The more I travel around Vietnam the more I see how much of a tourism giant this country could become. There are so many places that have yet to realise their potential, and Hue is one of those underachievers.
While Danang and Nha Trang are now booming as beach destinations, Hue could easily position itself as a cultural destination. ASEAN already thinks this, as it designated Hue as the 3rd “City of Culture of ASEAN” in 2014. This program is similar to The European Capital of Culture, where the EU selects a city for a year to be a focal point for cultural events.
Hue is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 14 sites listed under the Complex of Hue Monuments.
[Road to Hue University of Arts, inside the Citadel.]
This was my third visit to Hue, with my previous visits being in 2005 and 2012. I’ve already seen the main cultural sites, so on this trip, I was more interested to see how city life in Hue is evolving.
There are two distinct sides to Hue, split in half by the perfume River. The old Citadel is on the northwest side of the river while the city centre is opposite to the southeast.
Within the Citadel is the Imperial City, and with the Imperial City is the Purple Forbidden City. As Churchill might have said – it’s a city, wrapped in a city, inside a citadel.
Also inside the Citadel is the Hue History Museum, where you can see why so much of the historical city was destroyed.
[Hue History Museum.]
Apart from these main attractions the rest of the Citadel is a residential area, which is where I did my wandering.
While I was walking around the moated old city I couldn’t help but think of another place that has a moated old city – Chiang Mai.
[The moated walled city of Chiang Mai]
Curious about this similarity I checked this website that compares maps side-by-side at the same scale.
[Comparison map of Chiang Mai and Hue.]
The website doesn’t save comparisons yet so I am just using a screenshot. You can see that both cities have square old cities. Apart from sharing a similar physical attribute of an old city bounded by a square moat, there are other similarities that make them worthy of comparison.
Chiang Mai was the capital of the old Lanna Kingdom, while Hue was the capital under the former Nguyen Dynasty. Chiang Mai is also considered as the cultural capital of Thailand, and Hue is recognised as a cultural capital. Both are also near mountains, though Hue has the advantage of being near beaches.
This got me wondering if Hue could ever reach the same international standards as Chiang Mai. On my last visit to Chiang Mai I noted what a provincial powerhouse this city is. There are few cities in Asia this size (that are not capitals) that are as international as Chiang Mai.
At this point, Hue is not even close to being able to compare to Chiang Mai in terms of being an international city. You only have to compare the airports to see the stark difference.
I was surprised to find that there are no international flights that serve Hue Airport. As of August 2019 (when I visited), there were only domestic flights serving Hue.
[Hue Airport destinations (via Wiki).]
I would have thought that there would at least be AirAsia flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, as they fly practically every else in Southeast Asia. Even with only half the population of Chiang Mai (455,000 compared to 960,000 metro), there should be international flights in Hue.
There are some international charter flights that are arranged by a local tour company, but no scheduled flights. As I noted in my Vietnam aviation report, Vietravel (the Hue based travel agent) is looking to start a new airline with Hue as the base. This might be the start of putting Hue on the international flight map.
By comparison, Chiang Mai has flights from all over Southeast and East Asia, as well as being served by Qatar Airways.
[Chiang Mai International Airport top destinations (via Wiki).]
For overland travellers Hue is a “must stop” on the north-south travel route, and there are many tour buses that come from Danang and Hoi an. To have no international flights though is why I say that Hue is underachieving in the tourism department.
So Hue is no way near being an international city yet, but it has the physical attributes to become one. While I was walking around the old city I wondered if any streets here would one day be featured in international news sites as the next Nimmanhaemin Road.
There are no hipster cafes yet, and the only chain I saw in the Citadel was a Highlands Coffee (a popular Vietnamese cafe chain) opposite one of the main gates to Imperial City. All it would take would be a few cool cafes to set up somewhere, and from there a scene would emerge along that street. I have seen the cafe scene in Danang to grow in the space of under five years, so why not Hue next.
There are of course plenty of small independent cafes here. I stopped for a Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese Iced Coffee), which in this part of Vietnam is called a Ca Phe Sai Gon (coffee in the Saigon style).
Hue is still very much a provincial city in this part of town, and there are barely any places to stay. Open the map on a hotel booking site and you will see hardly any hotels listed.
While the UNESCO-listed Citadel gets most of the attention on “things to do in Hue” listicles, I had forgotten what a pleasant place the city side of Hue is. There are some historical buildings here, but like everywhere else in Vietnam the struggle to preserve heritage architecture is an ongoing battle.
I like that the city has nice tree-lined streets and that it’s easy to walk around.
Since I was last here they now have the Vincom Plaza tower. Hopefully they contain the big developments on this side of town.
If there is going to be a cool cafes movement in Hue, it will start on on the city side first. I went to The Cham, which serves craft beer and espresso coffee.
From Hue I got the train to Dong Hoi, four hours to the north. If the planned national railway redevelopment ever gets done then it would make it even easier to get to Hue.
Hue is just 104 KM away from Danang, yet it takes anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 hours to get there by train. An upgraded north-south railway with trains travelling at 160km/h would put Hue within 40 minutes from Danang, and 200km/h would make it a 30-minute trip. That would make Hue and Danang commuter cities. I cover this topic in my future Southeast Asia railways guide.
I didn’t even touch on one of the aces up Hue’s proverbial sleeve of the beaches. I still haven’t visited them, but our man at Travelfish describes the nearby Thuan An Beach as one of Central Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches.
Hue has a long way from being anywhere like Chiang Mai, but I like to think about these things. I’ve often seen the question in forums if there another city alternative to Chiang Mai (usually when people are looking to flee the burning season).
Other cities to watch include the other previous ASEAN City of Culture holders of Yogyakarta and Cebu. I’ve been to both and they have a long way to go as well, but put them down as future candidates.
Read more about provincial capitals of Vietnam.