We arrived in Hue in the early hours of the morning, and the heat was already intense. The skies were grey and flat, trapping the dense, muggy heat like a blanket. Our first day was spent exploring the temples and tombs of this ancient city, pockmarked with the scars of war.
Much of the city centre is enclosed within the thick walls of the citadel. In the centre lies the Imperial Enclosure – a walled city within a walled city. This contains towering palaces and pagodas, in places perfectly preserved and elsewhere crumbling and littered with bullet holes.
This is an enormous, sprawling complex, made up of many separate buildings and monuments. You can easily spend a day exploring the various sites within the walls, inspecting the rubble and spoils of war lying beside impeccably preserved mosaics and artwork.
If you’re lucky, you might even spot a friendly face peeking out of the greenery.
On our second day, acting upon the recommendations of many travellers before us, we rented bicycles and headed out into the countryside. Our rickety, rusting and creaking bikes carried us safely – if highly uncomfortably – through the chaos of the city traffic and out into the fresh country air. The sun burned through the oppressive, heavy heat, clouds giving way to cobalt skies.
There are numerous tombs and pagodas for past emperors dotted throughout the countryside surrounding Hue. We cycled south along Dien Bien Phu, heading for the tomb of Khai Dinh.
The tomb to Vietnam’s penultimate emperor is a towering mass of gothic blackened stone, surrounded by lush forest. The main steps lead up to a platform populated by scores of figures, from soldiers to elephants, carved from stone. The cool, dark tomb itself offers a welcome respite from the heat of the day.
Continuing our journey south-west, we set our sights on the tomb of Minh Mang, set amongst lakes and forests.
By this point, the heat was incredible. We ducked into the dappled shade and sipped on fresh sugarcane juice before continuing on and crossing the river.
Hue is located along the banks of the Perfume River, and the bike ride offered up some incredible views. We cycled across the wide expanse of river, along dusty tracks and past fields upon fields of endless green. As the afternoon passed, the heat began to break and a breeze picked up. Clouds gathered and the first raindrops fell.
Our final stop for the day was the pagoda at Thien Mu. This seven storey tower is steeped in centuries of history. Over the past fifty years, numerous protests have taken place at the pagoda, from buddhist majority protests against the ‘puppet emperor’ Ngo Dien Diem, to anti-communist demonstrations during the tumult of the 1980s.
As we began the final stretch back towards our hostel, the rain intensified. We made a – frankly terrifying – pass around the chaotic Bung Binh Hung Vuong roundabout as the clouds burst. We arrived back to the hostel soaked to the skin, looking fully as though we had jumped fully-clothed into the sea.
Whenever I arrive in a new place, I like to explore. Whether pounding the pavements on a run through the city, or cycling the hills and winding paths of an unfamiliar countryside, I think breaking a sweat is the single greatest way to get to know a new environment. Of the many days and weeks in this beautiful country, this day of cycling the dusty paths alongside the Perfume River may have been my very favourite.
Cycling in Hue: A Guide
You can rent bicycles from most hostels in the city, though be warned – many are in questionable condition. If you’re happy with a slow and creaky ride, these can be hired for peanuts. Several more professional outlets operate throughout the city offering a better selection of vehicles at slightly higher cost.
You can pick up maps of the tombs around the city, and they are well signposted from the main country paths. There is an enormous variety of tombs – and therefore cycling routes – to choose from, so plan ahead according to the distance you’re comfortable cycling.
The roads are in reasonable condition, and you will pass through several villages with cafes and rest stops, however the usual advice applies: don’t head out alone, give yourself enough time to make it back before dusk, and take water.
Finally, learn from our mistake – don’t even attempt to cycle the huge Bung Binh Hung Vuong roundabout – you’re going to have a bad time.
Have you ever done your own bicycle tour? Perhaps a marathon abroad? I want to know more – tell me about it in the comments! x