Hue – The Forbidden Purple City and Imperial Tombs

Asia Vietnam Hue Royal Tombs

We left Hoi An on the bus and arrived in Hue after dark. I think we just let one of the tauters lead us to a hotel. It was cold and raining and we didn’t really want to walk around much. This is how we saw the best place on our trip. A restaurant, pub and cafe in one.

Cafe On Thu WheelsCafe on Thu Wheels

Address: 3/34 Nguyen Tri Phuong Street, Hue, Vietnam


  • amazing atmosphere
  • place where you can let your “wachfulness” down and be crazy
  • charming owner
  • if you are feeling home sick and need to meet genuine, fun, and interesting people this is your place
  • other travellers, we joined them in drinking local beer and sharing travel adventures
  • delicious food
  • motorbike rental and tours
  • a notebook with messages and contacts to people all around the World
  • walls full of memories and individual expressions
  • toilet you are not likely to forget 😉 I’m not going to spoil it for you

We stayed at the hotel just opposite. I can’t complain. It was good standard but it was terribly cold. Well I suppose it would be perfect if the temperature outside was tropical heat.

Hue served as Vietnam’s capital under the emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and the city’s regal past can still be seen inside the walls of the Citadel and the Imperial City. Thanks to UNESCO funding, much of the City is being faithfully restored to its former glory. The Imperial City, created in the 19th century and modeled on the Forbidden City in Beijing, has many palaces and temples inside. The seat of the Nguyen emperors was the Citadel, which occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the river. Inside the citadel was a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access; the punishment for trespassing was death. Today, little of the forbidden city remains, though reconstruction efforts are in progress to maintain it as a historic tourist attraction.

We decided to split. P. wanted to rent a motorbike and just drive around and I wanted to see the Royal Tombs with a guide. It was to be the highlight of our trip for me. I love the flexibility and no pressure to be together all the time. I think we were both happy about the choice we made.

In short, from what P. told me, the ride around city was exciting and the traffic wasn’t as bad as in HCMC after driving around the center he decided to drive out of the city. There he almost had a terrible accident in a big puddle. Anyway I was glad he was alright. I have no idea what I would have done if he didn’t show up in the place where we were supposed to meet. Where to start looking? And when? We didn’t even have working mobile phones to get in touch. So I’m glad nothing happened.

Hue PagodaI went on a tour. It wasn’t organised by Cafe on Thu Wheels. If it wasn’t raining I think I would go on a motorbike tour they offer. Anyway, we had a bus. The first thing we saw was the Thien Mu Pagoda (pagoda of the Heavenly Lady). It is located on a hill overlooking the Perfume River. In the autumn, flowers from orchards upriver from Hue fall into the water, giving the river a perfume-like aroma, hence the soubriquet. Hue Thien Mu PagodaLegend has it that the pagoda was founded after and old woman dressed in red gown and green trousers appeared on the hill and prophesied that soon a true king will come here and build a pagoda that will attract and converge all the heavenly forces and energies of the Dragon Veins. After saying it the woman vanished. And so it happened. I guess you can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy as the king that build it heard it before he made a decision.

The most characteristic building is the wedding cake like tower. It has seven storeys which represent incarnations of Buddha.

bonsaiWe then visited a garden. It was a special garden with different types of plants and flowers. I think it was Ngoc Son which was the former residence of the Princess Ngoc Son, daughter of Emperor Dong Khanh. But it might be some other garden as well. it wasn’t a big thing for me and maybe because of the season it wasn’t anything special. Almost no blooming flowers, everything wet and gray. Well you have to pay a price for travelling out of season. I was really looking forward to the tombs. So let’s move forward to it.

When you think about royal tombs in hue think more of a pleasure grounds and temples than cementaries and mausoleums. They combine park like landscapes and lakes with traditional architecture. Each tomb consists of: a pavilon housing a stele recording the emperor’s achievements, a brick paved court of honour where life sized stone mandarins and animal figures stand in attendence, a tample with funerary tablet and precious items belonging to the emperor, a masoleum and houses for guards and servants. Each of the tombs is different though.

The Tomb of Minh Mang (also called Hieu Tomb)

Minh Mang Tomb gatesMinh Mang was possibly the greatest of Nguyen emperors. This 28 hectare tomb is surrounded by an oval wall of 1700 meters. Originally, the tomb consisted of 40 architectural constructions symmetrically arranged along a 700 meter axis. It is known for its solemnity and precise layout. It is a UNESCO World heritage Site.mandarins

Dai Hong Mon: It is the main gate to enter the tomb. The gate presents three paths with 24 heaving roofs covered with beautiful decorations. The gate was opened only once to bring the Emperor’s coffin to the tomb, and had been tightly closed since then. Visitors have to use the two side-gates Ta Hong Mon (Left Gate) and Huu Hong Mon (Right Gate).

Minh Mang stele houseOn the Salutation Court there are the Thahn stone statues of great mandarins, along with elephants and horses representing the royal entourage that accompanies and protects the emperor in the other world. The Salutation Court is divided into four steps – The Hien Duc Mon (gate) leads to the worship place. In the centre is Sung An Temple surrounded by Ta, Huu Phoi Dien (Left, Right Temples) in the front and Ta, Huu Tung Phong (Left, Right Rooms) in the back. altarThe Emperor and Queen Ta Thien Nhan are worshipped in Sung An Temple. Finally, the Hoang Trach Gate leads to the Minh Lau Bright Pavilion. It is placed on top of three terraces representing heaven, earth and water. It is a square pavilion with two storeys and eight roofs. The Minh Lau Pavilion radiates a remarkable, mystical atmosphere; it also features an anthology of selected poems of Vietnam’s early 19th century. On both sides of Minh Lau, two obelisks stand on the hills. In the back of Minh Lau are two flower gardens designed as the character “Longevity”.

The stele house keeps the Thanh Duc Than Cong Stele consistion of an essay of 2500 Chinese characters of Thieu Tri emperor that was carved to praise the contribution of his emperor-father Minh Mang and to describe the tomb constructing process.

The tomb (Buu Thanh) – Tan Nguyet (New Moon) crescent Lake embraces the circular Buu Thanh (The wall surrounding the grave). There are three bridges on Tan Nguyet Lake. Minh Mang TombVisitors have to climb 33 Thanh stone steps to reach the sepulchre of the Emperor. We were in fact not allowed to climb those stairs I think because of the restoration works.

Tu Duc Tomb

Tu Duc Tomb boardLocated in a narrow valley, Tu Duc Tomb is one of the most beautifully designed complexes among the tombs of the Nguyen dynasty. Embedded in a lush pine forest, this tomb is the final resting place of Emperor Tu Duc who had the longest reign of all emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. In his lifetime, the Emperor Tu Duc used the tomb as a palatial retreat together with his many wives and concubines.

The enormous costs, extra taxation and forced labor necessary to build the tomb caused protest among the workers, who attempted a coup in 1866. With the help of his generals Tự Đức was able to suppress the coup and continued enjoying the palace within the tomb for the remainder of his life. The royal amenities available at this tomb are unmatched by any other such structure in Vietnam.
Although the Emperor had over a hundred wives and concubines, he did not have any offspring. Lacking a son to write his biography and merits, which would be part of the stele inscription, the task fell to himself, a circumstance he considered to be a bad omen. His modest self-composed epitaph can now be found inscribed on the stele in the pavilion, to the east of the tomb. The stele for Tự Đức Tomb was brought there from a quarry over 500 km away, and it is the largest of its type in Viet Nam. It took four years to complete the transport. The tomb’s palace area has a lake where the Emperor used to boat, a small game hunting ground on a tiny island inmidst the lake, and the luxurious Xung Khiem Pavilion where Tu Duc is said to have retreated to relax and recite or compose poetry in the company of his concubines.

Tu Duc poetry pavilonIt was in fact designed by the emperor as a secluded poetic fairyland where he could write poetry and enjoy life’s pleasures and, in death, find a harmonious resting place. It comprises 50 structures enclosed by 1500m wall. The entrance is a Vu Kiem Gate in the south. To the right is the Luu Khiem Lake with Tinh Khiem islet in the middle. Tu Duc TombOn the tomb complex you can also find Minh Khiem royal theatre and Hoa Khiem Temple used as a palace during Tu Duc’s lifetime. What is funny is that the emperors remains are not there, his burial site is unknown.

I didn’t include many photos of Tu Duc Tomb in the text above, I will add some more in the slideshow below. From hue we took a train to Da Nang and then a flight back to HCMC. On the train which was better than our regional services in Poland a steward was serving a soup, courious thing. There was also a lovely girl, picture in the slideshow. It was hard to go back but to be honest I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. I think first time in my life I was exhausted with the holidays and finally taking a week off to rest after holidays started to make sense. We got very late back to London (flight through Bahrain) and it was so windy and called I hated it streight away. Now when I don’t remember the constant tiredness I start to appreciate how much we saw. The thing is, I know the balance between doing nothing and seightseeing is crucial. I think I’m just greedy, want to see as much as I can and sometimes it’s just so hard to give something up and choose. Unless you have unlimited time and money you have to make smart decisions.

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My Son Sanctuary – trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva at the heart of the Cham people

asia Vietnam My Son Sanctuary Chang

My Son Vietnam“I go first, then you go! I die first, then you die! buhahahahaa”

These were the words of our guide in My Son. You should hear his low voice, accent and intonation. It reminds me of Samurai talk in Kurosawa movies. P. can really do this talk.

In the morning of our departure from Hoi An we went on a day trip to My Son, a spiritual hear to the Kingdom of Champa.

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Hoi An – pearl of Vietnam and UNESCO World Heritage Site

Vietnam hoi An Asia travel

Hoi An Japanese bridge

Exhausted, sick and sore we got to Hoi An. Bent under the weight of our backpacks we did not intend to look for a place to stay for long. I think we went into maybe three hotels. Streets of Hoi AnWe chose the least expensive, but still comfortable with a swimming pool and got straight into bed, ok shower (warm shower) was first. And let me tell you not everywhere we had warm water. And then the air conditioning was shut down because of some external works in the street. Hoi An I suppose for people used to living in hot climate the change between coolness of an apartment building and very hot outside is something usual but I felt uncomfortable every time it happened and straight away I got running nose. Being sick in hot climate, without air conditioning, feels really bad. Anyway, we stayed there for two nights and in that time we both got better. We used the swimming pool in the hotel with freezing water what felt good. It all goes into oblivion when you consider the beauty of Hoi An.

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Nha Trang – quick glimpse – appearances, snorkelling, rum & coke

Asia Vietnam Nha Trang

Nha Trang from the sea

From Ho Chi Minh City we took a night bus to Nha Trang. It seemed like a good way to save on accommodation cost and time and I do recommend it. The bus was cosy and I woke up in the early morning in Nha Trang.night bus vietnam

We had a company of two puppies in the bus. They didn’t make a sound throughout the whole journey and looked soooo cute, imagine this in Europe!

puppy VietnamAnyway when we got to Nha Trang we were hungry, mad and tired. We left the tauters behind and walked to one of the first hotels away from what we thought was main tourist area. There was marble on the floors and decorations that made us believe we can expect similar standard like we had in Ho Chi Minh. The price was $5 for a room without air-conditioning and $1 additionally to get it working. We had a look at the room and took it. Until today I don’t know what we were thinking. I can honestly say it was the worst room I have ever rented. It was dump. Everything including bedding was damp. We had a window that open on the corridor where the air-conditioning was throwing out the warm air from all rooms next to the corridor. It would even shut properly. The bathroom was a wet room with no ventilation everything in very socialistic style. I thought I has some pictures of it, but can’t find them.

sitting buddha nha trang

Anyway, after a short nap we decided to wander around and visit Lam Son Pagoda famous for the Giant Seated Buddha. It was established to pagoda nha tranghonour the monks and nuns who died demonstrating against Diem government. To see the statue you have to climb stairs which in the heat can be very demanding, but it’s so worth the effort. Besides the giant Buddha you can see beautiful panorama of Nha Trang and surrounding hills.Pagoda in Nha Trang

During the rest of the day we hired some sun beds under the straw umbrellas where constantly somebody was offering us something to buy. It was very annoying after a while, also quite boring to lie there and go to the water after a while. I don’t think we got our money worth from this. Later on we decided to book a snorkelling trip for the following day. shivaWe also bought some local rum and cans of coke (low on budget) and sat down on the beach to watch beautiful sunset and teenagers seating next to bonfire. Yes bone fire on the beach, so close to a dream that still remains unfulfilled.bonfire

The snorkelling trip was stunning for P. – it was his first time and he absolutely loved it. We spend more than half day on a boat and in the water observing reefs. When we came back we decided to spoil ourselves a bit and visited Nhà hàng bia tươi Louisiane. Looks stunning and the prices tell you it’s luxurious. We had to wait around for another night bus and started to feel really bad. I suppose it was the combination of rum, sunstroke, flu and fatigue.

snorkelling nha trang

I remember we lied down on the towels in the sun and covered ourselves with whatever we had on us from the snorkelling trip and felt really, Island near Nha Trangreally cold. The wind was terrible.  I covered my head with the straw hat I bought in Saigon and fell asleep. We welcomed the bus arrival with relief, at least until we got inside. It was much less comfortable and we got our seats under the air conditioning that could not be turned off. Well ok, P. got. He stayed there for something like 5mins and as he felt worse than I did we switched places. He took blankets from all the surrounding seats and wrapped himself so I could only see his blue mouth mask and sunglasses. It was a hard night. divingEvery bone and muscle could feel every single bump on the hip-hop highway and endless interruption in our sleep made me even more exhausted. It felt like endless centuries of waking up, trying to make myself comfortable and falling back to sleep. When we got to Hoi An I knew it was time to slow down and rest.

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Mekong Delta Adventure

Vietnam Saigon Mekong Delta

Mekong canals

In Ho Chi Minh City we bought a Mekong Delta one-day trip. We decided against Cu Chi Tunnels and skipped floating market (I do regret it a bit); they say that Vietnamese market is not as colorful as the one near Bangkok. Still I would like to have seen it. We really enjoyed Mekong tour. Leaving in the morning wasn’t that bad even though I remember being very tired. We got some sweet buns on our way to the bus. They were sweet and freshly baked, I remember I loved them.

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Highlights of Ho Chi MInh City

Well I really enjoyed Ho Chi Minh City. Not really the sightseeing part, but the everyday one. I made my list of highlights. It is not conclusive so go figure by yourself 🙂

Bến Thành Market SaigonBến Thành Market – in the heart of the city just opposite to the bus station (located on the side of huge round about by the way). I got really scared inside. The alleys between stalls are very narrow and unoccupied sellers had nothing to do but to occupy themselves with bothering us to buy something. At some point I thought they are going to rip us apart. Each one was pulling me in a different direction shouting “buy something! BUY SOMETHING!” I was so stressed out I didn’t even want to buy anything, all I wanted was to scream and run away.

It looks lovely, there is so much of colourful stock all around you feel like in a treasure cave but you don’t have a moment to take it all in as constantly someone is bothering you. And it is expensive. It’s a tourist attraction so what should one expect?! I bought some coffee in there and regretted it the moment I saw prices outside and again regretted it when I had to drink it. Maybe I’m just not big fan of Vietnamese coffee.

Outside the market there are little shops that offer prices lower than the stalls inside the place. How crazy is that? We bought there the traditional straw hats. And we also went to a local restaurant around the corner. The menu was only in Vietnamese and there were no tourist around. I didn’t want anything to eat but P. ordered a soup which he really enjoyed. Local bar in Saigon

I know we looked inside the pots and showed what we wanted. Liking soups comes really handy sometimes. At night there is a night market just outside Bến Thành. Long rows of stalls with clothes and food mainly. We got there some linen pants and blouses for the trip to Mekong Delta we planned for the next day. The pants had no pockets and the ripped apart really quickly so even though we bargained a lot I think it wasn’t worth it.

Dam Sen Water Park – 03 Hoa Binh, Ward 3, District 11. Anyone that needs to rest will find it perfect for that purpose. The taxi was horribly expensive but we were afraid we won’t get there and we couldn’t find out from our hostel hosts which bus is going there. So we paid for a taxi something really stupid and came back by bus (number 11) which was terribly cheap. The entrance was something like $5. Don’t make the same mistake I did though. Watch out when you go on Kamikaze slide. I hurt my back bone so badly it hurt me even a couple of weeks after we were back in London.

Revolutionary Museum Ho Chi Minh CityRevolutionary Museum – if it makes you laugh you can see a handkerchief some comrade was using or a camera which some picture of a famous party member was taken with and so on and so on. We know it so well from Poland. The pathos and descriptions were so demagogic you could only laugh or cry. We chose the first one. P. was trying to hold on to the bike covered with rice bags pushing it only with the handles when a member of the staff told him to put one hand on the handle and the other at the back of the bike where the rice bags were fixed. I found this very funny! What do you think? We also saw a staging of a party rally with a banner saying “Independence or death”

Hung Kings Temple – right across the entrance of the History Museum. The temple was built on Nghia Linh Mountain, there are three levels connected by stone steps. The lowest level Ha Temple (worshiping Au Ho), middle level Trung temple (worshiping the Hung Kings), the highest level Thuong temple (placing the mausoleum symbol of the Hung Kings). The Hung Kings temple is not only a beauty spot but also the site in memory of the national origin.

KIM restaurant De Tham StreetOur favourite Restaurant – KIM on De Tham Street – best food in Vietnam I have tried. And there are some pictures from Ireland! The service is maybe not the quickest and not the best but the food is worth it. We always ordered more than we could eat. Oh the sauces and fish rolls yummy.

The most amazing thing though is the traffic. Moppets, cars, pedestrians all mingling together without accidents. You just have to get a feel for it. Next post about our trip to Mekong Delta.


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