beach on the coastline and the urban sprawl of Danang. It’s best visited in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds, and also at around midday, to see the brilliant shafts of sunlight illuminating many of the cave interiors.
During the Vietnam War Huyen Khong Cave was used by the Viet Cong as a hospital, and as a handy hideout for raiding the nearby US airbase on the beach, and you can still see the odd bullet hole here and there from potshots taken from the US base.
The best views in the area are from Nui Son Tra on the peninsula that juts out northeast from Danang. Also known as Monkey Mountain after the now dwindling troupes of red-faced monkeys that frequent it, Son Tra is easily visited by road, taking about 35 minutes to reach the 2,273-ft (693-m) peak from the city. The steep, winding road runs above jungle-covered cliffs through the national park and offers fantastic views of the lovely coastline stretching away into the distance and Hi Van Mountain, Cham Island, and Danang City, which get better the higher you ascend. Halfway up you will find the 18thcentury Linh Ung Pagoda, whose courtyard is dominated by the pristine white, 220-ft- (67-m-) high statue of Lady Buddha Da Nang, reportedly the tallest of all the goddess statues in Southeast Asia.
It’s also possible to hike up to the top of Monkey Mountain from Bai Bac Beach (taking about four hours), on a well-marked path that passes by a 600-year-old banyan tree. You might see the rare red-shanked Douc langur monkey, with its red legs and white arms, and numerous species of birds. Be aware that at weekends and on religious holidays Monkey Mountain can be thronged with pilgrims.
Ba Na Hill Station
A conveniently close getaway from Danang, this former French hill station provides a cool escape from the coast. Set on top of a mountain at an altitude of 4,593 ft (1,400 m), it is often shrouded in mist. Some of the 1920s French colonial villas here have been converted into guesthouses and hotels.
The chief attractions are a cable car, which has the world’s longest non-stop single-track system, an amusement park, and hiking trails to waterfalls. A striking bridge, Cau Vang (Golden Bridge), opened in 2018, emerging from the trees in the Thien Thai gardens to loop around the mountain. The eight-span, ribbon-like bridge is held aloft by giant stone hands, and offers fantastic panoramic views over the Truong Son Mountains and Danang, with the South China Sea in the distance.
The long stretch of beaches between Danang and the Marble Mountains is known to the Vietnamese as the My Khe, My An, and Non-Nuoc beaches. However, these white sandy shores were known to US servicemen as China Beach and were later highlighted by an eponymous popular TV series. Though banned by the government, a number of developers have taken to using the designation China Beach in an attempt to encourage foreign visitors.
During the Vietnam War, the Americans – for whom Danang was among the most important and secure bases in South Vietnam – developed My Khe and My An beaches as a rest-and-recreation center for US forces taking a few days leave from the war. Today, nothing remains of the former R&R facilities, although several souvenir stalls and seafood restaurants have sprung up here. The area is a popular destination for surfing and swimming in summer.