Beyond the Imperial City and Royal Tombs, Hue has even more to offer those with a knack for exploration. While the imperial era of the Nguyen Dynasty is long gone, many of the pagodas and temples they founded or refurbished are still in operation. Some of the places on this list, like the Thien Mu Pagoda, are prominent fixtures on the day tour circuit. Most of the others, however, remain some of the city’s best-kept secrets. If you enjoyed the tombs and the Citadel and are looking for something similar but without the crowds, here are seven special temples to check out during your time in Hue.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Arguably Hue’s most famous pagoda, Thien Mu predates even the Citadel and the Royal Tombs. Situated just north of the Perfume River, the pagoda was built all the way back in 1601 during the reign of the very first Nguyen lord, Nguyen Huang.
Thien Mu translates to Celestial Lady Pagoda, and the pagoda was originally constructed to fulfill a local prophecy. Legend has it that a mysterious old lady would regularly come and sit in the area. One day, she predicted that a future lord would erect a pagoda there for protection of the town. After that, she was never seen again. But when Nguyen Huang caught word of the story, he figured that he’d go ahead and do it.
Thien Mu’s octagonal tiered tower was constructed a couple hundred years after the site’s founding. The third Nguyen Emperor, Thieu Tri, constructed the 21-meter high tower in the middle of his short six year reign. This perhaps helps explain why he never got around to starting his own tomb!
Nearby the tower you’ll find a pavilion housing a stone stele. While these stone slabs are common all over the city, this one is a little different. The stele is sticking out from a marble turtle, which is meant to symbolize longevity. While Thien Mu Pagoda has experienced a lot of weather damage throughout its history, it seems to be holding up pretty well considering its age. Another nearby pavilion houses a bell which can supposedly be heard up to 10 kilometers away.
Oddly enough, another one of the highlights of the ancient pagoda happens to be a car. In the 1960’s, South Vietnam and fervent Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem had been persecuting Buddhists. Out of protest, a monk named Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon, exited the vehicle and self-immolated himself right out in the street. This is the car he drove, and it can also be seen in the famous photograph that sent shockwaves through the international media at the time.
Elsewhere around the complex, you can find the main temple area featuring a number of golden Buddha statues, as well as a bonsai garden. And there’s even a forested area in the back you can visit to escape the crowds. There, you’ll be able to find another, yet smaller, tiered pagoda tower.
I ended up visiting Thien Mu Pagoda as part of a day tour which included three of the main tombs. This is the easiest way to get there, but you’ll also have to deal with the crowds. If you can make it on your own, try to come in the early morning before the tourists arrive.
With that said, I visited all of the following locations on this list independently, and in most cases, I had the place completely to myself.
Tu Hieu Pagoda
Tu Hieu Pagoda is easily one of Hue’s best-kept secrets. Set amongst gorgeous natural surroundings, the pagoda welcomes visitors with its crescent-shaped pond and its elegant three-doored gate. The large temple compound also lacks the busloads of tourists you’ll find at Thien Mu Pagoda or the Royal Tombs. In fact, you’re unlikely to hear anything but the sound of the birds and perhaps some monks chanting.
The Buddhist site was originally established in the 19th century by eunuchs working for Nguyen Emperor Tu Duc. In traditional Vietnamese belief, the destination of one’s soul in the afterlife can largely be influenced by the offerings and ritual carried out by the living. Such rituals are usually performed by a person’s descendants, but the eunuchs, of course, had no offspring. Therefore, they established this pagoda for themselves so that at least the monks would care for their souls after death.
In the temple’s inner garden, you can find a traditional rock garden and bonsai plants. If the scene reminds you of Chan Buddhist temples in China, or Zen Buddhist temples in Japan, you’d be right. This pagoda belongs to the Thien Buddhist sect, the Vietnamese version of Zen. In fact, Tu Hieu is famous locally as a place where prominent Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh was ordained.
The temple complex also has a cemetery where the eunuchs are buried. Walking around, you’ll be able to spot some smaller structures and steles that have remained in the same spot for centuries.
Tu Hieu is about 5km from the center of the city. As it’s not part of day tours, you’ll have to either arrange a private driver or ride there yourself. The effort is definitely worth it, though. Out of all the place I visited in Hue, Tu Hieu Pagoda was easily one of my favorites.
Bao Quoc Pagoda
Bao Quoc is an even more obscure pagoda well off the tourist circuit. While not as impressive as Tu Hieu, it’s equally as peaceful. It’s also one of the oldest in the city, dating back to 1670 when the Nguyen lords (and not emperors) controlled central Vietnam. Later In the early 1800’s, during the reign of the first Nguyen emperor Gia Long, his wife commissioned the triple gate that remains a symbol of the temple today.
Like Tu Hieu, Bao Quoc Pagoda is part of the Thien (Zen) sect of Buddhism, and it even has a monk training center on the premises. Around the 2 hectare area you’ll find pine and orchid trees providing shade to various Buddhist statues and steles. Also like Tu Hieu, Bao Quoc has a graveyard area where you can also find a small tiered pagoda tower.
The pagoda is located on Bao Quoc street in a residential area and can be a little hard to find. It may not be as spectacular as other pagodas in Hue, but if you liked the tranquility of Tu Hieu, you’ll certainly enjoy the vibe here too.
Tu Dam Pagoda
Tu Dam Pagoda is one of the more centrally-located pagodas in Hue. It may lack the serenity of other pagodas on this list, but it still covers a pretty big area with plenty of details to pick out. The pagoda was heavily damaged during the Vietnam War, and while none of that damage is evident today, it clearly has a more modern feel than other temples in the city.
In addition to the tall tiered pagoda tower, don’t miss the intricately carved dragons to be spotted all around the courtyard. Walking over to the right side, you’ll notice a large dormitory area. Tu Dam Pagoda contains lodging for not just monks, but for nuns as well. Inside the spacious temple, you’ll find a Buddha statue sitting atop a beautifully decorated altar.
Back by the entrance, don’t miss the large bodhi tree. These are highly revered in Buddhism, as it’s the same type of tree under which the Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment. Like many bodhi trees around Southeast Asia, this tree is claimed to be related to that exact tree in Bodhigaya, India
Dan Nam Giao
Located down the road from Tu Dam pagoda, the place known as Dan Nam Giao is one of Hue’s most intriguing historical spots. While not a Buddhist pagoda, this is where the Nguyen Emperors conducted special religious ceremonies to reaffirm their right to rule.
The tradition was modeled after Ming dynasty rulers in 15th century China. At the Temple of Heaven, located in Beijing, emperors would pray to the heavens for a long reign and fruitful harvests. Therefore, the tradition taken up by the Nguyen rulers in Vietnam could be considered more an adaptation of Chinese animism than of any particular organized religion.
Started by Gia Long, the first Nguyen Emperor who took the throne in 1802, the special ceremony would repeat itself every three years until the end of the Dynasty in 1945. It would also involve a large procession of elephants from the Imperial City to Dan Nam Giao. Supposedly, the temple was heavily damaged over the years and it’s now unclear exactly how it originally looked back then.
Today, things appear rather barren, with the wide three-tiered platform containing nothing but a bronze cauldron. The central area is surrounded on all sides by a large forested area, with straight paved pathways stretching out to all four sides of the large square.
I spent some time walking to the far ends of the space, but I didn’t end up finding much at all. Even situated among the bustling streets of central Hue, however, the overall area is so vast and quiet that you can easily forget you’re in the middle of a city.
While the official ceremonies may be long gone, the space is kept alive to this day with regular offerings and incense burnings. Though not too far out of the way, Dan Nam Giao is basically completely unknown to tourists and is worth a visit for those looking for something a little different. Or perhaps just a quiet place to sit down with a book.
The Tiger Arena
Historically speaking, the Royal Tiger Arena may be one of Hue’s most peculiar destinations. Established in 1830 during the reign of the second Nguyen emperor, Minh Mang, this special arena was built as a place for animals to do battle in front of spectators. Specifically, the fights were always between a tiger and an elephant. If that didn’t sound bad enough, the battles were also rigged.
The elephants were meant to represent the royal family, while the tiger symbolized rebel forces. The Nguyen rulers were never very popular in Vietnam, and were constantly quelling uprisings and coup attempts during their time in power.
Afraid that giving the tigers a fighting chance might put the wrong ideas in people’s heads, the tigers were declawed before going into fight. Predictably, the elephants came out victorious each time. This would go on all the way up until the year 1904.
As of 2018, the arena is undergoing renovation and not open to the public. As there doesn’t seem to be any official tourism source with updates, the best you can do is check the most recent Google reviews. Though I’d read that it was closed, the receptionist at my hotel called a friend in the local tourism industry who assured her it was open. I arrived, however, only to find locked doors. There were obvious signs of construction but no workers.
The arena isn’t the only site in the area. Just down the road is a special temple built in dedication for the royal elephants. Known as Long Chau Temple, this place was also closed. While you could get more of a peek inside, the interior is mostly empty.
Supposedly, both places are being renovated, with the intention of opening them up for tourists again in the future. They sure seem to be taking their time with the project, though. As of right now, the arena and elephant temple may be the type of places that are more interesting to read about than to actually visit.
Thien An Monastery
Located on a hill in a secluded part of the city is what from a distance, looks like just another Hue pagoda. But despite the architectural style, the structure at the top is actually a church. The monastery was established by the Benedictine Order in the year 1940, meaning that it comes just at the tail end of Vietnam’s imperial era, which officially ended in 1945.
Unlike his predecessors who relentlessly persecuted Catholic missionaries throughout the 19th century, Vietnam’s final emperor, Bao Dai, was much more accepting of the religion. In fact, he was educated in France and even converted to Catholicism himself later in life.
The church area is not very big, so unless you’re visiting to attend a service, don’t expect to spend more than 30 minutes or so here. Like most of the other places on this list, Thien An gets virtually no tourist traffic, but it does attract a number of locals who come to pose for photos and enjoy the coolness of the hilltop. As most Catholic churches in Vietnam were built in the traditional French colonial style, the fusion of East and West at Thien An makes for a delightfully unique attraction.
Thien An Monastery is relatively close to the Khai Dinh Tomb as well as the Thuy Thien abandoned water park. As with most religious sites on this list, you’ll need to arrange your own private transport, but at least the entry is free.
Hue can be reached by plane, train or bus from Vietnam’s major cities.
Train prices can vary greatly depending on what class you’re in. From Hanoi the journey takes around 14 hours, while from Saigon it takes around twenty!
A bus from either Hanoi and Saigon would only ever be considered by the most masochistic of travelers. Getting between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An, however, is best done by bus. The journey only last four or five hours.
If you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling around Vietnam and are flexible with time, you might want to look up the “Vietnam Open Bus Tour.” Essentially, for a set fee, this allows you to get on and off long distance buses as you please.
You can also fly directly from Saigon to Hue (as I did), and the price is very reasonable. Be aware the when you arrive at the airport, there’s an airport shuttle that will take you into town, but it still may be another 10 – 15 minute walk to your hotel. As it was raining, I decided to just take a taxi.
As is common in Asia, you’ll be approached by a number of sketchy touts with big fake smiles as soon as you walk outside. Ignore them. You’re best off sticking to a proper taxi company with a uniformed driver, such as Mai Linh.
Hue’s attractions are very spread out and public transportation is nonexistent. The Citadel, fortunately, is walkable from the center of the city which also contains most of the hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s roughly twenty five minutes on foot and you’ll have to walk along the bridge over the river to get there.
To get around to the city’s various tombs and pagodas, you have the option of taking an organized tour, hiring a private driver or renting your own motorbike. I recommend a combination of these methods, spread out over a period of days.
If you need a driver, I would not recommend dealing with the drivers or touts who approach you in the street. They seem to be offering you drugs more often than rides! (You’ll see what I mean when you get there.) Instead, I recommend booking a private driver (often a just a motorbike, on which you’ll sit behind the driver) via your hotel with the price confirmed beforehand.
During my time in Hue I stayed at Ibiza Guest House which I couldn’t recommend highly enough. The hotel is well situated and the owner is incredibly friendly and helpful. She can provide a wealth of information on things to do and see in the area, and will set you up with a reliable driver if need be. Furthermore, the complimentary breakfast was delicious with generous portions.
Both shared as well as private rooms are available. I stayed in a private, which was one of the more spacious rooms for the price I’ve stayed at in Southeast Asia.
The weather in Hue is notoriously bad. If it’s not raining, the air will still be wet and moist and possibly even cold. It’s a far cry from what people often think of when picturing the jungles or beaches of Southeast Asia. If you’re traveling in the colder months, be sure to pack a few extra layers to sleep in. It can get cold at night and you’re unlikely to find anywhere with heating.