Hue and Hoi An

By Randy Keck

(2 of 4 on Vietnam & Cambodia)

The second stop in my March 2007 journey in Vietnam and Cambodia, the land portion of which was hosted by SITA World Tours, focused on Hue and Hoi An in central Vietnam, a region that many Vietnamese feel is the historic cultural heartland of the now-thriving country.

Many of Vietnam’s most appealing attractions are encompassed herein within about a 50-mile radius. These include an ancient seaport, the finest of imperial architecture and the ruins of lost kingdoms.


American James Sullivan, author of the guidebook “National Geographic Traveler: Vietnam,” which incidentally is the finest guidebook I have ever encountered, lives with his wife and two children in Hue. After visiting Hue, it was not difficult for me to understand why he would choose such a setting for his home. It is an attractive, easygoing city that, fortunately, does not seem to receive its due from international tourists.

It was my good fortune to accommodate at Hotel Saigon Morin, a vintage 1901 French creation overlooking the Perfume River. Centrally located on Le Loi Street at the entrance to the Truong Tien Bridge and within walking distance of most tourist attractions in the city, the hotel has been lovingly restored to its former glory.

In town, the Dong Ba Market provided an up-close exposure to some of Hue’s specialty food items. In this beehive of commercial activity, I particularly enjoyed sampling various sesame snacks and purchasing a particular type of simple vegetable peeler used to prepare green papaya strips and other vegetables as garnish in the local cuisine.

Cyclo to dinner

My single evening in Hue was ideal, with a 3-kilometer ride on a cyclo (rickshaw-type carriage powered by bicycle) to a gourmet seafood dinner at Y Thao Garden, a nha ruong (traditional garden home) in the Hue suburbs. My meal cost $15-$17 including wine and the cyclo ride.

In previous times, Hue’s aristocrats decorated the urban landscape with literally hundreds of nha ruong — sprawling, artful residential complexes nestled behind hedges, their grounds graced with thoughtful landscaping in an expression of regard for feng shui. A French organization has identified some 200 nha ruong in Hue and over 800 in the local province.

My aging cyclo driver was a soldier for the former South Vietnam, and during my return ride he provided a poignant portrayal of the post-war reeducation camps and the harsh life in general lived by most Vietnamese families from 1975 to 1985.

Hue’s citadel

Very early in the 19th century, Emperor Gia Long, desiring to create a replica of China’s Forbidden City, commissioned the building of a city. The massive Hue Citadel, which encompasses the Imperial City and fabled Forbidden Purple City, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and remains a work in progress.

Surviving a catastrophic fire in 1947, most of the buildings have been at least partially restored. The mosaic-tile-laden temples, palaces, pavilions, halls, ponds, gardens and gates contained within the grounds are awe-inspiring and considered to be blessed with positive feng shui, owing in no small part to the favorable south-facing position. For nearly 150 years Nguyen kings reigned from the Palace of Supreme Harmony within the Hue Citadel.

Temples and pagodas of Hue

Hue’s reputation for harboring the soul of Vietnam is due to the more than 300 pagodas that sow the reflective seeds of Buddhism in and around the city. We had time to visit three of the most important complexes.

First up was Tu Duc’s Tomb, completed in 1867 and enclosed by a 1,500-meter wall. Housing 50 elements, including a lake and Vietnam’s oldest extant theater, still used for traditional music performances, the impressive compound was used by the king primarily as a retreat from his stormy political reign. It was during his rule that Vietnam ceded most of its autonomy to France.

Our next visit was to the rather austere tomb of Khai Dinh (1916-1925), constructed from 1920 to 1931 on a steep hillside. Its terraces of marble, concrete and slate were consistent with the king’s embracing of the trappings of Western civilization. Inside is Thien Dinh Palace, where the walls in the first room you come to are decorated with mosaics of ceramic and glass depicting the four seasons.

Our final stop was precious Thien Mu Pagoda, a place of divine prophecy overlooking the Perfume River. It features a 7-story tower rising from a trapezoidal terrace. Hue’s most photographed landmark, this pagoda is a “must see” for all visitors to Hue. A stella to the right details the tower’s construction in 1844, while the one on the left is a monument to and inscribed with Thieu Tri’s legendary poetry.

My brief affair with Hue was punctuated by a peaceful cruise on the Perfume River that revealed a dramatic contrast between the timeless lifestyles of those who still live and toil on its waters and the rampant riverfront construction along its banks heralding the economic inevitabilities ahead for this region of the new, modern Vietnam.

My 24 hours in Hue had but served to whet my appetite for more. It was time to head southward to Da Nang and Hoi An and I was feeling departure-resistant from head to toe.

On to Da Nang and Hoi An

In the afternoon we departed southward toward Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth-largest city, then continued toward our eventual destination, Hoi An. We traveled the winding scenic old coast road, a route that provided panoramic ridge-top vistas of the mountains declining to the South China Sea below. We stopped briefly at Hai Van Pass (1,500 feet) to enjoy the elevation-afforded coolness and the expansive vistas.

Later, in Da Nang — which is booming in terms of domestic development although it provides relatively few attractions for international tourists — we stopped at the main draw, the Cham Museum.

The palatial complex, built in 1915, displays over 300 terra-cotta, bronze and sandstone sculptures and other artifacts from the second to 10th centuries, when the Kingdom of Champa ruled the region. Not far away but no longer readily distinguishable is the infamous China Beach of Vietnam War R&R fame.

Continuing southward, we stopped again at a stone-carving village at the base of the Marble Mountains, which comprise a cluster of five marble and limestone outcrops known for their pagodas and grottoes and also for being a former safe haven for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. I endured a brief demonstration of marble cutting and polishing, successfully resisting the addition of weighty acquisitions.

Hoi An charms

Historically, Hoi An was a bustling seaport believed to have been settled over 2,200 years ago. It functioned as a strategically located trading base for many countries seeking new sources of riches and wishing to expand their trade routes throughout the southeastern region of Asia.

Today Hoi An enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status as a result of its being the best-preserved port of a bygone era in Southeast Asia. This is a result of the river’s silting over in the late 19th century, directing port activities to nearby Tourane, now Da Nang.

Old Town walking tour

My guide, Van, took me on a walking tour of Hoi An’s Old Town, which dates largely from the late 16th to early 18th centuries, including the obligatory photo stop at the Japanese bridge which linked Hoi An’s ethnic Chinese and Japanese communities.

The town’s three main streets contain most of the visitor attractions, among them numerous Merchant Houses, which today remain fully functioning residences. The most popular of these are Tan Ky House, a corridor house similar to the tube houses of Hanoi; Phung Hung House, occupied by eight generations of the same Vietnamese family, and Quan Thang House, occupied by the same Chinese family since the 18th century.

We also visited several Assembly Halls, which are sometimes referred to as pagodas and served as both temples and guest houses to transient Chinese merchants. The most prominent of these are the Chinese Assembly Hall, which still serves as a language school for the local Chinese population; the Cantonese Assembly Hall, and the Hainan Assembly Hall.

Hoi An is a treasure trove of historic riches, and those visitors so inclined could spend several days exploring its aged offerings. My take is that perhaps Hoi An has already been a bit too discovered, and therefore I classify it as a “see it now” destination.

The Victoria Hoi An experience

A welcome respite from my seemingly nonstop touring, the Victoria Hoi An Hotel, located on a long, inviting beach, was the perfect accommodation choice.

From my well-appointed room, I could both see and hear the waves lapping on the sand. The beach provided unexpected photo opportunities in the form of small local fishing boats toiling just offshore plus locals from the nearby fishing village using the beach as an aesthetic alternative to the beachside road into town.

Night of the floating lanterns

For dinner one evening, I ventured across the road from the Victoria to the Hoi An Riverside Resort. At darkness, a small boat just upstream began placing a line of over 50 candle-lit lanterns in the calm waters of the river. They slowly drifted by the front of the outdoor dining deck. The process was repeated three times.

The drifting lanterns, their candlelight flickering gently on the subdued waters, was absolutely mesmerizing — a perfect finale for my central Vietnam exploration.

Clear in the knowledge that literally weeks could be spent exploring this richly endowed region of Indochina, it was time for me to head south for more adventures. . . in Saigon and the Mekong.


For information on travel to Vietnam and Cambodia as well as other regions of Asia, contact SITA World Tours (Encino, CA; 800/421-5643,

—Far Horizons is written by Randy Keck.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Search nay the artifact of ancient lore
Nor present boundless pulse.
Within lies the soul. ❞
— Randy’s contemplation of the artful heart of Viet-Nam